Washington: It is already known that sleep helps consolidate memories, fixing them in the brain so we can retrieve them later. Now, a new study has shown that sleep also reorganizes memories, picking out the emotional details and reconfiguring the memories to help produce new and creative ideas.
“Sleep is making memories stronger. It also seems to be doing something which I think is so much more interesting, and that is reorganizing and restructuring memories,” says Jessica D. Payne of the University of Notre Dame, who co-wrote the review with Elizabeth A. Kensinger of Boston College.
Payne and Kensinger study what happens to memories during sleep, and they have found that a person tends to hang on to the most emotional part of a memory.
For example, if someone is shown a scene with an emotional object, such as a wrecked car, in the foreground, they’re more likely to remember the emotional object than, say, the palm trees in the background—particularly if they’re tested after a night of sleep.
They have also measured brain activity during sleep and found that regions of the brain involved with emotion and memory consolidation are active.
“In our fast-paced society, one of the first things to go is our sleep. I think that’s based on a profound misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn’t doing anything,” Payne says.
The brain is busy. It’s not just consolidating memories, it’s organizing them and picking out the most salient information. She thinks this is what makes it possible for people to come up with creative, new ideas.
The study appears in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.