Sleep loss increases dissociation and affects memory for emotional stimuli

Dalena van Heugten-van der Kloet*, Timo Giesbrecht, Harald Merckelbach

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Background and objectives: Because of their dreamlike character, authors have speculated about the role that the sleep-wake cycle plays in dissociative symptoms. We investigated whether sleep loss fuels dissociative symptoms and undermines cognitive efficiency, particularly memory functioning. Methods: Fifty-six healthy undergraduate students were randomly assigned to an experimental group (n = 28) and a control group (n = 28). The experimental group was deprived of sleep for 36 h in a sleep laboratory; the control group had a regular night of sleep. Sleepiness, mood, and dissociative symptoms were assessed 6 times in the experimental group (control group: 4 times). Several cognitive tasks were administered. Results: Sleep deprivation led to an increase in dissociative symptoms, which was mediated by levels of general distress. Feelings of sleepiness preceded an increase of dissociative symptoms and deterioration of mood. Finally, sleep loss also undermined memory of emotional material, especially in highly dissociative individuals. Limitations: Limitations included moderate reliability of the mood scale, limited generalizability due to student sample, and a relatively short period of intensive sleep deprivation rather than lengthy but intermittent sleep loss, representative of a clinical population. Conclusions: We found that sleep deprivation had significant effects on dissociation, sleepiness, and mood. Specifically, sleepiness and dissociation increased during the night, while mood deteriorated. Our findings stress the importance of sleep deficiencies in the development of dissociative symptoms. They support the view that sleep disruptions fuel distress, but also degrade memory and attentional control. It is against this background that dissociative symptoms may arise.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)9-17
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2015


  • Sleep-wake cycle
  • Emotional memory
  • Psychopathology
  • Dissociative symptoms
  • Executive functioning

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