Dreams Help You Mind-Read, Science Says

Dear CF,

Thought you might be interested in the following finding on dreaming, which I read today in Yahoo! News as I blearily sipped my tea:

A recent study by Walker and his colleagues examined how rest – specifically, rapid eye movement (REM) sleep – influences our ability to read emotions in other people’s faces. In the small analysis of 36 adults, volunteers were asked to interpret the facial expressions of people in photographs, following either a 60- or 90-minute nap during the day or with no nap. Participants who had reached REM sleep (when dreaming most frequently occurs) during their nap were better able to identify expressions of positive emotions like happiness in other people, compared with participants who did not achieve REM sleep or did not nap at all. Those volunteers were more sensitive to negative expressions, including anger and fear.

They noticed that sleep-deprived volunteers had reduced prefrontal activity. (Haven’t seen the actual paper, but this is obviously a different prefrontal area than the part which, when damaged, removes your ability to inhibit imitative actions set up by mirror neurons.) The article suggests that, without sleep, there’s an evolutionary advantage to remaining hyper-sensitive to negative emotion … all your available RAM goes into processing situations that might lead to harm.

It bolsters, in an interesting way, Vaillant’s claim in the Grant Study (which I wrote about here) that negative emotion has a more immediate payoff than positive emotion (remember the doctor who wouldn’t open the box full of his own testimonials?).

I’m interested, too, in how sleep, then, must affect what Gallese would call our “mind-reading” ability, “the activity of representing specific mental states of others, for example, their perceptions, goals, beliefs, expectations, and the like.”

I thought you’d be especially interested in the dreaming aspect of all this. The authors of the study suggest that dreams strip memories of their negative emotion. Which makes a sort of sense… particularly since (speaking totally subjectively, and I think you kind of agree with me) long periods of aimless or boring dreaming seem to me to correlate to periods of negative emotion. As soon as a little drama enters the picture, even if it’s an invasion of Indian ladies with casseroles, things seem to take a turn for the better. This makes me wonder, totally irresponsibly, about possible links between storytelling—narrative—and empathy.



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