Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Recharging the Brain Battery

The 2006 film by Michel Gondry takes a fantastic look at the world of the unconscious mind.You're reading this, therefore you aren't dead.

You're reading this, therefore you're probably human.

If you're a living human being, you'll have spent a huge portion of your life sleeping. (Otherwise you'd fail the first premise.)

If you've slept, you've dreamt. Regardless of the frequency with which you dream, the fact remains that you have and probably still do. Little vacations from reality within your head, fodder for those of us paranoid about dementia, and ultimately experiences either pleasant or unpleasant and almost uniformly confusing by nature.

Sigmund Freud, father of modern psychology (And subject of some comedy in my forthcoming first novel), first posited 110 years ago in 1899 that dreams act as a sort of secret window into the unconscious mind's frustrated desires. Hence the cultural obsession we have with dream analysis. (I dreamed about flying! GET OUT OF MY OFFICE YOU WORTHLESS SCRAP OF- Uh, I guess it means you yearn for freedom. Yeah. Freedom isn't free. That'll be fifty bucks.)

As discussed last month at the annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Seattle, research has made evident that Freud was wrong. (What do you mean women don't suffer from anatomical envy-) Adequate sleep has been recently tied to the ability to process and understand complex emotions in waking life. (Undoubtedly part of why we get so irritable when we're sleep deprived as well.)

Director Matthew Walker of the Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab at the University of California, Berkeley, described sleep at the meeting as essentially being "resetting the magnetic north of your emotional compass." I for one prefer to think of it as recharging our brain's emotional battery.

A recent study by Walker and colleagues examined the relationship between REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep (In which our most vividly recalled dreams occur) and our ability to read the emotions on others' faces. Those who had experienced REM sleep in a recent nap as a part of the experiment were able to better identify positive emotions on people's faces in the photographs they were shown. The volunteers who did not achieve REM sleep or nap at all were more sensitive to negative expressions like anger and fear.

Past research has also indicated that activity in the prefrontal lobe - which is involved in the control of emotion - is significantly diminished in the sleep deprived. Walker suggests that this is evident - though to a lesser extent - in the research recently presented. He also suggested that this may be an evolved survival reaction to sleep deprivation, essentially becoming hypersensitive to any and all perceived potential threats when conserving mental energy. While on the other hand, being well-rested makes you more sensitive to positive things, which obviously play an important role in survival themselves.

As lead author of the study Ninad Gujar observed, these mental processes guide and impact our personal and professional lives, being key in our ability to understand social interactions, others' emotional state of mind, and read the expression on their face. None of us would get very far or accomplish much in our day to day existence without the capacity for these things.

Walker suggests that through this connection, REM sleep helps us to round out the sharper edges of our own emotional experiences in addition to better identify positive emotions in others. Dreaming that takes place during REM sleep is suggested to put the day's events through a mental sieve of sorts, sifting out any negative emotion and stripping it from memories. This process is key in humans achieving the kind of emotional resilience that they typically do, though one would imagine that anything more deeply traumatizing would present a challenge to even REM sleep. You don't forget the emotional experience itself, but the spine of the emotion has been removed. Failing to achieve REM sleep or having it disrupted, however, leads to anxiety overwhelming people.

These findings and theorizings are consistent with recent research conducted by Rebecca Bernert at Florida State University, who presented her own findings linking sleep deprivation - typically due to insomnia and nightmares - with suicidal feelings and behaviors. While this link has been made before, Bernert separated the insomnia and nightmare cases and found that nightmares are especially predictive of suicidal behavior. She suggested that they may also have something to do with how we process emotion in our dreams.

Walker suggests that if Bernert's right, her findings may help explain the problem of recurrent nightmares characterizing numerous psychiatric conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In these cases, it's possible that "the brain has not stripped away the emotional rind from that experience memory." And as a result, the brain continues its efforts to separate the intense negative emotions from the memory, creating a grating effect like a broken record, and producing the feeling that you cannot get over the experience. And thus, trauma.

This "rind" Walker describes is, in reality, sympathetic nervous system activity during sleep, which includes a faster heart rate and the body's release of stress chemicals. It's becoming clear that understanding the relationship between REM sleep and emotional processing - especially when it seems to perpetuate problems in the face of trauma - may be crucial in finding effective treatments for more difficult mental disorders. And ideally, addressing the problem of sleep may allow for the disruption of emotional cycles that can lead to suicide.

Ultimately, researchers are finding a seemingly clear two-way relationship between psychiatric disorders and disrupted sleep. Walker observes that historically, medicine and psychiatry have looked at psychological disorders as producing the sleep problems that often occur in tandem. These recent findings have shone light on that the relationship may in fact be the other way around.

I thought that these findings would be worth sharing, at any rate, since they're not only fascinating, but also relevant to my own writing. Dreams frequently take center stage in my first novel - as do memories - though largely as narrative devices, abstracted enough to ideally in some way resemble the genuine article. (Abstraction itself also being a central focus of the story.) They function as hazy pieces of a puzzle I hope to engage the reader through, the end goal being encouraging them to piece things together themselves as the characters make their own efforts to comprehend their unconscious experiences.


CrazyCris said...

Sleep is also very important for your physical condition!

When I was layed up last year thanks to a herniated disc, one of the things my doctor prescribed (along with anti-inflammatory meds, painkillers and some fisio sessions), were sleeping pills! Apparently my bad sleeping habits (as in not sleeping well, waking up not rested) had a weekening effect on my physiology... rendering me more susceptible to injuries, sickness etc.

So sleep GOOD!!! Now if only I could figure out a way to add more hours into the day so I could catch a few more ZZZZZZZZs... ;o)

Benjamin Fennell said...

I know what you mean, haha. I managed to sleep for maybe 9-10 hours yesterday - far more than usual - but I spent most of today tossing and burning and got maybe 3-4 hours of sleep tops. Hoping to sleep better tonight and get more of my book revisions done earlier on so I don't stay up as late.

Full nights of sleep are far too rare for me. I can always go for more.

"Carrie Blackshaw" said...

That was a really interesting post. I know I don't get nearly enough sleep. I dream a lot and have reoccuring dreams too. Maybe I should lend myself to science! Either way starting monday night I've been trying to get at least 8 hours. I didn't suceed last night haha

Benjamin Fennell said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I like to do science posts here and there - there's a lot of interesting discoveries being made these days, especially in neuroscience, the lovely brain field. Really fascinating to learn about all the connections they're making in how we function on that level.

I've had sleep problems for some time myself, but I'm continually working on them. It can be tough to balance things - I need to spend more time awake in the day and sleeping at night, but I tend to only get into the frame of mind to work on writing fairly late at night. (And studies have found that the brain's more creative late at night, too, haha.)