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Many of us are chronically sleep deprived. So much so, some sleep specialists consider it a public health epidemic. One of the major issues identified with sleep deprivation is the effect it has on our cognition, or thinking.

Perhaps you’ve experienced the impact of acute sleep deprivation on your mental performance if you’ve had to stay up late at night working, or been travelling interstate across different times zones, or just went to that big party.

But it appears that sleep deprivation also causes us to create distorted (or false) memories. The implication of this has potentially huge ramifications for the judicial system that relies very heavily on eyewitness accounts. It is already recognised that in the U.S. eyewitness misidentification is the leading cause of wrongful conviction.

Researchers at Michigan State and University of California Irvine have found that we experience memory distortion after 24 hours of total sleep deprivation. That may come as no particular surprise. But it’s not just going with out a whole night’s sleep that is the problem. Those who consistently get five or fewer hours of sleep are at risk of distortions and inaccuracies in what they remember. And it’s the memories that are formed after you are already tired that are at risk. Forming memory and then becoming sleep deprived is not an issue.

In the workplace, sleep deprivation means the potential for error, miscommunication and misinterpretation of data through memory distortion is huge.

For any organisation no matter what size, encouraging all employees from the CEO down, to get enough sleep is about far more than just avoiding grumpy co-workers. It’s about safety, accuracy and performance. Organisational health has to start with ensuring everyone gets a good night’s sleep.


S. J. Frenda, L. Patihis, E. F. Loftus, H. C. Lewis, K. M. Fenn. Sleep Deprivation and False Memories. Psychological Science, 2014; DOI: 10.1177/0956797614534694


Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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