Total Recall: Sleep Deprivation Creates False Memories

By Alyse Borkan  |  Jul 30, 2014
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We all know that being sleep deprived sucks. It makes you feel sluggish throughout the day, literally makes you dumber, and is really dangerous.

Now, a new study shows another problem with sleep deprivation: it leads to the formation of false memories.

We don’t mean to lie. When we witness an event, we often encounter later information that misleads and blurs our memory. If the initial event was interesting enough, we might tell someone about it and not even realize that we’re spewing false memories. When we’re sleep deprived, and we’re always sleep deprived, this gets much worse.

Life is like a giant game of tired Telephone.

Using this knowledge, researchers formed the procedure for this study. In a series of experiments, participants were presented with false information, misinformed later on, and then asked to recount what happened.

For one experiment, both restricted sleepers (who sleep five hours or less a night) and some normal sleepers were asked if they’d seen footage of flight 93 crashing in Pennsylvania on 9/11. That footage doesn’t actually exist, but researchers told them it did. Tricksters! 54 percent of restricted sleepers said they remembered the imaginary film reel, and only 33 percent of the normal sleepers did.

In the more telling experiment, researchers divided sleep lab participants into two groups: half saw a slideshow of a crime in progress when they checked into the sleep lab, the other half saw it in the morning. There were well-rested and sleep-deprived people in both groups. Some members saw the photos in the evening and some would see them in the morning. At dawn, researchers fed participants a breakfast of misinformation: false written accounts of the crimes in the slideshow. Then they were forced to retell what they saw in the images.

The results are pretty compelling. Well-rested participants retold the stories accurately, but those who stayed up all night and saw the photos in the morning had a much higher false memory rate.

When you’re sleep deprived, it’s hard to remember what you saw — and even harder for your memory to process the information.

What does it all mean? Well, we can’t remember  . . . we didn’t sleep much last night! So if you haven’t slept, don’t even bother telling your friend about that crazy thing you saw on the street this morning. You’re probably misremembering.

— Josh Segal

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