Thursday, November 16, 2006

The Science Fact of Sleep

After work today I walked up to the Yale Peabody Museum (the school-affiliated natural history museum) to hear a lecture given by a guy by the name of Robert Stickgold. He's a Harvard professor who does sleep research. A good, accessible lecture: articulate & shaded with that professorial kind of wit.

Sleep science is fascinating stuff, especially because not much research has been possible until recently, and very little is known about it still. One of Stickgold's powerpoint slides was headed "Early Theories (c. 1997)," which tells you something. From his talk it sounds like there's a coalescing sense of what sleep does to some extent, but not of how it does that. One thing I didn't know about previously is an apparent connection between sleep and quality of memory formation: some experimental evidence indicates a connection between a night's sleep and facility with learned tasks learned beforehand (word list memorization, simple mechanical tasks), and Stickgold also thinks from some of his other work that the brain is consolidating associations between concepts as well as doing some kind of problem solving work. As he says, every culture seems to have the concept of solving a problem by sleeping on it.

Sleep deprivation causes big problems with hormone regulation and other physiological processes. It's been known for a while that extreme sleep deprivation (from adult onset of congenital inability) causes death, but it's not clear why exactly that is. Stickgold's broad-stroke evolutionary explanation of sleep in general is that it's developed to provide an optimum environment for these complex biological functions.

You can watch him online in a not very elucidating but still kind of snazzy discussion with Michel Gondry, or read this six-year-old account of his experiment involving amnesiacs dreaming about Tetris. (Okay, mostly grad students, but some amnesiacs too.)


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