Two women seated on bench, not paying attention as someone takes wallet from purse.

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How Sleep Deprivation May Lead You to Form False Memories

· Article

How Sleep Deprivation May Lead You to Form False Memor

Skipping sleep may spur your brain to create false memories, a growing body of research shows. This isn’t about thinking that you hit the state fair when you really didn’t, but about how human minds focus on details. While this may not matter on a regular basis, it could have an impact on things like eyewitness crime accounts.


In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, psychologist Steven J. Frenda of the University of California, Irvine, and his colleagues divided more than 100 college students into four groups. People in the first two groups were shown a series of photos depicting a crime being committed. One group was allowed to go to sleep, while the other group was told to stay awake all night.


For the remaining two groups, the researchers reversed the order—participants either slept or stayed awake all night and then viewed the crime photos the next morning.


Then, the researchers asked everyone to read statements that contradicted what the photos of the crimes actually showed. For instance, one description stated that the thief put a stolen wallet in his pants pocket, but the photo actually showed him putting it in his jacket.


Those who viewed the photos and read the false statements after staying awake all night were more likely to remember the false details rather than what the photos really depicted, researchers found.


The results of that study may have implications for the legal system.


“Recent studies are suggesting that people are getting fewer hours of sleep on average, and chronic sleep deprivation is on the rise,” Frenda says. “Our findings have implications for the reliability of eyewitnesses who may have experienced long periods of restricted or deprived sleep.”


In another study, published in the Journal of Sleep Research, scientists conducted the same experiment involving crime photos and false statements about them with more than 100 subjects from teens to young adults in their 20s. Study participants were more likely to form false memories about the photos if they were sleep deprived.


The researchers also examined what would happen if participants only got 5 hours of sleep per night for seven days, then viewed the photos and read false statements about them. Even this partial sleep deprivation made the participants more likely to form false memories.


Sleep deprivation may mess with the first step of forming memories, called encoding, which involves converting an event we perceive into a construct that can be stored in the brain and then recalled as a memory. Adequate sleep is essential for optimizing memory processes, so not getting enough sleep may disturb this process, the researchers say.


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