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Psychologist Jessica Payne Researches Sleep and Memories

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Most adults say they can’t remember things as well as they used to. What they really mean is that they can’t remember anything for very long—and poor sleep may be the cause, according to new research from Jessica Payne, assistant psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame.

Payne says adequate sleep not only boosts or consolidates memories, making them easier to retrieve, it actually goes beyond that to reorganize and restructure memories so that people retain the most salient of those—often the most emotional parts of a memory.

“In our fast-paced society, one of the first things to go is our sleep,” says Payne, who specializes in how sleep impacts memory, creativity and the ability to process new ideas. “I think that’s based on a profound misunderstanding that the sleeping brain isn’t doing anything. But the sleeping brain appears to be making calculations about what in our environment is important to remember in the long term.”

Published recently in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Payne’s study also shows that the sleeping brain transforms our memories to render them more adaptive and useful, and restructures the information to help us see new patterns and develop new insights.

“Instead of simply preserving the information we experience and learn in veridical, high-fidelity format, our memories are flexible,” Payne says. “Sleep confers some of this flexibility to memory so that we can use what we know in new and creative ways.”

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