It probably comes as no surprise that both sadness and sleep deprivation increase mind wandering and can make it more difficult to concentrate on a task at hand. It is a phenomenon that all of us have experienced at one time or another. It is significantly less clear, however, what precise cognitive impairments underlie this reduced control.
Researchers from Sweden, Germany and Japan are delving into the frustrating world of sadness- and fatigue-induced distraction. Their paper, which appeared in Scientific Reports, details the results of an internet-based experiment in which 506 participants were measured for fatigue, induced to a happy, neutral or sad mood, and given a series of memory tasks.
The first of these tests was used as a genuine measure of working memory; the second as a pretext for testing concentration. During this second test, individuals were asked to “STOP” at regular intervals and record (A) what they were thinking about, (B) whether they were in control of their thoughts, and (C) how much they were trying to concentrate on the task.
These three questions mapped onto the three cognitive conditions the researchers sought to measure: (A) task-unrelated thoughts; (B) unguided thoughts; and (C) degree of concentration, respectively.
The results of the study provide some interesting insights into how these cognitive factors interact with sadness and sleep deprivation. Those induced to sadness demonstrated greater sadness, as well as a lower degree of trying to concentrate—although this didn’t result in poorer performance. Sleep disturbance (slightly) increased task-unrelated and unguided thoughts.
Interestingly, the authors found that changes in working memory did not mediate the relation between sadness and unguided thoughts, providing evidence against a current theory in the literature—although the authors note that time-on-task and greater mood induction may both or either clarify this relation and that generalizations should be made cautiously.
No person is a stranger to sadness and sleep deprivation, nor the cognitive deficits that often accompany it. However, learning more about the mental mediators of these relationships may help us develop more effective strategies for combatting the effects of poor mood and fatigue, and underscore the importance of happiness and proper sleep regimen in performing tasks both everyday and complex in nature.
The study, “Sad mood and poor sleep are related to task-unrelated thoughts and experience of diminished cognitive control“, was authored by David Marcusson-Clavertz, Oscar N. E. Kjell, Jinhyuk Kim, Stefan D. Persson, and Etzel Cardeña.