Sleep reorganizes your memories

December, 2010

New studies show how sleep sculpts your memories, emphasizing what’s important and connecting it to other memories in your brain.

The role of sleep in consolidating memory is now well-established, but recent research suggests that sleep also reorganizes memories, picking out the emotional details and reconfiguring the memories to help you produce new and creative ideas. In an experiment in which participants were shown scenes of negative or neutral objects at either 9am or 9pm and tested 12 hours later, those tested on the same day tended to forget the negative scenes entirely, while those who had a night’s sleep tended to remember the negative objects but not their neutral backgrounds.

Follow-up experiments showed the same selective consolidation of emotional elements to a lesser degree after a 90-minute daytime nap, and to a greater degree after a 24-hour or even several-month delay (as long as sleep directly followed encoding).

These findings suggest that processes that occur during sleep increase the likelihood that our emotional responses to experiences will become central to our memories of them. Moreover, additional nights of sleep may continue to modify the memory.

In a different approach, another recent study has found that when volunteers were taught new words in the evening, then tested immediately, before spending the night in the sleep lab and being retested in the morning, they could remember more words in the morning than they did immediately after learning them, and they could recognize them faster. In comparison, a control group who were trained in the morning and re-tested in the evening showed no such improvement on the second test.

Deep sleep (slow-wave sleep) rather than rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or light sleep appeared to be the important phase for strengthening the new memories. Moreover, those who experienced more sleep spindles overnight were more successful in connecting the new words to the rest of the words in their mental lexicon, suggesting that the new words were communicated from the hippocampus to the neocortex during sleep. Sleep spindles are brief but intense bursts of brain activity that reflect information transfer between the hippocampus and the neocortex.

The findings confirm the role of sleep in reorganizing new memories, and demonstrate the importance of spindle activity in the process.

Taken together, these studies point to sleep being more important to memory than has been thought. The past decade has seen a wealth of studies establishing the role of sleep in consolidating procedural (skill) memory, but these findings demonstrate a deeper, wider, and more ongoing process. The findings also emphasize the malleability of memory, and the extent to which they are constructed (not copied) and reconstructed.

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