Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Sleep, Memory and The Brain: Science Validates Common Sense

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on April 11, 2012

Do you want to learn new material? Go to sleep. I knew that in college. An awake mind is more efficient. Do you want to do well on a final exam? Go to sleep. I knew that too. Sometimes  I think that my college success was based on knowing this principle and thereby shunning the notion of an all-nighter. It felt to me that I had better retention with more sleep, so sleeping was my tool to academic accomplishments. Yesterday, Matthew Walker MD said the same thing, at UCLA Psychiatry Grand Rounds. The hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory, is more responsive after sleep, be it a nap or a night-time rest. He had pretty brain pictures, randomized controlled studies, and a videotape of a Harvard University undergraduate trying to get a thirty page paper done on no sleep at all, demonstrating that sleep changes brain function for the better.

Now, although he was a wonderful speaker, I felt like I already knew what he was saying, when of course, the science of it all, is brand new. The lecture became more engaging as he said we not only sleep to learn, we also sleep to “forget” the emotional association of memory. Sleep, he says, often strips the emotional aspect of the event, while still preserving the narrative memory. “What about PTSD, I asked my colleague/audience neighbor?” Almost immediately, as if he heard me, he said that “in PTSD, one is unable to strip the emotion from the memory, and hence the sleep in PTSD is characterized by nightmares.” Wow, that makes sense to me. The adage that “time heals all wounds” is mostly true, because as we sleep every night, the emotional aspects of memory fades, except in extreme trauma, where the emotion can persist for years and years after a devastating event. This was the most intriguing part of the lecture. Sleep not only refreshes the learning aspect of our brain, it also refreshes our baseline emotional state-most of the time. My take-away was that the value of sleep trumps almost everything and although sleeping medications are a last resort, getting people to sleep can be a key intervention for mending mental health. I knew that. Now, I have science to back me up. Thank you, Dr. Walker.

12 Responses to “Sleep, Memory and The Brain: Science Validates Common Sense”

  1. Jon said

    I have the same reactions to your discussion of Dr. Walker’s talk as you did. I have instinctively understood the benefits of sleep to learning; however, the new (to me also) and with-the-ring-of-truth understanding of the “forgetfulness” of sleep with respect to emotional aspect is intriguing. It could almost be a definition of PTSD that it is a debilitating emotional response not cured by sleeping.

    Given this understanding, other questions come to mind. Why are there nightmares that are not associated with PTSD? Why are not all emotional responses (both positive and negative) not forgotten as we sleep? Are those muted? As a Freudian, there must be some well developed understanding of dreams and their relations to sleep and memory. What would Freud as about this?

    Finally, I cannot resist the follow pun. You quote the old adage with regard to the curative power of sleep, “time heals all wounds.” There can be a sense of justice in the reversal of a few words, “time wounds all heels.”

    • Hi Jon,
      Thank you for your comments. I agree with your “new” definition of PTSD. I like it a lot.
      Nightmares are fascinating phenomena. Freud would say that it comes from a difficult place in the unconscious. That is, a clue to underlying pain and suffering.
      Thanks for the pun.

  2. Shelly said

    Very interesting, Shirah. So if one needs to well on a cognitive challenge, one should sleep well the night before. That of course assumes that one a) knows the material beforehand or b) one learns the material quicker after a good night’s sleep, right? Also interesting to me was your part about sleeping to forget the emotional association of memory. Whenever I am particularly upset about something, I almost always need to sleep to get away from the emotional sting, if you will. It does, as you say, “refresh the baseline emotional state.” until I am faced with recalling that which upset me in the first place. Could that be why people suffering from some mood disorders or depression want to sleep more often? Because sleep is a means of resetting this baseline state? And what is the connection between lack of sleep and weight gain? What is the science behind that?

