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. “Sleep essentially is resetting the magnetic north of your emotional compass,” says Matthew Walker, director of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley.
“If you’re walking through the jungle and you’re tired, it might benefit you more to be hypersensitive to negative things,” he 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 [such as “finding a wife”].
The cognitive psychology:
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. He likens the process to applying a “nocturnal soothing balm.” REM sleep, he says, “tries to ameliorate the sharp emotional chips and dents that life gives you along the way.”
“If you don’t let go of the emotion, what results is a constant state of anxiety,” he says.
I let myself sleep in this morning. I’m feeling pretty good about that.