Digitization is transforming work and the demands that are posed on humans. As simple work tasks become automated, the cognitive requirements of human work grow. And, as more is required from your most important work tool – the brain – the ways in which you take care of your cognition and mental fitness not only matters for health, but also for work performance. This doesn’t mean that you need any special gimmicks, brain-training or expensive nutritional supplements to ensure work quality. One of the easiest, most powerful, and also most enjoyable ways of ensuring high cognitive performance is taking care of the quality of your sleep.
There is a substantial body of research demonstrating how sleep deprivation influences cognition. According to a meta-analysis published in 2000, sleep deprivation specifically hinders complex cognitive functions such as reacting to changes and unexpected information, revising plans, innovative thinking and successful communication with other individuals. Sleep deprivation does not even have to be severe for impairment of these most important cognitive skills: in another study, researchers showed that even just one night of no sleep immediately led to less creativity and more rigidity of thought, repeated errors and inability to react to changes. Conversely, according to scientists, simpler cognitive functions such as rule-following are less affected by sleep deprivation. However, these types of simple cognitive functions, where the outcome is already known, are characteristic to precisely the type of work that is first in line to be automated.
Why would sleep deprivation specifically impair complex cognitive functions and leave simpler functions relatively intact? A review published in Nature Reviews Neuroscience clarifying the connections between sleep, brain processes and cognition suggest a possible reason. According to the review, the frontal lobes of the brain may be more dependent on sleep for normal function than other brain areas. They are the first part of the brain to “fall asleep”, as well as the last one to “wake up”. The frontal lobes support myriad cognitive functions. They host control processes that direct attention and working memory, allowing flexibility of thought, planning, metacognition, social cognition, goal-directed behavior, reasoning and even creative thinking. Cognitive functions supported by the frontal lobes are often described as “executive”. This means we all have a little mental boss that resides within the frontal lobes, directing attention, allocating brain resources to the tasks at hand, and monitoring our functioning! And it is precisely the cognitive functions that depend on the frontal lobes and executive function that are becoming more critical for human work in recent years: creativity, learning, interaction skills, and flexibility of thought.
This means that the more complex the tasks that humans focus on at work, the better care we should take of our frontal lobes – for instance by ensuring adequate sleep. However, an exactly opposite trend is on the rise, where sleeping problems are most common among the working demographic. Most people have enough first-hand experience with sleep deprivation to be able to describe the cognitive challenges arising from too little rest: you lose the ability stay focused, become irritable, and easily distracted. These are signs that your sleep has not been adequate and your frontal lobes are not up to par, and a sure sign you need a nap!
So what should you do if you are experiencing difficulties with sleep? Sleeping disorders have multiple causes and therefore, there are also many ways to improve sleep quality. One of the most enjoyable and powerful non-pharmacological cures to sleeping ailments is music. In a previous post, we summarized research showing powerful effects of music listening. Most of the studies showing positive effects of music used western classical music, with a tempo of 60–80 beats per minute, slow and stable rhythm, tones low in pitch, and melody characterized as soothing. Listening to this type of music before bedtime significantly improved sleep quality of individuals suffering from acute and chronic sleep disorders. For those looking for effective, non-pharmacological ways of managing sleeping difficulties, giving music a try may definitely be worth it.
Why would music help with sleeping disorders? Surprisingly, scientists don’t yet know. It is hypothesized that the effect that music has on emotions could play a part, or it may arise from the effects of music listening on the release of hormones such as endogenous opioids, which are the body’s natural painkillers.
At the Sync Project, we are intrigued by the possibilities presented by widely-used sensor technology in scientific discovery. Large-scale data on individuals’ physiological responses to music and their connection to sleep quality could help us answer the question of why music works for this condition. By understanding the mechanisms through which music exerts its effects we could enable the systematic selection and use of music as a non-pharmacological sleeping aid. Improving sleep quality on a global level would not only produce significant health benefits – but by supporting optimal brain function in general, and more specifically in the frontal lobes, it could also result in better problem-solving ability, better learning, better creativity and better cooperation between individuals, thus enabling us to work smarter.
Written by ketki karanam
Bernatzky, G., Presch, M., Anderson, M., & Panksepp, J. (2011). Emotional foundations of music as a non-pharmacological pain management tool in modern medicine. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(9), 1989–1999. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2011.06.005
Harrison, Y., & Horne, J. A. (2000). The impact of sleep deprivation on decision making: A review. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 6(3), 236–249. doi:10.1037/1076-898x.6.3.236
Harrison, Y., & Horne, J. A. (1999). One Night of Sleep Loss Impairs Innovative Thinking and Flexible Decision Making. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 78(2), 128–145. doi:10.1006/obhd.1999.2827
Hobson, J. A., & Pace-Schott, E. F. (2002). The cognitive neuroscience of sleep: neuronal systems, consciousness and learning. Nat Rev Neurosci, 3(9), 679–693. doi:10.1038/nrn915