    • Hi Shelly,
      Yes, sleeping BEFORE and AFTER learning new ideas makes the brain efficient. Yes, as Dr. Walker reminded all of us yesterday, sleep and psychopathology are almost always tightly linked.
      One idea about the relation between lack of sleep and weight gain is that the body needs energy which can be provided by sleep, but if one does not sleep, then this energy source can be derived from eating. Hence, sleep-deprived folks eat as a way of maintaining energy in the face of poor sleep. Thanks, as always.

  3. rebeccaerobbins said

    So interesting, and of course, I start thinking about all of the college kids who’ve been in my office – between ADHD (and the neurodevelopmental lag that goes with it), the distractions on campus, and the heavy workload, it’s tough to know what the best recommendation is for this population. I get asked this all the time, and always refer parents to Landmark College, but often kids are not willing to go.

    • Hi Rebecca,
      Yes, all college kids should be taught that sleep is a basic building block of learning. Having said that, the arrogance of youth means that they won’t listen to such sound advice, but maybe as they age, they will learn to see the wisdom in that. Thanks, Rebecca.

  4. Ashana M said

    In terms of traumatic memory, my experience does not match Dr. Walker’s description. My ordinary memories continue to contain emotional content: a good memory brings a feeling of warmth, a bad memory brings distress when it returns to mind. Traumatic memories are fragmented, incoherent, and disorganized. They appear as only emotional memories with no other content attached to them, or only a narrative memory without any emotion, or some other mix of pieces we usually think of as being memory. The senses, emotions, and narrative are all split off from one another. The more intense the trauma, the greater the split between different ways of taking in and processing the event. All of the pieces seem to be there in the end, but there are few or no links between them until I’ve deliberately gone about making linkages. As the memories become richer, more coherent, and more organized, I am bothered less by them and have fewer symptoms. The disturbance of nightmares seems to me to be about trying to organize and knit together the memory, rather than about trying to remove emotion from them.

    • Hi Ashana M,
      I particularly like this part of what you said….”As the memories become richer, more coherent, and more organized, I am bothered less by them and have fewer symptoms. The disturbance of nightmares seems to me to be about trying to organize and knit together the memory, rather than about trying to remove emotion from them.” That is very interesting. It supports the notion that the more one can make one’s personal narrative linear, the more one can cope with the past traumas, as the linear narrative helps one develop an observing ego which can then have compassion for what one went through. Thanks again.

      • Ashana M said

        Thanks. It really doesn’t seem to be about the narrative itself, except as one piece of it. There are traumas I know first as a narrative: as in, this is what happened, and in this order. But there’s nothing else. And those seem to cause as many symptoms as events I remember only as sensory or emotional experiences first. It seems to be about the richness–perhaps when a memory has a broader range of linkages, fear is not the only place to go from it. Or maybe we are just more bothered by the incomprehensibility of an event we cannot make sense of in any way–because the richness of the information makes it more possible to understand what really happened and why. Trauma shatters our sense of the world as a place that makes sense, and it’s terribly important in the process of recovering from it to make sense of it again.

        • Yes, I understand what you are saying. By narrative, I mean, not just a coherent story, but a story with the layers of a deeply moving novel or movie. “Making sense” as you say is not always possible, but to see one’s life as a “story” helps to create the observing ego which is so critical to developing compassion and understanding of one’s past in order so that one can move into the future without distorting the present with the past. Thanks.

          • Ashana M said

            I think whether we can make sense of things is largely about effort. We often give up on it because it seems too difficult:either we need to know too much more or we need to change our preconceived notions too much. But by “making sense” I also mean small things, like that the scratchy feeling we remember was a sweater. I think the more traumatic the experience, the more we need to make sense of it.

  5. Ashana M said

    I should amend that to say that we make sense of things whether we want to or not or give it our conscious attention. The sense we make of trauma is usually discontinuous with other parts of our lives, and it is usually untenable. Building meaning structures that are broad enough to accommodate traumatic and non-traumatic material makes trauma something we can live with. The past is useful when it can inform the present rather than overwhelm it.

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