Psychological Effect of Sleep Deprivation

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The psychological effects of sleep deprivation can affect an individual on cognitive and emotional levels. Some of the effects are subtle, affecting the person's ability to perform mental tasks. Others affect the individual's ability to distinguish reality from imagination.

Neurological Ramifications of Sleep Deprivation

The psychological effects of sleep deprivation may be associated with neurological changes that occur when a person does not get enough rest.

Reduction of Alpha State

The alpha state is a restful waking state that people lapse in and out of throughout the day. A prime example of this type of brain activity is apparent when a person watches television without noticing how much time has passed by. The watcher is in a receptive, relaxed state similar to a hypnotic trance.

EEG studies reflect that a sleep-deprived individual experiences a significant reduction of normal alpha state activity. The sleep study participants did not experience a reduction in beta or theta brain activity. However, an increase in delta activity was present.

Increase in Delta State

The delta state occurs in the unconscious stage of sleep. When a person is unable to rest properly, a sleep debt builds, creating a push of delta wave activity in the brain. This state is also known as slow wave sleep (SWS).

During slow wave sleep, the body may have a chance to restore itself, possibly allowing for improvements in immune functioning. The restorative qualities of SWS may be evident in the connection between lack of sleep and type 2 diabetes. The connection may stem from hormone levels in the body regulated during slow wave sleep.

Hormones have a profound effect on the body and, with the combination of the increased dreamy delta waves and altered hormone levels, may have a significant impact on a person's psychological state. When a person creates a deficit of SWS, the body naturally lulls into the state during waking periods. Falling into the delta state while awake can lead to psychological problems.

Psychological Effects of Sleep Deprivation

The sleep-deprived individual's psyche experiences significant effects, as explored by Sleep Deprivation, Psychosis and Mental Efficiency by Stanley Coren, Ph.D. Dr. Coren explains that recurrent lack of sleep leads to a sleep debt that has physical and psychological ramifications.

Psychological problems that may occur happen in cognitive and emotional realms. Simple mental tasks may become more difficult and perception may become distorted. Perception, emotion and cognition can offer telltale signs that a problem exists.

Cognitive Impairments

Cognitive processing can be significantly affected by lack of sleep. Signs that a sleep debt is present include:

  • Slowed response time
  • Inattention
  • Reduced short term memory
  • Impaired judgment
  • Fragmented thought processes (thoughts begin but stop abruptly)
  • Fine motor impairment
  • Gross motor impairment

The sleep-deprived person may demonstrate some of the following behaviors due to the cognitive impairments:

  • Slurred speech
  • Clumsiness
  • Unable to remember names of people and objects
  • Unable to bring eyes into focus
  • Difficulty recognizing objects by touch (astereognosis)
  • Inability to finish vocalizing an idea or sentence


Microsleeps occur when a person has a significant sleep debt. The brain automatically shuts down, falling into the delta state for a period that can last 10 to 60 seconds. The person mentally falls asleep no matter what activity he or she is engaging in. Microsleeps are similar to blackouts and the person experiencing them is not consciously aware that they are occurring.

In addition, the microsleeps involve the delta state, in which the individual is in a dream-like frame of mind. This can lead to distorted perceptions, as the person is unable to distinguish reality from waking dreams. The distorted perceptions can lead to inappropriate emotional and behavioral responses.

Emotional Impairments

Emotional impairments may be present as well when a person is unable to get adequate rest. At their least problematic, the person experiences a tendency to overreact to situations. Irritability and moodiness may be present.

Perception problems with severe lack of sleep may lead to hallucinations that are present in all five senses. A person may see and feel insects crawling or hear someone speaking. Hallucinations and distorted perception can put the individual at risk for developing paranoia and delusional thinking.

Sleep Psychology

Little is known about why people sleep but it appears that the lack of sleep has pronounced effects on an individual. The evidence rests in neurological tests and in some psychological issues faced by sleep-deprived people of all ages. Monitor on Psychology notes the connection between sleep deprivation in teens and conditions like depression and ADHD.

The challenge is determining whether sleep disorders are symptoms of psychological problems or whether psychological problems are ramifications from chronic lack of appropriate rest.

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Psychological Effect of Sleep Deprivation