False Memories May Be Result of Not Getting Enough
Findings raise questions about reliability of
eyewitnesses who may have experienced long periods of restricted or
23, 2014 - Numerous recent studies have grabbed the attention of senior
citizens with results showing that lack of adequate sleep can cause
people – seniors in particular – numerous problems with cognition,
memory and even disease. Now the scientist say lack of sleep can even
cause us to create false memories. The possible good news for seniors is
this study was with college students.
study, published in
Psychological Science, a journal of the
Association for Psychological Science,
sleep-deprived people who viewed photographs of a crime being committed
and then read false information about the photos were more likely to
report remembering the false details in the photos than were those who
got a full night’s sleep.
Previous research has demonstrated that failing to
get your full eight hours interferes with cognitive functioning. But
psychological scientist Steven J. Frenda of the University of
California, Irvine noticed a gap in the literature when it came to sleep
“Over the years I noticed that whenever I had a bad
night’s sleep, my perception and memory seemed to get fuzzy until I had
a good recovery sleep,” explains Frenda.
“I was surprised to find that there were so few
empirical studies connecting sleep deprivation with memory distortion in
an eyewitness context. The studies that do exist look mostly at sleep
deprived people’s ability to accurately remember lists of words—not real
people, places and events.”
A preliminary study conducted by Frenda and
colleagues suggested that getting 5 hours of sleep or less was
associated with the formation of false memories. The researchers then
designed an experiment to investigate whether pulling an all-nighter
would increase the likelihood of forming false memories.
Upon arriving to the lab in the late evening, the
104 college-age participants were assigned to one of four groups. Two
groups were presented with a series of photos depicting a crime being
committed as soon as they arrived to the lab — one group was then
allowed to go to sleep, while the other group had to stay awake all
night in the lab. The remaining two groups did things in the reverse
order — they either slept or stayed awake all night and then viewed the
crime photos in the morning.
In the second part of the experiment, the
participants read narratives containing statements that contradicted
what the photographs actually showed. For instance, a text description
might say that the thief put a stolen wallet in his pants pocket,
whereas the photo shows him putting it in his jacket.
The researchers found that only those students who
had been sleep deprived for all parts of the experiment — that is, they
viewed the photos, read the narratives, and took the memory test after
having stayed up all night — were more likely to report the false
details from the text narrative as having been present in the crime
The students who viewed the photos before staying
up all night, however, were no more susceptible to false memories than
the students who’d been allowed to sleep.
The researchers believe these findings have
important legal applications:
“Recent studies are suggesting that people are
getting fewer hours of sleep on average, and chronic sleep deprivation
is on the rise,” says Frenda. “Our findings have implications for the
reliability of eyewitnesses who may have experienced long periods of
restricted or deprived sleep.”
Frenda concludes that more research is necessary
before scientists can provide law enforcement with evidence-based
guidelines on how to best ensure that eyewitnesses’ memories are
“We are running new experiments now, in order to
better understand the influence of sleep deprivation on processes
related to false memory.”
In addition to Frenda, co-authors on the study
include Lawrence Patihis and Elizabeth Loftus of the University of
California, Irvine, and Holly Lewis and Kimberly Fenn of Michigan State
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