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Dreams Might Help You Process Bad Experiences
  • Posted May 16, 2024

Dreams Might Help You Process Bad Experiences

A good night's sleep helps clear the cobwebs from your mind, and researchers now think they've figured out how dreaming helps.

A night spent dreaming appears to help people better process extreme events in their lives, as well as clear daily mundane things from their memory, according to results published recently in the journal Scientific Reports.

Dreaming prioritizes the processing of emotionally charged memories, and then diminishes their severity, researchers found.

“We discovered that people who report dreaming show greater emotional memory processing, suggesting that dreams help us work through our emotional experiences,” said researcher Sara Mednick, a professor of cognitive sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI).

“This is significant because we know that dreams can reflect our waking experiences, but this is the first evidence that they play an active role in transforming our responses to our waking experiences by prioritizing negative memories over neutral memories and reducing our next-day emotional response to them,” Mednick said in a UCI news release.

For the study, 125 women in their mid-30s were asked in the evening to view a series of images depicting negative experiences -- like a car accident -- as well as neutral images like a field of grass. They rated each image on the intensity of feeling it sparked.

The women then went to sleep, either at home or in a sleep lab private bedroom. All wore a ring that monitored their sleep-wake patterns.

The next day, they jotted down what dreams they had in a sleep diary, and rated the overall mood of their dreams.

Two hours after waking, the women were given a follow-up test involving the images shown the previous night, to measure how many they recalled and their reaction to them.

“Different than typical sleep diary studies that collect data over weeks to see if daytime experiences appear in dreams, we used a single-night study focused on emotionally charged material and asked if the subject's ability to recall their dream was associated with a change in memory and emotional response,” said lead researcher Jing Zhang, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School.

Patients who reported dreaming had better recall of the images and were less reactive to the negative images, a pattern that didn't occur in people who didn't remember dreaming, results show.

What's more, the more positive the dream, the more positively a person rated negative images the next day.

“This research gives us new insight into the active role dreams play in how we naturally process our day-to-day experiences and might lead to interventions that increase dreaming in order to help people work through hard life experiences,” Mednick said.

More information

The Sleep Foundation has more about dreams.

SOURCE: University of California-Irvine, news release, May 13, 2024

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