False memories after sleep deprivation

By Karyn O'Keeffe 29/07/2014

Last week I read a cool study about false memories after sleep deprivation.  Published the week before in Psychological Medicine, the study was comprised of several experiments which examined whether sleep deprivation was associated with creation of false memories of witnessing a plane crash or after being fed misinformation.

The researchers asked 193 undergraduate students to complete a questionnaire that contained a description of a well-known plane crash*, which stated that video footage of the crash had been widely viewed on the internet (although no such footage existed).   In addition to this, the students were asked to view two series of photographs, after which they were provided with a narrative for each that put the photos into context.  However, each student was randomly provided with one accurate narrative and one that contained three pieces of contradictory misinformation.

The students were sent home and asked to complete a simple sleep diary to capture time in bed, time spent asleep, how long it took them to fall asleep, and awakenings overnight.  A week later they returned to the research centre.

Students got less than 5 hours or fewer sleep each night (who were sleep restricted) were more likely to report that they had seen the non-existent video of the plane crash.  The effects of sleep restriction on memory encoding of misinformation were not as clear, although there was a trend for sleep restricted students to incorporate misinformation into their descriptions of the photographs.  In a second experiment, it was shown that false memories are influenced by sleep deprivation, but only when the memories are encoded after a period of sleep deprivation.

These findings are certainly not conclusive.  However, they do provide a little more clarity to what is currently murky literature.  What’s more the results raise some interesting questions about memory formation in those that are sleep deprived and the implications for false reporting in crucial situations, such as university exams, police investigations, eye witness accounts… the list goes on.

Last week I read a cool paper about false memories after sleep deprivation, or did I..?  I guess it depends on how much sleep I got the night before.



* The researchers included a passage on the crash of United Airline Flight 93 crash in Pennsylvania on 1 September, 2001 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Airlines_Flight_93).