Impaired performance with acute sleep loss

Harold L. Williams, Ardie Lubin, Jacqueline J. Goodnow

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The initial problem in studying sleep loss is the difficulty of finding any performance, either psychological or physiological, which is consistently impaired. The results are drawn from two studies of sleep loss, one in 1956 and the other in 1957. There are some differences between these two in the sample of subjects and in the design. In both studies, however, the experimental setting and general procedure reflect our aim of providing a non coercive, nonrestrictive atmosphere with a minimum of heavy physical work. With 49 subjects, deprived of sleep for 72-98 hr., performance deteriorated on a variety of tasks, an unusual result in studies of sleep loss. Deficit took the form of lapses (brief periods of no response accompanied by extreme drowsiness and a decline in EEG alpha amplitude). Four features of lapses were noted, (a) They occur in other conditions such as fatigue and hypoxia and appear to characterize impairment in general. (b) They increase in both frequency and duration as sleep loss progresses, (c) They are strongly affected by stimulus monotony, (d) Their specific effect on performance varies with the properties of the task. In subject-paced tasks, for example, speed is the critical measure; in experimenter-paced tasks, errors are critical. To identify the sensitive aspect of performance becomes the crucial problem.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-26
Number of pages26
JournalPsychological monographs
Issue number14
Publication statusPublished - 1959
Externally publishedYes


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