All-nighters make the brain emotionally numb to bad decisions

OTTAWA, Ontario — If you’re planning on staying up all night, try not to make any important decisions the next day. A new study finds an all-nighter reduces a number of neurocognitive functions — including attention, motor responses, inhibition control, and working memory — that are necessary when contemplating a decision. In addition, people were more emotionally numb to the outcome of their decisions.

While deciding to get takeout for dinner instead of cooking is not life-altering, a person in a high-stakes position like a surgeon, first responder, or politician is likelier to make a poor decision if they barely slept the night before.

Sleep research continues to provide evidence that we can’t live without sleep. Even just one all-nighter is enough to impact the brain in various ways.

“Common sense does dictate if people incur sleep loss, sleep disturbance or a sleep disorder that their cognitive function will be impacted, their attention and efficiency will decrease. But there is an emotional impact, too,” says co-first study author Zhuo Fang, a data scientist at the University of Ottawa, in a media release.

Woman working night shift at computer
(© Halfpoint –

In the current study, Fang used brain imaging to find out how much of an impact sleep deprivation has on the brain and how that affects decision-making. They scanned the brains of 56 adults who underwent a single night with no sleep.

Sleep-deprived participants displayed worse decision-making skills. When looking at images of their brains, the authors noticed a weakening of neural responses to win and loss outcomes. In other words, people became desensitized to the consequences of their decision, showing fewer positive emotions when the outcome turned out well and fewer negative emotions when things ended badly compared to when they made a decision after a full night’s rest.

The neural processes involved in controlling risk-taking behavior also appeared to weaken after pulling an all-nighter. According to the authors, sleep-deprived individuals may have a skewed view of the riskiness of a certain decision.

“In specific professions where decision-makers are required to operate under accumulated sleep loss, specialized training or fatigue risk management might be necessary to enable them to handle such situations effectively,” Fang explains.

The study is published in the journal Psychophysiology.

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About the Author

Jocelyn Solis-Moreira

Jocelyn is a New York-based science journalist whose work has appeared in Discover Magazine, Health, and Live Science, among other publications. She holds a Master’s of Science in Psychology with a concentration in behavioral neuroscience and a Bachelor’s of Science in integrative neuroscience from Binghamton University. Jocelyn has reported on several medical and science topics ranging from coronavirus news to the latest findings in women’s health.

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