SCIENCE
02/11/2016 02:04 pm ET Updated Feb 11, 2016

Why You're More Likely To Make A False Confession If You're Sleep-Deprived

A study finds that after losing a night of sleep, people are five times more likely to falsely admit to wrongdoing.
Sleep deprivation could lead to false confessions, study finds. 
Thurston Photo via Getty Images
Sleep deprivation could lead to false confessions, study finds. 

On Netflix's blockbuster show"Making A Murderer," shocked audiences watched a teenage boy sentenced to decades in prison for murder on the basis of a false confession.

The documentary series brought the surprisingly common phenomenon of police interrogation-stimulated false confessions into the spotlight. And now, new research finds that people who stay awake all night are nearly five times more likely to sign a false confession than those who have slept. 

The research findings, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have significant implications for police interrogation practices. Up to 17 percent of interrogations occur between the hours of midnight and 8 a.m., the study's authors note.

"We recommend that the physiological state of all suspects and witnesses be evaluated during an interrogation," Sleep specialist Dr. Kimberley Fenn, the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post. "If individuals are in a comprised physiological state, such as sleep deprivation, they should not be interrogated until they have full cognitive capacity."

Fenn and her colleagues at Michigan State University's Sleep and Learning Lab recruited 88 undergraduates to undergo laboratory sessions in which they completed computer tests in two sessions separated by a period of a week. A flashing pop-up alert repeatedly warned the students not to press the escape key, as doing so would erase the researchers' data. 

After the second session, half of the volunteers spent the night sleeping in the lab, while researchers told the other half to stay awake and gave them distractions including food, TV and video games. 

There is strong evidence that dramatic neural changes are seen during sleep deprivation.

The next morning, the students were individually blamed for pressing the escape key and asked to sign a form stating that they had done it. A full half of the volunteers who had gone for nearly 24 hours without sleep signed the form, while only 18 percent of the well-rested students did. 

Those who refused to sign were urged a second time to sign the document. By the end, 39 percent of the rested students and 68 percent of the sleep-deprived students had signed the paper. 

Research shows that when we haven't slept, a several key cognitive functions decline -- including those involved in memory, judgment and decision-making. 

"There is strong evidence that dramatic neural changes are seen during sleep deprivation," Fenn told HuffPost. "Most pertinent to the current study, activation in the frontal lobes significantly declines during sleep deprivation. This is the area of the brain that is implicated in executive function and decision-making processes." 

Of course, pressing the escape key isn't quite on par with confessing to murder. Still, the findings suggest that when the brain is under stress and deprived of sleep, the conditions for a false confession are in place. 

"It is difficult for most people to imagine that any individual would falsely confess to a crime that she or he did not commit. However, it does occur," Fenn said. "While our laboratory task is very different from an actual confession, we would simply like to raise awareness that basic physiological state affects even critical decisions that could potentially have dire consequences."

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