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Roots of Empathy

Rebecca Spencer – Sleep on it! How children process emotions in their sleep

By September 3, 2019November 11th, 2019No Comments

Sleep on it! How children process emotions in their sleep



Dr. Spencer is the Principal Investigator of the Somneurolaband Associate Professor in the Psychology and Neuroscience & Behavior Program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She graduated from Purdue University’s Neuroscience graduate program, concentrating in neural control of movement. After graduating from Purdue with a PhD in neuroscience in 2002, she went to UC Berkeley where she was a postdoctoral fellow and research scientist in the Helen Wills Neuroscience Institute until 2008. Her postdoctoral work on neural control of motor sequence learning was funded by an NIH NRSA grant. Subsequently, she was awarded an NIH Pathways to Independence Award (K99/R00) for studies on the age-related changes in sleep-dependent consolidation of motor learning.

In 2008, Rebecca joined the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherstas an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 2013. Her current work is broadly on the functions of sleep, including topics such as the function of naps for preschool children and the role of age-related changes in sleep on age-related cognitive decline. For this work, she holds two NIH R01 awards and has over 60 publications.


We spend more than a quarter of our adult lives sleeping.  From infancy to childhood, an even greater amount of time is spent sleeping. While this may seem to be a rather unproductive use of time, recent research has exposed numerous functions of sleep on cognitive and emotional well-being. The brain is active during sleep, processing our waking experiences. Sleep, including daytime naps, serve this function even during development. In my talk, I discuss how sleep contributes to the critical emotion processing that takes place in childhood. This work points to a role of protecting and promoting sleep health as a target for improving emotional development.


Dr. Spencer offered these resources for anyone wanting to explore sleep some more:

Counting Sheep by Paul R. Martin


Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker


Sleep-dependent enhancement of emotional memory in early childhood – Nature – Scientific Reports

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