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J Vis. 2012 Jul 26;12(7). pii: 14. doi: 10.1167/12.7.14.

The effects of circadian phase, time awake, and imposed sleep restriction on performing complex visual tasks: evidence from comparative visual search.

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  • 1Department of Computer Science, University of Massachusetts Boston, Boston, Massachusetts, USA.


Cognitive performance not only differs between individuals, but also varies within them, influenced by factors that include sleep-wakefulness and biological time of day (circadian phase). Previous studies have shown that both factors influence accuracy rather than the speed of performing a visual search task, which can be hazardous in safety-critical tasks such as air-traffic control or baggage screening. However, prior investigations used simple, brief search tasks requiring little use of working memory. In order to study the effects of circadian phase, time awake, and chronic sleep restriction on the more realistic scenario of longer tasks requiring the sustained interaction of visual working memory and attentional control, the present study employed two comparative visual search tasks. In these tasks, participants had to detect a mismatch between two otherwise identical object distributions, with one of the tasks (mirror task) requiring an additional mental image transformation. Time awake and circadian phase both had significant influences on the speed, but not the accuracy of task performance. Over the course of three weeks of chronic sleep restriction, speed but not accuracy of task performance was impacted. The results suggest measures for safer performance of important tasks and point out the importance of minimizing the impact of circadian phase and sleep-wake history in laboratory vision experiments.

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