Island University Professor Fights Fatigue with 45+ Years of Research

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Sleep is a beautiful thing, but many of us often neglect its true value. When we get an inadequate amount of sleep, especially over extended periods of time, we become cognitively fatigued. According to Dr. James Miller, adjunct faculty in the College of Science and Engineering at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, this means our memory and logical reasoning skills become impaired and we tend to accept more risk. Both of which can lead to serious injury.

“Fatigue makes us stupid,” said Miller, who has been researching this topic and its effects for more than 45 years. “If you look up the formal symptoms of cognitive fatigue and compare them to the dictionary definition of stupid – there’s a lot of overlap.”

While applicable in many areas of life, Miller’s research focuses on the effects cognitive fatigue has on industry workers and work-related accidents. For example, the risk of a truck driver having a highway accident at 3 a.m. is 20 times higher than having one at 10 a.m. Furthermore, studies show that when an employee works more than three night shifts in a row, the risk of an accident increases sharply.

“We naturally have the biological demand to sleep when it’s dark and to be awake when it’s light, so we adjust to time zone changes because of the new time cues that daylight and darkness send to our brain,” said Miller. “But when we try to work at night our brain never adjusts.”

College students are also extremely susceptible to cognitive fatigue because of their tendency to pull all-nighters. Due to course loads and job demands, students usually sleep four to six hours a night which also contributes to their sleep debt. Luckily, the effects of one all-nighter can be “cured” by one eight-hour night of quality sleep. However, extended periods of sleep deprivation require multiple nights of extended sleep for recovery. 

“It’s easy and necessary to integrate cognitive fatigue into my human physiology lessons,” Miller said. “I hope that when I share my knowledge in the class, our students will see fatigue in a new light, and take better care of themselves.”

According to Miller, even though fatigue is apparently a factor in at least 10 percent of all highway and industry-related accidents, it is usually not investigated. However, the use of personal fatigue management practices can reduce this statistic. He recommends incorporating fatigue countermeasures such as napping for as long as needed instead of ‘power napping,’ keeping daily caffeine intake below two 8-ounce cups of coffee so that it's effective when needed and using prescription sleep aids or melatonin.

Miller has published seven books over the course of his career, including his latest titled “Maritime Watchstanding Plans: Origins, Variants, and Effectiveness.” The topics of his other books include fatigue management for aviation pilots, shift work schedules, and identifying fatigue as a factor in accidents. He has authored or co-authored 40 research articles and over 100 government and non-government technical reports. He has also given an expert opinion on whether fatigue had a role in fatal and non-fatal highway and aviation accidents, fire burn overs that have killed wildland firefighters, and pipeline oil spills.