How a Sleepless Night Affects Your Ability to Focus

Sleepy teenage girl
(Image credit: Dreamstime)

NEW YORK — A sleepless night may affect your ability to filter out information, a new study finds.

In the study, the researchers confirmed that sleep deprivation can impair what's known as "selective attention," or the ability to focus on specific information when other things are occurring at the same time.

A classic example of a setting that requires your selective attention is a cocktail party, said Eve Wiggins, a former student at Willamette University in Oregon and the lead researcher on the study. Selective attention is the ability to focus on a conversation you're having with someone at that party, even though you can hear other conversations going on all around you, she said.

In the study, the researchers wanted to see how missing an entire night of sleep would affect this ability. [Pay Attention: 5 Tips for Staying Focused]

To do so, they divided the participants into two groups — a control group of 10 people who were instructed to sleep "as usual," and a sleep-deprivation group of eight people who did not sleep for 24 hours. Then, the participants were asked to listen to two different stories at the same time, each played in a different ear. The stories had different narrators and content. While the stories played, the researchers measured the participants' brain activity.

The participants were told that their goal was to selectively pay attention to just one of the stories. The researchers found that the people in the control group had a much easier time paying attention to one of the stories than the people in the sleep-deprivation group did.

The measurements of brain activity showed that the people in the control group were able to focus specifically on one story while suppressing information from the other, Wiggins told Live Science today (April 3), here at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society's annual meeting. There was one signal that was clearly enhanced, showing that they were paying attention to one story, and there was a separate signal that was suppressed, showing that they were ignoring the other story.

But in the group that was sleep deprived, there was less of a difference between the enhanced signal and the suppressed signal, she said. In other words, the people in this group had more difficulty focusing on just one of the stories.

The researchers noted that it's unclear how chronic sleep deprivation — as opposed to one night without sleep — would affect selective attention. [7 Mind-Bending Facts About Dreams]

The study is unique because we looked at the underlying mechanisms of a well-known effect of sleep deprivation, Courtney Stevens, an associate professor of psychology at Willamette University and the senior researcher on the study, told Live Science.

However, more work is needed to understand exactly how chronic sleep deprivation would affect these aspects of thinking, Stevens added.

The findings have not been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Follow Sara G. Miller on Twitter @SaraGMiller. Follow Live Science @livescience, Facebook & Google+. Originally published on Live Science.

Sara G. Miller
Staff Writer
Sara is a staff writer for Live Science, covering health. She grew up outside of Philadelphia and studied biology at Hamilton College in upstate New York. When she's not writing, she can be found at the library, checking out a big stack of books.