A new study suggests that smells can be used to trigger memories which will calm your fears as you sleep. Researchers trained volunteers to associate images, linked to different smells, with fear. They then were exposed to the smells during sleep, when the participants woke up they were less afraid of the image it was linked to.
Previous research has yielded evidence that memory and motor skills can be improved during sleep but, manipulating emotions is a new area. This technique could be used to help treat phobias and stress-related disorders.
In the study, 15 test subjects were shown two different faces. Simultaneously, they were subjected to a mild electric shock and a specific smell such as woody, new shoes, lemon, clove or mint. Next, the volunteers were monitored in a sleep lab as they slept while being exposed to the same smell when they were in deep sleep for between five and forty minutes. Deep sleep, or ‘slow wave’ sleep is known as the phase of sleep when we consolidate new memories or skills.
The next morning when the participants were shown the faces again, they showed less fear than before they were subjected to the smell while sleeping. The effect was more effective for those who remain in deep sleep longer.
Responses were measured through the amount of sweat on the skin and fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) brain scans. Changes were revealed in areas linked to memory, such as the hippocampus and in brain activity regions associated with emotion, such as the amygdala.
As the field of sleep research continues to grow, there may be many more new ways to help people. It’s exciting to watch the advancements in this very important field. Sleep is an important aspect of every part of your life.