A true confession – or maybe not
Sleep deprivation can cause hallucinations, decreased cognitive function, and anxiety.
I am always looking for a something a little different to write about it when it comes to sleep. It's such a fascinating specialty that's difficult to appreciate if it isn't something you do everyday. Other clinicians often think all we do is treat insomnia or sleep apnea. Yes, we treat a lot of patients with those disorders, but there are so many other genuinely interesting sleep disorders that go left unnoticed. Sleep continues to be a frontier still largely untapped, with more questions than answers regarding the importance of sleep.
Sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture throughout the years, as it reduces psychological resistance and reduces the body's ability to resist pain. Sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, decreased cognitive functioning, increases in blood pressure, and increases anxiety. Researchers have now published research on how false confessions during criminal interrogations may be more common than we realize.1
False confessions account for about 15% to 20% of wrongful convictions in the United States. Sleep deprivation may lead a person to accept responsibility for something that never happened. This new research also suggests there are some individuals that are more likely to confess to a crime if sleep deprived.
Participants in the study were instructed to complete multiple computer tasks and were repeatedly warned not to press the "Escape" key, as it would cause loss of data. Participants were then divided into 2 groups who either slept all night in a sleep lab or were kept awake all night. The following morning, all participants were asked to sign a summary statement of what had occurred in the lab and were falsely accused of pressing the Escape key during their computer activities. After just 1 request, those that were sleep deprived were 4.5 times more likely of signing that they were guilty of pressing the Escape key than those that had a full night of sleep.
This raises the question about accepting the statement of a person who is sleep deprived, but it is also a way that corrupt individuals might get an innocent person to confess to something they didn't do.
Although we can't give legal advice for a crime alleged or committed, patients should be advised to get adequate sleep before making any major decisions or changes in their lives, as sleep deprivation can lead to poor decision making.
Sharon M. O'Brien, MPAS, PA-C, is a practicing physician assistant and health coach in Asheville, NC.
- Frenda SJ, Berkowitz SR, Loftus EF, et al. Sleep deprivation and false confessions. PNAS. 2016;113(8):2047-2050; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1521518113
- Borchelt G, Pross C. Systematic use of psychological torture by US forces. Torture. 2005;15(1):66-70.
- Physicians for Human Rights (PHR). Broken laws, broken lives: Medical evidence of torture by US personnel and its impact. June 2008. Cambridge, MA.