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Even if the scientists are still debating exactly why we sleep, seeming to constantly swing back and forth between several equally plausible possibilities - which could all be right simultaneously - more and more of the tangible benefits of sleep are being catalogued and explored. Whether these benefits are the primary reason we sleep or are merely useful secondary outcomes is unknown, but it does not reduce their consequences.
One fascinating new discovery is that sleep helps people overcome painful memories. To be precise, the researchers at Berkley University found that during REM sleep we process emotional experiences with the result that these experiences reduce in pain and proximity. It would appear that REM sleep, the period of the sleep cycle where we experience our most vivid dreams, allows the brain to have some control over emotional memory, processing it and distancing ourselves from it.
The study not only used surveys, which are admittedly a less than perfect method of scientific enquiry, but also mapped brain activity using MRI. They found that people who’d seen something traumatic and had then slept had significantly less activity occurring in the area of the brain associated with emotion than those who’d seen the same traumatic event but had not been to sleep.
It seems that sleep can help with traumatic memories.
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