This year I’ll be an official meeting blogger for the Society for Neuroscience conference in Washington, D.C from November 11-15. I’ll be focusing primarily on Themes F (Integrative Physiology and Behavior) and G (Motivation and Emotion), but also writing about anything else that catches my eye at the meeting. Expect a lot of posts on the latest in sleep and circadian rhythms, their relationship to neurological and psychiatric disorders, and innovative approaches to solving big data problems in neuroscience.
Follow along on SfN’s Neuronline website, my Twitter @mangoraysan and this page for meeting updates!
I did my best to ignore the cutting pain from the rope binding my arms and legs as I tried to listen in on what my captors had planned for me. From beneath the bottom of my blindfold, I could barely make out a few pairs of legs pacing around the room, but the gag in my mouth kept me from crying out for help.
“Maybe we should throw him in the river,” said one disembodied voice, with a thick Italian-Brooklyn accent Scorsese would be proud of. “Nah,” called another. “How about the wood chipper?”
The pacing stopped and the legs approached. Now hands gripped me tightly, hauling me off to my final resting place. I tried to squirm free, but the ropes only tightened around my chest, and as the breath left my lungs I felt the world around me slowly dim and go dark.
Sleep paralysis and conscious states
When I regained consciousness, I was happy to find myself safely in my bedroom, and annoyed to find that my kidnappers had made me late to work. Of course, I hadn’t really been abducted by bad stereotypes of Brooklyn mobsters – the whole thing was a dream.
More specifically, the incident I’ve just described was a case of sleep paralysis. Each night, we have multiple bouts of rapid-eye movement (REM) sleep, during which our memories from the previous day are consolidated, and when most of our dreams occur. Normally, neurons in the brainstem send inhibitory signals to our muscles, effectively causing paralysis and preventing us from acting on our dreams. Sleep paralysis occurs when these physiological processes get mistimed, and the brain “wakes up” while simultaneously sending inhibitory signals to the motor system.
The result is conscious awareness of being completely paralyzed, accompanied by vivid dream-like hallucinations of the kind I’ve just described, and often, even worse. In fact, many reported cases of hauntings, demonic possession and alien abduction throughout history are now presumed to have been particularly bad cases of sleep paralysis.
This incident and many others like it I’ve experienced over the years were critical to driving my interest in studying the function of the brain. How is it that the brain is capable of producing such a wide range of conscious states? How do things like sleep, disease and hallucinogens alter consciousness to cause such strange subjective experiences? Why are we conscious? Are animals conscious? What even IS consciousness?
The science of consciousness
Although an exact definition of consciousness is hard to pin down, for the purposes of this post we’ll call it subjective experience – that is, your ability to think, feel emotion, be self-aware, perceive, sense and interact with the world around you.
The problem of consciousness, which has been relegated to the realms of religion and philosophy for centuries, came into the world of neuroscience thanks to Francis Crick (of DNA and Rosalind-Franklin-credit-stealing fame) and Christof Koch. In 1990, they proposed that consciousness was a physically tractable problem, and could be explained entirely in terms of the brain. They suggested that brain regions controlling visual attention and short-term memory would be good places to start looking for the neural correlates of consciousness, or NCC.
Since their original publication, a wave of studies has come out implicating multiple different brain regions and physiological signatures in underlying consciousness. Researchers have approached the problem by examining sleep, anesthesia, vision, attention, psychiatric disease and hallucinations. They’ve tried to parse the problem into more manageable chunks by examining brain regions necessary for consciously perceiving specific events, rather than for being conscious in general. Studies have even looked at patients in comas or vegetative states to try and understand how their altered brain function diminishes conscious awareness. Still, consciousness is a hard problem, and the mind-boggling interconnectedness between brain regions guarantees that identification of the definitive NCC is far in the future.
Integrated information theory, panpsychism and the conscious universe
The experimental difficulties involved in pinning down the NCC have made theoretical approaches to the problem of consciousness especially attractive. In 2004, Italian neuroscientist and psychiatrist Giulio Tononi put forth a theoretical framework for consciousness called integrated information theory (IIT). Rather than starting with the brain and explaining consciousness in terms of cells and synapses, IIT proposes core components of subjective experience and makes inferences about what is required for its physical manifestation.
