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What does Chernobyl, Fukushima, Deepwater Horizon, Three Mile Island and the recent train derailment in New York have in common? Well, other than all being disasters, they are all partly caused by sleep deprivation. Yip, turns out that behind many of the most famous disasters in history there was a tired person making bad decisions. It is not really surprising when you think about it, doing even the most ordinary task can be difficult when you are sleep deprived, doing an intense and risky task can be even harder and the consequences of failure can be massive.
Almost half of Americans are sleep deprived, and the numbers are probably scarily similar for Australians, which means that almost half the people you see each day are not operating at their best, and some of them are working in high risk and high danger jobs. Every second bus and train driver is tired, every second air traffic controller is tired, every second pilot.
So what is the deal, how does sleep deprivation leave you such a mess? When you are exhausted you are not able to filer out irrelevant stimuli in the same efficient manner as you are when you are well rested. Michael Chee, who is a sleep researcher at the Duke-National University of Singapore, showed who dramatic this can be in one of his labs experiments where he asks the subjects to take part in a very simple task; in this case hitting a button when a light flashes. As you would expect people who have slept well find the task very easy but, as he explains, if the participant had not slept well then their vigilance was significantly reduced and they will miss hitting the button. If people struggle with such an ordinary and seemingly simple task then imagine what would happen when they are doing something more demanding?
Chee concludes that "The danger of this is when doing something like driving, where you tune out at possibly the wrong time. It also relates to people who have to monitor for information: if information is coming from off screen, you might miss it because your brain tuned out--and tune outs are far more frequent (when you're sleep deprived). If you are driving down the road, you want to focus on what is directly ahead of you, but if a child comes by the side of the road, you do not want to miss that."
As a nation and a world we are sleep deprived yet we do not focus enough resources on preventing the accidents that occur due to sleep deprivation. If we spent as much time and money on this as we do on drink driving and smoking we could reduce a huge number of accidents and incidents. The cure is simple, sleep for about seven hours each night. The only side effect we would have a happier and healthier population.
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