Sleep Deprivation Causes False Memories, Terrifying Study Says. Let The Existential Questions Begin

How much sleep did you get last night? And before you answer, you should know that a lot hinges on that question — including how reliable your memories are. Although everyone knows there are all sorts of problems associated with not getting enough sleep, a new study suggests that sleep deprivation can actually cause a person to have false memories. Thanks, science, now I have that to worry about.

In the study, which was published in Psychological Science, participants stayed up for 24 hours, leading many to have memory issues, including false memories. The researchers write, "We found that under certain conditions, sleep deprivation can increase the risk of developing false memories. Specifically, sleep deprivation increased false memories in a misinformation task when participants were sleep deprived during event encoding."

In other words, sleep deprivation doesn't seem to affect memories that formed while you were alert and well-rested, but once you become sleep deprived, the memories you form might not be so reliable anymore.

Obviously, this has major implications for college students pulling all nighters — after all, what's the point of spending all that time studying if it turns out some of the information you now remember is wrong. No amount of Starbucks is going to make up for that, not even with a preorder app. Not even Starbucks is powerful enough to overcome science.

But even more broadly, in a country where 40 percent of adults don't get enough sleep, this calls to mind some troubling — and existential — possibilities. Even though most people obviously aren't staying up for a full 24 hours, the fact remains that with millions of Americans sleep deprived on any given day, how can we really trust that everybody's memories are real? Are we a country full of people remembering different things? Is anything even real anymore?

Okay, maybe that's a little hyperbolic, but still, we all might want to start getting more sleep.