Dreams may not be the secret window into the frustrated desires of the unconscious that Sigmund Freud first posited in 1899, but growing evidence suggests that dreams - and, more so, sleep - are powerfully connected to the processing of human emotions.
Our daily existence is largely influenced by our ability "to understand our societal interactions, to understand someone else's emotional state of mind, to understand the expression on their face," says Ninad Gujar, a senior research scientist at Walker's lab and lead author of the study, which was recently submitted for publication. "These are the most fundamental processes guiding our personal and professional lives."
REM sleep appears to not only improve our ability to identify positive emotions in others; it may also round out the sharp angles of our own emotional experiences. Walker suggests that one function of REM sleep - dreaming, in particular - is to allow the brain to sift through that day's events, process any negative emotion attached to them, then strip it away from the memories. He likens the process to applying a "nocturnal soothing balm." REM sleep, he says, "tries to ameliorate the sharp emotional chips and dents that life gives you along the way."