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Dreams ease the distress of emotional memories

Summary: Dreaming helps to prioritize and reduce the severity of emotionally charged memories. Participants who reported dreaming had better memory and were less reactive to negative images.

Research suggests that dreams actively transform emotional responses by reducing next-day emotional reactivity. This could lead to interventions that enhance dreaming to facilitate emotional processing.


  1. Emotional processing: Dreams prioritize and diminish the severity of emotionally charged memories.
  2. Dream reminder: Participants who remembered their dreams showed better emotional memory processing.
  3. Positive influence: Positive dreams were correlated with a more positive emotional response to negative experiences the next day.

Source: University of California, Irvine

A night spent dreaming can help you forget the mundane and better deal with the extreme, according to a new study from the University of California, Irvine.

New work by researchers at the UC Irvine Sleep and Cognition Lab examined how dream recall and mood affected memory consolidation and emotion regulation the next day.

The results, published recently in Scientific reportsindicate a compromise in which emotionally charged memories are prioritized, but their severity is diminished.

“We found that people who report dreaming show better emotional memory processing, suggesting that dreams help us work through our emotional experiences,” said corresponding author Sara Mednick, professor of cognitive science at the UC Irvine and laboratory director.

“This is important 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 memories negative compared to neutral memories and reducing our next-day emotional response to them.

Lead author Jing Zhang, a Ph.D. in cognitive science at UC Irvine in 2023 and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, added: “Our work provides the first empirical support for the active involvement of dreaming in sleep-dependent emotional memory processing, suggesting that dreaming after an emotional experience might help us feel better in the morning.

The study involved 125 women – 75 via Zoom and 50 at the Sleep and Cognition Lab – who were in their 30s and part of a larger research project on the effects of the menstrual cycle on sleep.

Each subject’s session began at 7:30 p.m. with the completion of an emotional picture task in which they viewed a series of images depicting negative and neutral experiences (such as a car accident or a field of grass), rating each on a nine-point score. scale for the intensity of the sensation it aroused.

Participants then immediately underwent the same test with new images and only a sample of previously viewed images.

In addition to rating their emotional responses, the women were asked whether each image was old or new, which helped the researchers develop a baseline for memory and emotional response.

Then, subjects would sleep either at home or in one of the sleep laboratory’s private rooms. All wore a ring that monitored sleep-wake patterns.

Upon waking the next day, they assessed whether they had dreamed the previous night and, if so, recorded the details of the dream and their general mood in a sleep diary, using a seven-point scale ranging from ‘extremely negative to extremely positive.

Two hours after waking up, the women performed the second emotional picture task from the previous day to measure image recall and responding.

“Unlike traditional sleep diary studies that collect data over weeks to see whether daytime experiences appear in dreams, we used a single-night study focusing on emotionally charged material and asked whether the subject’s ability to remember their dream was associated with a change in memory and an emotional response,” Zhang said.

Participants who reported dreaming had better memory and were less reactive to negative images than to neutral images, a pattern that was absent in those who did not remember dreaming.

Furthermore, the more positive the dream, the more positively the individual evaluates negative images the next day.

“This research gives us new insight into the active role dreams play in how we naturally process our daily experiences and could lead to interventions that increase dreaming to help people overcome difficult life experiences,” Mednick said.

About this news on research on sleep, dreams and memory

Author: Sarah Mednick
Source: University of California, Irvine
Contact: Sara Mednick – UC Irvine
Picture: Image is credited to Neuroscience News

Original research: Free access.
“Evidence for the active role of dreaming in emotional memory processing shows that we dream about forgetting” by Sara Mednick et al. Scientific reports


Evidence for the active role of dreaming in emotional memory processing shows that we dream about forgetting.

Dreaming is a universal human behavior that has inspired searches for meaning in many disciplines, including art, psychology, religion, and politics, but its function remains poorly understood.

Given the suggested role of sleep in emotional memory processing, we investigated whether nighttime dreams and dream content were associated with sleep-dependent changes in emotional memory and reactivity, and whether dreaming played a role active or passive role.

Participants completed an emotional imagery task before and after a full night’s sleep and recorded the presence and content of their dreams upon awakening in the morning.

The results replicated the trade-off in emotional memory (negative images maintained at the expense of neutral memories), but only among those who reported dreaming (dream recallers), not among non-dream recallers.

The results also replicated sleep-related reductions in emotional reactivity, but only in people who remembered their dreams, not in those who did not remember their dreams. Additionally, the more positive the dream report, the more positive the next day’s emotional reactivity compared to the previous night.

These findings imply an active role for dreaming in nocturnal processing of emotional memory and suggest a mechanistic framework in which dreaming may enhance salient emotional experiences via forgetting less relevant information.

News Source : neurosciencenews.com
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