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The Right Amount of Sleep for Your Best Reasoning, Problem-solving and Communication

     

Getting enough sleep is one of the main keys to good health, along with good nutrition and exercise, yet most of us do not get enough of it. In one national survey, nearly 30 percent of respondents reported getting less than an average of six hours of sleep per night.

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Lack of sleep, which most people experience at least at some time, can have many physical and psychological consequences, such as problems with blood pressure and the immune system and increased risk of depression, stroke and obesity. About one in three people will experience a sleep disorder at some point, the most common is insomnia.

A new study, led by Conor J. Wild, Ph.D., with the Brain and Mind Institute, Western University, London, ON, Canada, looks specifically at the impact of sleep on cognitive ability. How does too little or too much sleep affect your short-term memory and your ability to store and recall information, to solve problems and to communicate?

Wild and colleagues looked at a large global sample of more than 10,000 people. Participants answered questions about their sleep habits and took a battery of 12 tests online measuring various cognitive abilities, such as reasoning, verbal short-term memory, spatial working memory, planning, and cognitive flexibility.

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Overall participants reported sleeping an average of 6.4 hours nightly over the prior month and more than half reported regularly sleeping 6.3 hours a night or less. The optimal amount of sleep for overall cognitive abilities was 7.4 hours. Cognitive performance was negatively affected for people getting more or less than 7 to 8 hours sleep. However, the researchers found differences in different cognitive activities. The amount of sleep had no impact on short-term memory. Too much or too little sleep did impair reasoning and verbal skills (communication). This means lack of sleep, and too much, may have an impact on some higher-order processes, like identifying complex patterns and manipulating information to solve problems.

Wild and colleagues also looked at whether you can compensate for a regular lack of sleep and benefit from more sleep on a single night. For example, can sleeping a little more than usual the night before a test help you do better? They found that sleeping about 1.2 hours more than usual led to the best cognitive performance. However, sleeping more than 2.8 hours more or sleeping less than usual the night before was associated with worse performance. Getting a little more sleep, even just for one night, can make a difference.

According to the authors, the study suggests “that many people, who do not get enough sleep daily may be operating with impaired reasoning and communication skills.” The study results have “significant real-world implications, because many people, including those in positions of responsibility, operate on very little sleep and may suffer from impaired reasoning, problem-solving, and communications skills on a daily basis,” the authors note.

     

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