I won’t get too deep into detail (you can read the latest on IIT here), but put very simply, the big idea is that a conscious experience exists intrinsically, and is composed of multiple distinct phenomena that are specific and irreducible to their constituent parts. For example, you may have an experience of going to a music festival that includes a band onstage, a cold drink in your hand, bright lights and Day-Glo paint, and your friends wearing bad stereotypes of Native American headdresses. However, breaking your festival experience up into these individual pieces doesn’t capture the experience you had.
The features of a conscious experience require that its physical substrate must have cause-effect power within itself. In other words, one piece of the system should be able to cause effects, and be affected by, its neighboring pieces. Like a conscious experience itself, this cause-effect power must be irreducible, which endows the system with the ability to integrate information. The degree to which the system integrates information is denoted by the Greek letter φ, where higher φ indicates a system is “more conscious” and φ of zero implies a system has no consciousness at all. As you might expect, the qualities of the brain endow it with high φ. This mathematical formalization of consciousness has allowed for the development of clinical tools to assess levels of consciousness in comatose and vegetative patients, an extremely important problem in medicine.
There have been plenty of criticisms leveled at IIT, and most likely it doesn’t fully explain conscious experience. Still, Giulio Tononi and Christof Koch have recently added a nice thick layer of weirdness to the conversation by suggesting that the natural conclusion of IIT is panpsychism. Panpsychism is an ancient theory dating back to philosophers like Plato that claims consciousness is a fundamental property of all things in the universe. As I mentioned earlier, IIT is a theory of consciousness, not the brain. So, any number of physical objects could meet the requirements of IIT, and thus be conscious. Indeed, everything from lowly protons to advanced computing systems has been suggested to have some degree of consciousness (some readers may note the similarities to East Asian schools of thought like Dzogchen Buddhism and certain aspects of Shinto). Take a second to digest the idea that everything around you is conscious, and that you are just one mind in a world of minds. Bizarre, right?
Christof Koch is coming to my class to lead a discussion on consciousness and I’m really stoked
So why am I writing about consciousness now? As it turns out, Christof Koch will be in my Cognitive Neuroscience class tomorrow (5/19) to lead a discussion on consciousness and its biological underpinnings. These kinds of discussions about “the big questions” in neuroscience (and this big question, in particular) are what got me excited about being a scientist in the first place. After experiencing some frustration with spending a lot of time in class (instead of the lab) and getting bogged down in the minutiae of highly specific topics, this kind of high-level discussion should be a breath of fresh air. Not to mention, I’m a huge nerd and have read Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist and Phi: A Voyage from the Brain to the Soul about 5 times each.
Christoff is a pretty big deal in the science world, and I imagine not too many people outside his circle get the chance to have these kinds of discussions with him, least of all first-year grad students. Because I expect this to be an interesting and likely controversial topic, I’m inviting anyone reading to share with me any specific questions they might have for Christof. I’ll do my best to work them into discussion tomorrow, and follow up on this with a post about how it went.
I don’t watch much TV, but I recently found myself watching a rerun of the popular History Channel show, Ancient Aliens. I figured it would be good for a laugh, and it definitely didn’t disappoint. The episode in question focused on regions that have historically been plagued by violent conflict, what the show refers to as “Forbidden Zones”. The show focused heavily on the Middle East, and suggested that aliens may somehow be inciting violence in Middle Eastern countries to prevent them from discovering some extraterrestrial secret hidden in the region. All of this is set to ominous music and over-dramatic narration. So far, pretty standard fare for Ancient Aliens.
Just when I thought things couldn’t get any more insane, the show cuts to an interview with a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology discussing optogenetics. I won’t go into a long explanation of optogenetics here, but the short and sweet version is this: light-sensitive proteins normally found in algae are inserted into neurons using a virus, allowing the neuron to convert light energy into a change in electrical potential. The result is researchers’ ability to selectively and instantaneously “turn on and off” different populations of neurons in the brain using light. The approach is revolutionizing our understanding of the structural and functional organization of the brain, and how this organization ties into behavior and disease.
The researcher goes on to explain a study that identified a region in the mouse brain that, when stimulated optogenetically, incited aggressive behavior. The show then cuts to a description of a 2015 study demonstrating that 5-8% of the human genome consists of exogenous viral genes. The logical, totally-reasonable-for-broadcast-on-national-television conclusion of Ancient Aliens? Long ago, aliens implanted viral DNA in human beings so they could optogenetically manipulate our behavior via a gigantic, invisible laser beam they’re controlling from the next galaxy over. I mean, why else would there be so much violence in the Middle East?
