Without 7 hours of sleep? Big decisions should wait

Science and Health

If you’ve gotten little or no sleep at night, avoid making important decisions the next day, according to Canadian research on the importance of sleep on cognitive performance and emotional well-being for those who are stressed.

Military and political leaders, and first responders to catastrophes are just some high-stress individuals who should avoid taking important decisions after an all-nighter – even though people in these professions generally get little shut-eye. 

“We all understand the power of sleep and the vital role it plays in human health, cognitive performance and in regulating our emotional well-being,” said Zhuo Fang, a cognitive data- and neuro-scientist data scientist in the psychology at the University of Ottowa.  

The research has just been published in the journal Psychophysiology under the title “Sleep deprivation attenuates neural responses to outcomes from risky decision-making.” 

Even though many studies into a lack of sleep have shown reductions in neurocognitive functions, particularly vigilant attention, motor responses, inhibition control, and working memory, sleep loss continues to challenge public health and affect people of all ages.

Sleep (credit: INGIMAGE)

With little insight into the impact of a lack of sleep on risky decision-making at the neuroimaging level, the researchers – joined by colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania – found a 24-hour period of sleep deprivation significantly impacted individuals’ decision-making processes by dampening neural responses to the outcomes of their choices. 

In other words, people tend to exhibit reduced positive emotions in response to winning outcomes and diminished negative emotions when faced with losses after pulling an all-nighter compared to their well-rested baseline condition.


“Common sense does make it obvious that if people don’t sleep enough – about seven hours per night – their cognitive function will be impacted, their attention and efficiency will decrease. But there is an emotional impact, too,” 

“If you experience even just one night of sleep deprivation, there will be an impact, even on a neural level. So, we wanted to combine brain imaging and behavior to see that impact,” adds Fang, who is affiliated with the university’s Brain and Mind Research Institute and The Royal. 

How was the data collected?

The study, which evaluated the impact of one night of total sleep deprivation on 56 healthy adults, found that a single night of total sleep loss significantly decreased the brain activation to win and loss outcomes, suggesting that acute sleep loss can have a dampening effect on neural responses to decision outcomes during risk-taking.

While numerous studies have previously illustrated the wide-ranging effects of sleep deprivation on various brain and cognitive functions, including attention processing, memory consolidation, and learning, this study addresses the specific impact of sleep loss on decision-making. 

Total sleep deprivation can have a detrimental effect by disrupting the relationship between neural response and an individual’s risk-taking behavior, which might be related to the altered perception for risk-taking.

“These results underscore the importance of maintaining adequate sleep and how individuals should refrain from making important decisions when experiencing chronic or acute sleep deprivation,” said Fang, who co-first authored the study with Tianxin Mao of the University of Pennsylvania. “In specific professions where decision-makers are required to operate under accumulated sleep loss, specialized training or fatigue risk management might be necessary to enable them to handle