In addition, our interpretation of events may be affected. We lose our ability to make sound decisions because we can no longer accurately assess the situation, plan accordingly, and choose the correct behavior. Judgment becomes impaired.
Being chronically tired to the point of fatigue or exhaustion means that we are less likely to perform well. Neurons do not fire optimally, muscles are not rested, and the body’s organ systems are not synchronized. Lapses in focus from sleep deprivation can even result in accidents or injury.
For more information about how sleep deprivation affects performance, see Sleep, Performance, and Public Safety.
Low-quality sleep and sleep deprivation also negatively impact mood, which has consequences for learning. Alterations in mood affect our ability to acquire new information and subsequently to remember that information. Although chronic sleep deprivation affects different individuals in a variety of ways (and the effects are not entirely known), it is clear that a good night’s rest has a strong impact on learning and memory.
Open Questions: Although current research suggests that sleep is essential for proper memory function, there are unanswered questions, as in any area of active scientific inquiry. For example, certain medications will significantly, if not entirely, suppress REM sleep. However, patients taking these medications do not report any memory impairment. Similarly, injuries or disease causing lesions to the brainstem (and subsequently eliminating a person’s REM sleep) have not resulted in any obvious loss of the ability to form new memories. Exploration and debate continue.
Not all researchers are convinced that sleep plays as prominent a role in memory consolidation as others believe. In experiments in which animals completed a course through a complicated maze, the animals' amount of REM sleep increased after performing the task. Some researchers believe that the increase in REM sleep reflects an increased demand on the brain processes that are involved in learning a new task. Other researchers, however, have suggested that any changes in the amount of REM sleep are due to the stress of the task itself, rather than a functional relationship to learning.
Researchers are likewise split with regard to the impact of sleep deprivation on learning and memory. For example, rats often perform much worse on learning tasks after being selectively deprived of REM sleep. This suggests that REM sleep is necessary for the animals’ ability to consolidate the memory of how to perform the task. Some scientists have argued that the observed differences in learning are not actually due to the lack of REM sleep, but may be due to the animals not being as well rested because they were deprived a portion of their sleep.