Once I caught my breath after laughing with my roommate (who is also training to be a neuroscientist) for a few minutes straight, the sad reality of what I was watching set in. I know Ancient Aliens is mindless trash (as is the vast majority of television), but the fact that such important technologies and discoveries were being bastardized and presented to a wide audience as evidence for conspiracy theories was yet another obnoxious symptom of a much bigger problem.
Science and Politics
Innovations in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), such as optogenetics, are dramatically changing our everyday lives, and present a huge number of ethical and social dilemmas. Successfully navigating these dilemmas requires a scientifically-informed public, and yet more and more misconceptions about science are spread and accepted in popular culture. Perhaps most disturbingly, the individuals who control the funding sources that make STEM innovation possible, and are responsible for the policies that will decide how these dilemmas are to be navigated, seem to be the ones that understand it the least. Politicians, I’m looking at you.
I probably don’t need to tell you that the current political landscape in the U.S. is a complete mess. Politics, which are largely driven by emotions and special interests, are more polarized today than at most other times in recent history. The role of science (at its best) is to make observations and draw conclusions about the world based on logic rather than subjective view points. From the “debate” over the causes of climate change (it’s human activity, guys) to the insistence by some that intelligent design be taught in public schools, it should come as no surprise that science and politics don’t exactly play nice. A recent NPR opinion piece by astrophysicist Adam Frank sums up this issue perfectly:
“The problem is that we appear to be stumbling in our attempts to deal with the supremely difficult collective choices science and technology continually shove in our faces. Since the operative phrase here is ‘collective choices’ — decisions made through democratic processes — here are a few questions to consider:
What group gets to tell us if (and how) we’ll live with genetically modified foods?
Who decides if (and how) genetically modified humans are OK? Cloning?
Where does the policy determining limits for electronic surveillance get set?
Who decides if we can use robots in warfare or for police work or in the home?
…The political battle over the science of climate change makes it clear how vast the chasm is separating how science understands the world from how politics acts in the world…
What makes this gulf all the more frightening is that the climate issue is only one of the existential questions we face. Genetics, robotics, big data, artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, energy modalities — each one has the capacity to drive radical shifts in our culture. All of these may — in fact — pose fundamental dangers to human culture. Or they may lift us all up. It depends on the choices we make.”
– Adam Frank, “A Problem Like No Other: Science And Politics”, NPR.
Adam goes on to make the important point that the solution isn’t simply for politicians to pay more attention to what scientists are saying – scientists are being heard, and in many cases, are ignored. The key is to bridge the gap between how science actually works and the public’s perception of it. This is especially critical in a presidential election cycle where the policies of each candidate lean towards the more extreme views of their respective parties, and the winner will likely have a huge role in determining the answers to the questions above. So what can you, as someone who is interested in science and/or at least understands the magnitude of this problem, do about it?
Don’t Believe Every Headline You Read
This one might seem obvious, but I’m always amazed at how often I see popular science articles that distort the facts posted and re-posted by smart people. Fortunately or unfortunately, it’s common practice in journalism to come up with headlines that grab readers’ attention. These headlines are prone to overstating or fudging facts, and when it comes to science news, this can be especially problematic. A great example is this recent article (and many others like it) that claims scientists can now erase painful memories. A careful read of the article (and if you’re feeling ambitious, a quick glance at the study it describes) makes it obvious that this isn’t exactly true. But in today’s scroll-happy, clickbait culture, the headline is likely to be the only thing that sticks in the mind of most readers. Rule of thumb: if a headline seems too fantastical to be completely true, it probably isn’t.
Support Open Source Scientific Publishing
One of the biggest reasons for the scientific knowledge gap is the fact that most of the latest studies are hidden behind paywalls. Thanks to the Internet, having to either attend a major university or pay tens of thousands of dollars a year to get access to high-impact scientific journals is becoming a thing of the past. PLOS One is a great example of a journal not only making scientific information free to the public, but providing quality content about STEM innovation written in plain English. Until the rest of the scientific publishing world catches up, we’ll probably continue to see more stories like this one about a Russian neuroscientist who illegally shared millions of scientific journal articles online to spread knowledge.
