a man breaking into a carThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call insufficient sleep an epidemic because sleep is a critical part of being healthy. New research suggests that sleep is also a key player in forming accurate memories. Researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) and the University of California Irvine (UCI) found that people who did not sleep or who slept less were not able to accurately recall details of an event.

The researchers conducted an experiment to determine how significantly a lack of sleep affects memory. The research team deprived participants at MSU and UCI of various amounts of sleep. Some of the participants stayed awake for a full 24 hours, some got a full night’s sleep, and some slept for a limited number of hours. After sleeping or staying up all night, the participants viewed images of a simulated burglary. The researchers asked the participants to recall the details of the event.

The participants who did not sleep were the most likely to mix up the details of the burglary. Memory suffered for participants with limited sleep too. The participants who slept for five or fewer hours were more likely to incorrectly recall details than the well-rested participants.

The findings have implications in areas like criminal justice. The police and the court system rely on eyewitness accounts, but if eyewitnesses are not sleeping enough, their memories might not be accurate. The study also suggests that students need to sleep enough to do well in school. Students who do not sleep enough may not be able to remember what they learned in detail.

“We found memory distortion is greater after sleep deprivation and people are getting less sleep each night than they ever have. 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. It’s not just a full night of sleep deprivation that puts them at risk,” stated Kimberly Fenn, MSU associate professor of psychology and co-investigator of the study.

This research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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