Posts Tagged ‘Anna Schipiro’

Memory Special: What Happens to Your Memories While You Sleep?

November 26, 2018

The title of this post is identical to a feature article by Catherine de Lange in the 27 Oct ’18 issue of the New Scientist.” We don’t need sleep to create a memory, but Bob Stickgold at Harvard Medical School says, “Sleep plays a critical role in determining what happens to newly formed memories.” Sleep determines what goes into long-term storage. It can also select which parts of a memory to retain. It also links new memories with established networks of remembrances. It discovers patterns and rules, and it is doing this every night all night long.

Somehow the sleeping brain chooses which memories to strengthen and which to ignore. Sleep is special. Anna Schipiro, also at the Harvard school says, “During slow-wave sleep, there is this release, a kind of beautiful set of interactions between different brain areas, that is specialized, and it looks different than what we see during awake periods. There is conversation between regions key to memory, including the hippocampus, where memories are processed into the cortex where long-term memories end up. This chatter might be allowing the cortex to pull out and see important information from new memories.

There is no need to recall everything, and sleep favors certain types of memory. It homes in on information that might be useful at a later date, and puts it into longer-term storage. Shapiro has found that merely telling people they will be tested on certain material helps them remember more of it after sleep.

Memories with an emotional component also get preferential treatment—especially negative emotions. Schipiro says, “If you have a memory that was really intense, sleep will help to preserve the memory, but decrease the emotionality. Obviously this could be crucial for our mental health. Stickgold says, “Post traumatic stress disorder might actually be a direct consequence of failure of those sleep-dependent processes that waken the intensity of emotional responses to memories.” And it could also help explain why getting too little sleep is bad for you. Negative memories become dominant over neutral and positive ones, for a start. Stickgold says, “We remember facts and events, but don’t manage to figure out what they really mean for us and our future.”

Here is Schipiro’s advice on studying for exams: “It’s much better to go to sleep between studying and taking a test than to stay awake all night studying.”

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