'Catch-up' sleep spoils attention and creativity, study suggests

As a college or university student, sleep is often in short supply. However, new research from the U.S. suggests following abnormal sleep patterns comes at a cost for students.

Study looked at sleep habits of interior design students working on a major project

University and college students are reporting high levels of poor sleep and stress. (Getty Images/Image Source)

As a college or university student, sleep can sometimes feel like an adversary instead of an ally. Whether cramming for exams, staying up all night to finish an assignment, or just wanting the day to yourself, sleep is often in short supply. However, new research from the U.S. suggests following abnormal sleep patterns comes at a cost for students.

While lack of sleep is a universal post-secondary experience, studio-based disciplines like the fine arts, architecture and interior design are notorious for taking sleep deprivation to an unhealthy extreme, according to Elise King. King is an assistant professor of interior design at Baylor University and lead author of a new paper that looks at students' sleep habits.

Michael Scullin, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor, was also part of the study, which investigated how the creativity and attention of interior design students were affected by sleep marathons, where people try to catch up on missed rest.

An example would be going from sleeping five hours per night from Monday to Friday, to crashing for 10 or 12 hours a night over the weekend. Rebounding on sleep in such fashion interferes with the hormonal balance of the circadian rhythm, which confuses the body's sense of when to sleep.

In an interview with CBC News, Scullin said interior design was chosen as a good example of a studio-based course.

"Creativity is important to this profession, and we wanted to capture that," he said.

How much rest did the students get?

Published in the Journal of Interior Design, the study looked at 28 interior design students, most dealing with the stress of a concluding term project. Across one week, the subjects wore a wristband similar to a Fitbit that detects movement and light to calculate how much they slept. They also kept diaries to record the quality and quantity of their sleep.

The results showed only one out of the 28 students slept seven or more hours per night, and nearly four in five got less than seven hours of sleep for at least three nights in the week. Most of the students reported receiving four more hours of sleep in the week than what they were actually getting.

The U.S. based National Sleep Foundation recommends seven to nine hours of sleep per night. While Scullin said not everyone is inclined to follow the recommendations, he added that "students believe they need less sleep than what they actually need."

To determine how sleep marathons affected their mental faculties, the 28 participants completed an hour-long series of tests before and after the week to gauge any changes in their creativity and attention.

Algonquin College installed 'energy pods' for students looking to rest. (Joanne Steventon/CBC News)

The test for attention focused primarily on executive attention — or working memory — which recalls memories while multitasking. 

After the week, the subjects were re-tested with the same tasks but with modifications, which showed that overall the students demonstrated a marked decline in their attention and creativity. Their scores declined by 28 per cent compared to the results recorded before the study, while those who maintained a more consistent sleep pattern improved their scores by 56 per cent, said Scullin.

'Sleeping on the studio floor'

This concerns Filiz Onguc-Klassen, a professor with the Ryerson School of Interior Design in Toronto. 

"I don't know the exact percentage, but I have more students who deal with anxiety and stress," said Onguc-Klassen.

"Interior design students are known for their stress over projects. The process is iterative, with no formula and as many solutions as there are problems," she said. "They often continue projects for a month. Students do lose sleep over studio-based courses because of their own goals and the curriculum."

Onguc-Klassen said she often passes by students sleeping on the studio floor and notices students who look pale from lack of sleep, and others dozing off during lectures. She attributes it partly to the term projects where, "for the majority, midterms or end of term projects are where they experience stress."

Scullin said, "rather than work on the project gradually over the year, many prefer to cram it all in the last weeks, and pull all-nighters."

Famed author Vladimir Nabokov was no fan of sleep, and regarded insomnia as a boon to his creativity. However, research from Baylor may test this claim. ((Keystone/Getty Images))

While 28 subjects is not a particularly impressive number to form strong conclusions with, the Baylor research team is looking into branching off to other studio-based majors, hoping to draw from a larger pool of participants and expand to other universities.

Scullin hopes the Baylor study will spark a discussion about the importance of sleep among students.

"When we have some big deadline, something to complete, we have this inclination to substitute healthy activities to cut back. People cut back on exercise, eating healthy, and sleep, and this impairs the ability to think creatively. Students should try to maintain those healthy habits because it plays better in functioning as a student," said Scullin.