Vail Symposium awakens new knowledge on sleep with Thursday program

By Kimberly Nicoletti
Special to the Daily
Sleep is great for helping to commit information to memory and for problem-solving.
Special to the Daily

Anyone skipping out on a good night’s sleep is also missing out on brain activity that helps increase daily performance, regulate emotion and aid memory.

Thursday evening, the Vail Symposium hosts Jessica Payne, an award-winning professor of psychology, who holds appointments at Harvard Medical School and the University of Notre Dame. As the director of the Sleep, Stress and Memory Lab, she will discuss why sleep is vital to our wellbeing, what happens in the brain while we sleep, how stress interferes and how we can improve our quality of sleep and foster more positive thoughts and emotions.

What happens in the brain during sleep?

Payne truly believes there’s something to the adage, “sleep on it.” Both the hippocampus, associated with learning and memory, and the amygdala, associated with processing emotions, are very active in the dream, or REM, state. Meanwhile, other areas of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex “all but shut down,” she said.

“The brain may be searching for unusual combinations,” she said about the dream state. Payne views dreams as “a window into memory consolidation, a way to integrate old and new and make meaning of life.”

As a result, many people try to leverage this brain activity “because it’s an interesting way, or combination, of the brain,” Payne said. For instance, painter Giovanni Salvi regularly fell asleep holding a spoon so he would drop it during REM sleep, when the major muscles become “paralyzed.” The noise would wake him up, which is when he would recall his dreams, so he could paint the images he witnessed.

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Why is sleep vital?

Payne said most people think sleep is a waste of time, but they’re wrong. It’s essential to our wellbeing, particularly emotional regulation and cognition.

Lack of sleep is a stressor, which increases cortisol, a stress hormone. It also leads people to prioritize negative information over neutral or positive information.

“In the short term, that’s okay. It worked for our ancestors’ survival,” Payne said. “But it becomes perpetual — a cognitive bias that tracks, encodes and remembers the negative, and that gets reinforced.”

How can we improve sleep?

Payne refers to insomnia as a sleep-stress snowball. It usually begins after or during a stressful event, which increases cortisol. After a couple nights of insomnia, the fear of not being able to sleep kicks in, which produces more stress hormones, which impact emotional regulation and cognition and memory negatively (as does lack of sleep —a double-whammy). Lack of sleep then leads to negative rumination, which increases stress. And so it goes.

To increase time spent sleeping, Payne suggests doing it in small increments: go to bed 20 minutes early, sleep 20 minutes late or both. She also recommends power naps — but only for 20 minutes, maximum, between approximately 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. (midday).

“A power nap works wonders for performance — it works better than adding (20 minutes) at the end or beginning of the sleep cycle. You get a 2 ½ time increase in performance,” she said, postulating that a midday nap “refreshes the brain by clearing the first half of the day, so you can approach the second half with a clear mind.”

For more in-depth information about what your brain is up to when your conscious mind isn’t watching, head to Vail Interfaith Chapel in Vail Thursday night.

If you go …

What: While You Are Sleeping: Your Brain’s Nocturnal Pursuits

When: Thursday, Feb. 20. Doors open at 5:30p.m.; program from 6 -7:30 p.m.

Where: Vail Interfaith Chapel, Vail

Cost: $25 in advance plus ticket fees; $35 plus ticket fees at midnight the night before the show and at the door.

More information: Visit for more information and to purchase tickets.

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