Missing Sleep May Hurt Your Memory

Lack of sleep, already considered a public health epidemic, can also lead to errors in memory, finds a new study by researchers at Michigan State University and the University of California, Irvine.

The study, published online in the journal Psychological Science, found participants deprived of a night’s sleep were more likely to flub the details of a simulated burglary they were shown in a series of images.

Distorted memory can have serious consequences in areas such as criminal justice, where eyewitness misidentifications are thought to be the leading cause of wrongful convictions in the United States.

“We found memory distortion is greater after sleep deprivation,” said Kimberly Fenn, MSU associate professor of psychology and co-investigator on the study. “And people are getting less sleep each night than they ever have.”

The image shows a test participant sleeping.
The Sleep and Learning Lab in Michigan State University’s Department of Psychology studies the relationship between sleep and learning and memory. Credit G.L. Kohuth.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls insufficient sleep an epidemic and said it’s linked to vehicle crashes, industrial disasters and chronic diseases such as hypertension and diabetes.

The researchers conducted experiments at MSU and UC-Irvine to gauge the effect of insufficient sleep on memory. The results: Participants who were kept awake for 24 hours – and even those who got five or fewer hours of sleep – were more likely to mix up event details than participants who were well rested.

“People who repeatedly get low amounts of sleep every night could be more prone in the long run to develop these forms of memory distortion,” Fenn said. “It’s not just a full night of sleep deprivation that puts them at risk.”

Notes about this sleep and memory research

Fenn’s co-investigators include Steven Frenda and Elizabeth Loftus from UC-Irvine.

Source Kimberly Fenn & Andy Henion – Michigan State University
Contact: Michigan State University press release
Image Source: The image is credited to G.L. Kohuth and is adapted from the Michigan State University press release
Original Research Abstract for “Sleep Deprivation and False Memories” by Steven J. Frenda, Lawrence Patihis, Elizabeth F. Loftus, Holly C. Lewis, and Kimberly M. Fenn in Psychological Science. Published online July 16 2014 doi:10.1177/0956797614534694

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