Many people take naps to refresh their brains during a draining afternoon. But new research from the University of Lancaster suggests that brief periods of sleep during the day can actually create false memories.
In a small experiment detailed in the journal Neuropsychologia, John Shaw and professor Padraic Monaghan discovered that healthy adults who had taken a 90-minute nap performed more poorly on a word recognition test compared with those who stayed awake for the same amount of time.
By monitoring their subjects’ brain activity using a device called a polysomnograph, the duo were able to pinpoint an unexpected potential cause of post-snooze memory impairment: a type of brainwave known as sleep spindles. Generated in the thalamus during a light, non-REM sleep cycle known as stage 2 sleep, sleep spindles are sudden bursts of neuron activity, originating in the thalamus, theorized to be involved in memory formation and consolidation.
Previous investigations have shown that when people are given a list of thematically linked words – for example: bed, snooze, slumber, pillow – then allowed to sleep, they will falsely identify more “lure” words on a recall test performed after waking than people who did not sleep. As in, when asked to select the words they saw out of a larger selection of words, people who have slept are more likely to claim they saw theme-fitting words that were not actually on the original list.
Studies have also indicated that the right hemisphere of the brain, associated with more abstract associations of words and concepts, is more prone to making these false memories.
Hoping to elucidate what brain mechanism causes this curious phenomenon, Shaw and Monaghan enrolled 32 adult volunteers, provided them a list of themed words, strapped polysomnographs on their heads, then sent 16 off for a nap in a blacked-out room and sent the other 16 to watch TV.