So much to do, so little time: a lot of us have been there. When there are not enough hours in a day to complete everything on your to-do list, the seemingly easiest fix is to forego those recommended eight hours of sleep. In fact, in this day and age the number of all-nighters someone pulls is often an evaluation of how hard they work. But according to some new research, the occasional all-nighter may be doing more harm to your working memory than previously thought — particularly if you're a woman pulling an all-nighter.
In a report published Jan. 31, researchers from Uppsala University in Sweden discovered a single night of sleep loss may have an observable detrimental effect on a person's working (i.e. short term) memory. Working memory temporarily stores information the brain needs to complete tasks that involve, "learning, reasoning, and comprehension," as well as those that involve cognitive processes such as, "selection, initiation, and termination of information-processing functions such as encoding, storing, and retrieving data." While this may come as no surprise, another finding did — that these consequences may affect women more than they affect men.
During the experiment within the university's department of neuroscience, twenty four participants (twelve men, twelve women) were asked to memorize, and later recall groups of numbers; a task that specifically challenges one's working memory. Half of the subjects completed the test in silence, and half completed the test accompanied by "auditory distraction." Before participating, half of the participants had gotten a full night of sleep, and half had not slept at all during the previous night.
In an interesting and unexpected twist, test results for male participants were largely unaffected by both auditory distraction, and by hours of sleep obtained. This was not the case for their female counterparts, on the other hand. Female participants tested under the same conditions remembered fewer of the numbers presented. Further, female participants who struggled to recall numbers seemed mostly unaware of their shortcomings, evidence of a fundamental lack of understanding of just how significantly sleep loss affects oneself.
It is important to note, of course, that this study was with an extremely small group of participants, and that it only took into account one night of lost sleep, and not prolonged sleep loss over time. But studies like these are important in that they shed light on — past studies have consistently shown that sleep loss leads to cognitive impairment in both men and women, which can have consequences far beyond dropping the ball on a test or a presentation after an all-nighter. If someone, after pulling an all-nighter, is unable to assess whether or not they can accurately remember random groups of numbers (a pretty trivial task), imagine how it affects their ability to assess whether they can safely do things like drive. This is a scary thought when you consider 80,000 car accidents, and almost 850 driving fatalities could be linked to drowsy driving in 2014.
Of course, not everyone who pulls an all-nighter actually decides to do so. According to the American Sleep Association, upwards of fifty to seventy million American adults live with a sleep disorder, and as many as 35 percent of adults report experiencing even a brief stint of insomnia. Many factors can contribute to the development of insomnia, but some of the most notable are closely associated with mental wellbeing. Not only are stress, depression, and anxiety some of the leading causes of insomnia, the medications people with depression, anxiety, and the like take may also impair sleep.
Not getting enough sleep is a vicious cycle, and often people who do not get enough sleep end up experiencing even more stress. According to the American Psychological Association, it is clear that stressed people who are not sleeping well because they are stressed end up feeling even more stressed about the sleep they did not get (Did you get that? It's a lot).
The (in theory) simple fix to this is to skip the all-nighter, and focus on getting adequate shut-eye. This research shows you probably won't even remember that info you crammed the night before a test, and may not even realize your memory is failing you. And that extra cup of coffee? Not going to fix it.
If you think you may have insomnia, talk to your doctor — help is available. And if you're thinking about pulling an all-nighter for a test or a presentation ... maybe just hedge your bets and get the sleep instead.