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The Neuroscience of Forgetting Fear

The Neuroscience of Forgetting Fear


Today, we're delving into the fascinating world of neuroscience to uncover the intricate relationship between REM sleep and fear extinction. So, grab your favorite beverage, get comfy, and let's dive in!

Unraveling the Mystery of Fear Extinction

Have you ever wondered why some people are better at overcoming fearful memories than others? Well, it turns out that the quality of our sleep, particularly REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, might play a crucial role in this process. Let's break it down.

The Connection Between REM Sleep and Fear Extinction

Research has shown that REM sleep, the phase of sleep characterized by rapid eye movements and vivid dreaming, is closely linked to the consolidation of fear extinction memories. In simple terms, it helps us to overcome or "extinguish" our fearful responses to certain triggers or stimuli.

Imagine this: You're terrified of spiders because of a past traumatic experience. However, after a good night's sleep, you find that you're less anxious around spiders. This is where REM sleep likely comes into play, aiding in the process of fear extinction.

The Brain's Involvement in Fear Extinction

Now, let's talk about the specific brain region involved in fear extinction and its connection to REM sleep.

Meet the Infralimbic Cortex (IL)

The infralimbic cortex (IL) is a key player in the consolidation of extinction memory. Think of it as the control center for overcoming fearful memories. When this region of the brain is activated, it helps to suppress fear responses to previously fear-inducing stimuli.

Unveiling the Research Findings

So, what did the researchers discover about the relationship between REM sleep, the IL cortex, and fear extinction? Let's take a look at the findings.

Activation of IL Neurons During REM Sleep

Using advanced imaging techniques, the researchers found that a significant number of IL neurons are highly active during REM sleep. This suggests that REM sleep might directly influence the activity of the IL cortex, potentially enhancing its role in fear extinction.

Impact of REM-Specific IL Inhibition

Interestingly, when the researchers suppressed the activity of the IL cortex specifically during REM sleep after a fear-inducing event, they observed a weakened consolidation of extinction memory. This indicates that the timing of IL activity during REM sleep is crucial for the effective processing of fear extinction.

Uncovering the Implications

So, why does all of this matter? Understanding the intricate relationship between REM sleep, the IL cortex, and fear extinction has significant implications, especially in the context of trauma and PTSD.

Protecting Against Traumatic Memories

The findings highlight the importance of REM sleep in protecting against traumatic memories. Disruptions in REM sleep following a traumatic event could potentially increase the risk of developing PTSD, as REM sleep plays a vital role in the process of overcoming fearful experiences.

Wrapping It Up

In a nutshell, REM sleep isn't just about dreaming; it's a critical player in the consolidation of fear extinction memories. The activation of the IL cortex during REM sleep seems to be a key factor in this process, shedding light on the intricate workings of our brain when it comes to overcoming fear.

So, the next time you find yourself tossing and turning in bed, remember that your brain might be hard at work, helping you conquer your fears while you're in the midst of REM sleep.

And with that, we've reached the end of our journey into the fascinating realm of fear extinction and REM sleep. Until next time, keep exploring the wonders of the brain!

Remember, it's okay to be afraid, but it's also okay to let go of that fear. After all, your brain might just be getting some much-needed shut-eye to help you through it.

Stay curious, stay mindful, and keep dreaming (both in your sleep and in your waking hours)!

Citation: Jiso Hong et al., “Infralimbic Activity during REM Sleep Facilitates Fear Extinction Memory,” January 22, 2024,


  • REM Sleep: REM sleep stands for Rapid Eye Movement sleep, which is a phase of sleep characterized by rapid eye movements and vivid dreaming. It is an important stage of sleep that plays a crucial role in memory consolidation and emotional processing.

  • Fear Extinction: Fear extinction refers to the process of overcoming or "extinguishing" fearful responses to certain triggers or stimuli. It involves the gradual reduction of fear responses through learning and memory processes.

  • Imaging Techniques: Imaging techniques refer to various methods used to visualize and study the structure and function of the brain, such as MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) and fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging).

  • Cognitive Processes: Cognitive processes encompass a wide range of mental activities, including perception, attention, memory, language, problem-solving, and decision-making. These processes are essential for understanding and interpreting information.

  • Memory Consolidation: Memory consolidation is the process of stabilizing and strengthening newly acquired memories, making them more resistant to forgetting. It involves the transfer of information from short-term memory to long-term memory.

  • Emotional Processing: Emotional processing involves the regulation and interpretation of emotions, including the ability to recognize, understand, and respond to one's own and others' emotions. It plays a crucial role in emotional well-being and resilience.

  • Memory Formation: Memory formation refers to the process of encoding, storing, and retrieving information in the brain. It involves the creation of new memories through the integration of sensory, emotional, and cognitive experiences.

  • Interference: Interference occurs when new or existing memories disrupt the recall or retention of other memories. It can impact memory performance and the ability to retrieve specific information from the past.