Getting a good night’s sleep is a typical recommendation during times of stress, especially after a unsettling or traumatic experience. A new study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, questions this standard thinking. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst showed 106 participants unsettling images, then showed them again 12 hours later. Subjects who stayed awake during those 12 hours had less emotional reactivity to the same stimuli than did subjects who went to sleep—particularly those who had more time in REM sleep. The same pattern was noted for recognition accuracy 12 hours later—it was better in participants who slept than in those who didn’t.  The study concludes that “sleep enhances emotional memory while preserving emotional reactivity.”

“It is common to be sleep-deprived after witnessing a traumatic scene, almost as if your brain doesn't want to sleep on it," said Rebecca Spencer, one of the authors of the study. In fact, going to sleep may “lock in” the negative emotions associated with the traumatic event.

Have you found this to be true in your practice? Do patients who get more rest after a negative event have a harder time recovering than those who get little sleep? Could insomnia be considered as a recommended treatment for people with PTSD?
Why did you choose to enter the field of psychology?
I was first interested in biology and especially in the brain. In my first behavioral neuroscience class, I felt that this field took on many of the questions that had always been interesting to me. Then I was given the chance to spend a summer as an undergraduate working on a study of people with aphasia. I realized then that I was really interested in neuropsychology.

What made you decide initially to develop the Memory for Intentions Test™ (MIST™)?
In working with people who have brain injury and asking them to set goals for rehabilitation, the problem of prospective memory, or memory for intentions, kept coming up. I wanted to understand what it was about completing an intention that was difficult for people with brain injury. At the time, there was no standardized measure available.

What would you like to tell people about your product that they may not know?
I think it is very useful as a clinical measure and has the ability to discriminate between different types of prospective memory failures in different populations; the alternate form makes it useful to measure efficacy of rehabilitation. But it is also a useful research measure and has been published in a number of studies with people with different disorders.

What would you like to tell people about yourself that they may not know?
I love the theater and one of my jobs during graduate school in New York City was sewing costumes. My kids got interested in theater, and my son even convinced me to be in a community theater production with him. My daughter still does plays, but my son is now focused on playing guitar.

How do you spend your free time?
I spend as much time as I can with my two children, ages 10 and 14, and my husband. We had the wonderful experience of spending six weeks together as a family in Rome this summer while I taught a course titled “The Arts and the Brain.” I spend time volunteering in my kids’ schools or in other community activities. I love to read novels, the more tragic the better.