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Appalachian State Professors Receive NSF Grant to Study Sleep Restriction and Decision Making

Oct. 17, 2012. Running on autopilot. How many times has that described your work or school day after a sleepless night – or week? Two professors at Appalachian State University have received a $405,628 National Science Foundation award to study how sleep restriction and disruption of the circadian rhythm, or natural sleep cycle, impacts decision making.

Dr. David L. Dickinson, principle investigator for the grant, is a professor of economics in Appalachian’s Walker College of Business. Dr. Todd McElroy, co-principle investigator, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Dickinson and McElroy have studied sleep and decision making throughout their academic careers. 

“There is an emerging theme in decision making research, that a surprising degree of decisions that we make are a function of automatic unconscious processes,” McElroy said. “While we think that we are aware of the decisions we are making, that doesn’t mean that we are. For this study we will be looking at decision making in those who consider themselves morning or evening type people as well as decision making following a week of reduced sleep versus a week of plentiful sleep.”

Individuals who consider themselves morning people, or those who function best in the morning hours, represent only about 10 percent of the population in young adults, while 40-50 percent consider themselves evening types. The rest are considered intermediate types – neither strongly morning nor evening people. 

“Research indicates that the deliberative thought part of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex – seems to be disproportionally negatively impacted by sleep deprivation,” Dickinson said. “So decision tasks that require high-level thinking seem to be affected by sleep loss or sleepiness. The unconscious system responds more automatically and without conscious thought.”

Study volunteers will wear a sleep monitoring device and be assigned to sleep five or six hours a night one week, then eight to nine hours a night in a following week. “We think using a sleep monitoring device will provide better real world data versus data collected in a sleep lab,” McElroy said.

The volunteers will be administered a set of decision tasks, either in early morning or evening hours, to test the professors’ hypothesis that the decision processes a person uses while sleepy are more automatic and less a product of the brain’s high-level deliberation process.

The professors believe their research findings will have the potential to improve the understanding of how fatigue affects decision making in areas such as simple social interactions, the incorporation of new information into decisions, or the importance of how a choice is framed. The study also will allow the researchers to evaluate whether decisions based on automatic processes are worse or less efficient than decisions made based on more complex deliberative processes.

“This is especially critical in our modern society where decisions are often made while one is tired,” Dickinson said. “In occupations like truck driving, air traffic control, medical professions and emergency services, poor decision making can cost lives.”