Students and young professionals often cut back on sleep to complete tasks or work on deadlines with the plan to make up that sleep later. However, a Baylor research project this spring found irregular sleep habits have a negative impact on cognition, creativity and attention in young adults.
Dr. Michael Scullin, director of Baylor’s Sleep Neuroscience and Cognition Laboratory and assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience in the College of Arts and Sciences, teamed with Elise King, BSFCS ’08, assistant professor of interior design in Baylor’s Robbins College of Health and Human Sciences, to study the impact of sleep habits on cognition in 28 interior design students.
“We hypothesized that students who were sleeping less were not going to do as well on tests designed to measure attention and creativity,” Scullin said. “The hypothesis was confirmed—they did not. We also tracked sleep variability. How much did their sleep bounce around from night to night? We found that variability in sleep—say, four hours one night, seven hours another—was more strongly associated with changes in their creativity and attention performance than just knowing the total amount of sleep they got.”
King was the lead author of the study, which appeared in Journal of Interior Design. She said interior design and other studio-based classes often feature projects with multiple deadlines and benchmarks for students to meet along the way. It’s a feature of the interior design profession that impacts both students and professionals, and it often leads to lack of sleep being worn like a badge of honor. King hopes this study helps interior designers, and those in similar industries, reconsider how sleep affects them and the work they do.
“In the real world, you’re always juggling multiple projects. We make our program align with what they’ll experience when they graduate,” King said. “It creates a different atmosphere within the program. We want to help them establish healthy habits now so that they can take them into the work force later. That’s where this study comes in.”
The 28 students participating in the study had their sleep measured through actigraphy, wearing wristbands that reliably detect sleep, brief awakenings and movement throughout the night. They kept daily diaries on the quantity and quality of their sleep. The students also completed two cognitive tests on both the first and last days of the study to measure creativity and executive attention, the intense focus needed for planning, decision-making, error-correction and more. Outcomes in the study were clear.
“Consistent habits are at least as important as total length of sleep,” Scullin said. “Our focus was on attention and creativity because those processes are most important to the final projects. Sleep is very important to performing well in those areas.”
Researchers found that students often overestimated the amount of sleep they received and were impacted by inconsistent sleep patterns in ways that could reveal themselves in the work they do.
“For our students, it’s critical to be able to synthesize information about things many people don’t even think about like building codes, accessibility, psychological implications of design and more,” King said. “It’s imperative that students are alert, awake and able to bring those types of knowledge together, especially in the workforce. Our students responded very positively to seeing how the sleep they get impacts their ability to complete the tasks demanded of them.”
With testing complete, Robbins College professors are sharing the results in freshman-level courses. King said she sees increased student recognition about the importance of health and wellness that continued education can build in future students.
“There is an overall greater awareness of the importance of sleep, and some students have taken that to heart,” King said. “Change isn’t going to happen overnight; it’s going to take time. But as we start at the beginning with freshmen, we can help them better recognize the link between sleep and the work they do. This study allows us to help them see that.”