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Can You Trust Your Memory?

A new study shows we can sometimes remember things that never happened.

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It happens to all of us: Try as we might, we often don’t get the sleep our minds and bodies need to function at their best. It’s no secret that sleep deprivation makes us tired and irritable, but new research published in the journal Psychological Science shows that a lack of sleep can also lead us to remember events and experiences that didn’t happen.

To investigate the impact of insufficient sleep on memory, researchers conducted two studies in which they put people in situations where it would be relatively easy to see if they were remembering things that never occurred.

In a first study, after filling out a sleep diary about how much they slept the night before, people read about the plane that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001, during the terrorist attack on the United States. Although images of the crash's aftermath were widely available, the flight's crash itself was not captured on video. In the laboratory, though, participants read that video footage of the actual crash had been widely seen. The critical part of the experiment came a little while later when people were interviewed by the researchers and asked if they, themselves, had seen video footage of the plane crashing.

What did the researchers find? People who reported sleeping five hours or fewer the previous night were more likely to say that they remembered seeing the (non-existent) video footage of the crash than those who got more rest the night before.

There’s more.

In a second experiment, participants actually spent the night in the sleep laboratory. Some lucky ones got to sleep for eight hours; others were asked to stay up all night, watching movies or working on a computer. The next morning, everyone took part in a short activity during which they viewed a series of photographs of a crime being committed—such as a woman encountering a thief who steals her wallet. Later, they read a story about the photographs but, critically, some of the information in the story contradicted what people had actually seen in the photos. For instance, in the photos, a thief takes a wallet from a woman’s purse and puts it in his jacket pocket. But, what people read was that the thief took the wallet and put it in his pants pocket. A little while later, people were asked where the thief put the wallet. And people who had pulled an all-nighter were more likely to be led astray by what they read about the photos, even reporting that they remembered seeing events in the pictures that they had not.

It seems that, when we are sleep-deprived, we don’t commit information to memory very well. So when misleading information comes our way, we are easily led astray.

Memory errors can have serious consequences: Misidentifications of suspects by eyewitnesses are thought to be the leading cause of wrongful criminal convictions in the U.S., for example. Moreover, it’s easy to see how misremembering details of a meeting at work or the directions our boss gives us can lead to subpar performance. Now we know that being sleep deprived not only carries negative consequences for how we feel, but how we remember.

It sure makes you think differently about the importance of sleep.

 

For more on how to learn and perform at your best, check out my book Choke.

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Frenda, S. J………& Fenn, K. M. (July 16th, 2014). Sleep Deprivation and False Memories. Psychological Science. 

Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at The University of Chicago and an expert on the brain science behind performance failure under pressure.

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