Anecdotally, we all know that it is harder for us to concentrate when we are tired. Fatigue (feeling tired) deprives us of the ability to focus our minds on a particular task. Our minds tend to drift even further when the task at hand is boring and monotonous itself. For example, driving on a lonely stretch of road for a long distance can be very boring. Sometimes our jobs can have aspects that are also very monotonous. Feeling fatigued can enhance those thoughts of boredom and increase the likelihood that we will become distracted from our task, which leads to injury or death in many cases.
A study performed by psychiatrists from the United Kingdom examined the effects of sleep deprivation and distraction. The doctors wanted to find out what effect, if any, sleepiness would have while performing dull tasks such as driving and working in settings that require little critical thinking. While it is commonly understood that sleepiness often leads to distraction, the study also determined that the amount of distraction is an indication of how sleep deprived a person might be. The results of the study may not be earth-shattering and do seem intuitive. However, the study demonstrates the importance of performing essential, even if tedious, tasks with sufficient rest.
Driving can be one of the most boring things we do on a daily basis. We take it for granted and once learned, becomes second nature like walking and talking. We also do not think about what we are doing when we are behind the wheel; we just do it. But, sleep deprivation robs us of our ability to concentrate on the simplest jobs, never mind complex tasks like driving. The study proved that when we are tired our minds will pick up on secondary, or unimportant details, rather than paying attention solely to the most important. By way of comparison, the study showed the test subjects who were well rested, and alert could prevent themselves from becoming distracted by less important information.
The study yielded an unexpected result: people who were sleep deprived turned their focus away from the task at hand even if there was no distraction coming from another source. The psychiatrists concluded that this data suggests that a tired mind seeks out distraction to combat boredom or fatigue. If the test subjects’ brains did not find something to distract it, then they fell into what the examiners called “microsleeps;” otherwise known as “nodding off.” Nodding off or being distracted reduces reaction times.
In the real world, we can use this information to become safer drivers and workers. The authors do propose that the results of the study are relevant to people who work in quieter conditions such as someone who must watch a surveillance system for a prolonged period. The psychiatrists expressed great concern for truck drivers and other motorists who are tired yet continue to drive. The results of the study show that the tired driver is more likely to focus on distractions within the car like a GPS device or cellphone or distractions from without the car like a disabled vehicle in the breakdown lane with hazard lights on. The tired driver is more likely to focus on the flashing red lights than to pay attention to the road.
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