Monday, April 2, 2012

Sleep: Accentuating the positive memories

Sleep plays a powerful role in preserving our memories, but while recent research shows that wakefulness may cloud memories of negative or traumatic events, a new study has found that wakefulness also degrades positive memories.

Sleep, it seems, protects positive memories just as it does negative ones, and that has important implications for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“The study of how sleep helps us remember and process emotional information is still young,” says Alexis Chambers of the University of Notre Dame.

Past work has focused on the role of negative memories for sleep, in particular how insomnia is a healthy biological response for people to reduce negative memories and emotions associated with a traumatic event.

Two new studies presented this week at a meeting of cognitive neuroscientists in Chicago are exploring the flip side: how sleep treats the positive.

“Only if we investigate all the possibilities within this field will we ever fully understand the processes underlying our sleep, memory, and emotions,” Chambers says.

Protecting the positive
To test how sleep affects positive memories, Rebecca Spencer of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and her colleagues split 70 young adults into two groups, one that got to sleep overnight and one that had to stay awake.

Both groups viewed images of positive items, such as puppies and flowers, and neutral items, such as furniture or dinner plates.

The researchers then tested the participants’ memories of and emotional reactions to the images 12 hours later, after either the period of sleep or wake.

They found that “sleep enhances our emotionally positive memories while these memories decay over wake,” Spencer says.

“Positive memories may even be prioritized for processing during sleep.” But while people remembered the positive images more than the neutral ones, their emotional response to the positive images did not change over sleep versus wake.

“It doesn’t matter if you went to sleep or stayed awake, what you thought was a ’9′ i.e. really great, you still think is a ’9′,” she says.

The results, she says, could have significant implications for treating post-traumatic stress disorder, as using wakefulness could have the unintended effect of degrading of positive memories in addition to negative memories.

“It suggests that insomnia should be treated at some point after a traumatic event – perhaps a few days/weeks depending on the level of trauma, so that these positive memories can be strengthened and eventually outweigh the negative,” Spencer says.

Read more: Accentuating the positive memories for sleep |

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