College students, 3rd shift workers and all round night owls may be at risk of recalling false memories of events that never happened, a new study findings. The findings suggest that sleep deprivation significantly alters memory after comparing the memories of those who had a good night’s sleep versus those who stayed up 24h straight. Thus, sleep-deprived individuals mix fact with imagination, embellish events and even “remember” things that never actually happened.

Sleep on it

Our memories aren’t like files in a hard drives you can always restore with fidelity. Besides degrading in time, every time we access a particular memory we also alter it in the process and create a fresh one by adding or subtracting details  based on multiple sources; something new a friend might tell us or something we just learned from a TV report, and so on. It’s common that sometimes we develop false memories – a highly distorted memory of a past event with little or nothing to do with reality.

Previously, Steven Frenda, a psychology Ph.D. student at the University of California, Irvine, and colleagues found that people with restricted sleep (less than 5 hours a day) are more susceptible to form false memories. In the present study, Frenda sought to see how complete sleep deprivation (at least 24 hours) affects memory and false memory formation in particular.

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The researchers enlisted 100 volunteers for the study,  some of whom had a good night’s sleep from midnight to 8 AM, while other didn’t sleep at all. Each was showed each a photo of a man tucking a woman’s wallet into his jacket pocket. Exactly forty minutes later, they  were presented with read false information about the photo, which said that the man put the wallet in his pants pocket rather than his jacket. The researchers then asked the students where they thought the thief tucked the wallet and how they knew this information.

“We found that compared to the participants who had slept, those who endured an entire night of sleep deprivation were more likely to falsely recall that the inaccurate, misleading information came from the original photographs,” Frenda said.

With chronic sleep deprivation on the rise, the findings have implications for people’s everyday lives —recalling information for an exam, or in work contexts. Most importantly, maybe, it shows that eyewitnesses who are sleep deprived are at a great risk of providing false information, unwillingly. Though not so common now, it is still unheard of that some police interrogations go on for all night. As such, law enforcement officers might be better of letting their witnesses go home to sleep on it and return fresh and with less risk of distorting reality.

Findings appeared in the journal Psychological Science.