Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Naps Get a Good Rap

So, after all that huffing and ranting, I run across this article today about REM sleep and the way we process emotion. It would seem that the Universe and the Internet have cooperatively decided to mock me and rap me on the knuckles.
"According to new research presented last week at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Seattle, adequate sleep may underpin our ability to understand complex emotions properly in waking life."

This is research from Matthew Walker's lab at UC-Berkeley.

"In the small analysis of 36 adults, volunteers were asked to interpret the facial expressions of people in photographs, following either a 60- or 90-minute nap during the day or with no nap. Participants who had reached REM sleep (when dreaming most frequently occurs) during their nap were better able to identify expressions of positive emotions like happiness in other people, compared with participants who did not achieve REM sleep or did not nap at all. Those volunteers were more sensitive to negative expressions, including anger and fear."

Perhaps last weekend, I was particularly sleep deprived and therefore unable to correctly interpret the emotions of others.
"... in people who were sleep deprived, activity in the prefrontal lobe - a region of the brain involved in controlling emotion - was significantly diminished."

And perhaps my reaction, especially last night, is also in part due to a lack of sleep.
"If you're walking through the jungle and you're tired, it might benefit you more to be hypersensitive to negative things," he [Walker] says. The idea is that with little mental energy to spare, you're emotionally more attuned to things that are likely to be the most threatening in the immediate moment. Inversely, when you're well rested, you may be more sensitive to positive emotions, which could benefit long-term survival, he suggests: "If it's getting food, if it's getting some kind of reward, finding a wife - those things are pretty good to pick up on."

One can't help but wonder how many well rested people one interacts on any given day in a city that never sleeps. And viceversa.
REM sleep appears to not only improve our ability to identify positive emotions in others; it may also round out the sharp angles of our own emotional experiences. Walker suggests that one function of REM sleep - dreaming, in particular - is to allow the brain to sift through that day's events, process any negative emotion attached to them, then strip it away from the memories.

And here I imagine a black tar of negative emotion sticking to and building up on the brain after several nights with no sleep - as if sleep is a mental hygiene issue.
"It's not that you've forgotten. You haven't," he says. "It's a memory of an emotional episode, but it's no longer emotional itself."

This "separation between memory and emotion" quote is so great. It has the quality of a very careful finer distinction. So deliciously scientific. I had always thought that the separation of emotion from memory requires the passage of time, great patience and mental processing. But perhaps really good sleep would do the same. It seems like this would be true of positive and negative emotions, the ability of a memory to evoke a particular emotion can be a stunning and beautiful experience, the gradual muting of which is wistful. I wonder if those studies have been done.
That palliative safety-valve quality of sleep may be hampered when we fail to reach REM sleep or when REM sleep is disrupted, Walker says. "If you don't let go of the emotion, what results is a constant state of anxiety," he says.

Which doesn't really sound like the fun way to live.

Overall this make me wonder whether people who never sleep or less much less, dream more intensely. Whether they just get into the REM part of their sleep cycle more quickly. I have always envied those who don't sleep. The head start that they get by sleeping less, by needing less sleep. They are awake for all that wacky life stuff, that I miss by sleeping.

But perhaps, I should leave all of that glamour to those who can handle it. Perhaps this mere mortal is better off sleeping on it. And for 8-10 hours a night at that.


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