Unwanted memories often enter conscious awareness when individuals confront reminders. People vary widely in their talents at suppressing such memory intrusions; however, the factors that govern suppression ability are poorly understood. We tested the hypothesis that successful memory control requires sleep.
Following overnight sleep or total sleep deprivation, participants attempted to suppress intrusions of emotionally negative and neutral scenes when confronted with reminders. The sleep-deprived group experienced significantly more intrusions (unsuccessful suppressions) than the sleep group. Deficient control over intrusive thoughts had consequences: Whereas in rested participants suppression reduced behavioral and psychophysiological indices of negative affect for aversive memories, it had no such salutary effect for sleep-deprived participants.
Our findings raise the possibility that sleep deprivation disrupts prefrontal control over medial temporal lobe structures that support memory and emotion. These data point to an important role of sleep disturbance in maintaining and exacerbating psychiatric conditions characterized by persistent, unwanted thoughts.