Demand More From Politicians
It’s all fine and dandy that so much of the current political climate centers around issues like which presidential candidates get their money from where. But let’s not forget that if we don’t decide what to do about climate change or the eventual rise of human genome editing, none of that is going to matter. There are plenty of polls out there showing voters want to see more debate around scientific issues, and signing petitions like this one is a simple contribution towards making this happen. If you’re really feeling motivated, consider writing about these issues to politicians that represent your area. And most importantly (and I shouldn’t have to tell you this), vote.
If You’re A Scientist (or anyone working in a STEM field) , Get Out of the Lab and Into the World
This one is obviously geared towards those of you who studied or are studying science, although it’s probably a safe bet that that’s most of the people reading this. Adam Frank makes the point that formal scientific training includes next to nothing in the way of teaching scientists to communicate their work to wide audiences and thinking critically about the social and cultural impacts of their work. If you’re involved in STEM, find time to step away from the bench and tell people what you do. Get involved in science writing or start a blog. Give public lectures. Share your research with friends and family. Blur the line between science and art. Hell, get involved in politics. We need scientists working in science policy now more than ever.
Take Your Science Education Into Your Own Hands
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to be a genius to understand what’s going on in the science world (I’m definitely not). Taking free, entry-level science courses on Coursera or MIT OpenCourseWare are great ways to enhance your basic understanding of topics you care about. Also, chances are good that someone in your immediate circle of friends and family understands more about science than you do. Don’t be afraid to ask them questions.
Currently Reading: At Play in the Fields of the Lordby Peter Matthiessen. Set in the South American rain forest, this 1965 novel follows the story of a clash between a Christian missionary and a stateless mercenary over the fate of a native hunter-gatherer tribe. Matthiessen deals expertly with heavy issues surrounding religion, imperialism and the human need to belong, and still manages to weave an entertaining and fast-paced narrative.
The Internet is rife with bloggers and columnists discussing the importance of becoming a meta-learner; that is, someone who actively seeks awareness about how they learn best, and leverages this awareness to become a more effective learner. This IS important. I’m hugely inspired by these sorts of strategies and ideas, and I’ll be coming back to this in a later post. But I want to call attention to a very different reason why learning about learning is important.
Recently, I had to write a government grant proposal about a research topic I’d like to pursue in graduate school. In general, these sorts of things make for pretty dull writing experiences that require endless hours poring over dry academic literature. However, this grant demands that the writer think broadly about the ways their research may impact society. I’ve long been fascinated by how we are able to learn, store and recall information, and how these processes are regulated from the level of molecules to human behavior. Medical implications of discoveries in this area are clear – if we understand how learning and memory normally work, we can figure out where they go wrong in conditions like Alzheimer’s, autism and traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately, the Broader Impacts section of my grant was not going to be this simple to write, as the grant demands that the research not have any kind of medical focus whatsoever.
This sad fact forced me to ask myself: why else should anyone care about learning about learning? Meta-learning and effective skill acquisition are a couple of great reasons: maybe you want to become a world-class swimmer in 10 days or read 300% faster in 20 minutes, and maybe learning about learning would help you accomplish these things. And that would be great for you. While I fully support your efforts to learn the four guitar chords that make up just about every pop song in record time, I propose to you that learning about learning may end up being one of the single most important factors in curtailing ever-increasing socioeconomic disparities in the U.S. and abroad. Does this sound like a total stretch? It probably is, but let me unpack my thinking a bit, starting with some background about how memories form in the brain.
The Science of Memory
The hippocampus is a paired, seahorse-shaped structure in the mammalian brain that scientists have long thought to be the key structure involved in the acquisition and consolidation of short and long term memories. Through an electrochemical signaling process called long-term potentiation, neural circuits housed in the hippocampus encode information into memories that are eventually transferred to regions of the cerebral cortex for long-term storage.
The importance of the hippocampus was established in part thanks to H.M., a man who had his hippocampi removed to cure his intractable epilepsy, and was subsequently unable to form new memories. Countless laboratory studies have since demonstrated the importance of the hippocampus in memory formation. Unlike most other parts of the brain, the hippocampus is unique in that it has the ability to grow new brain cells throughout an organism’s lifespan, a process called neurogenesis. The integrity of this process is critical for the hippocampus to maintain normal function.
Anyone who has found themselves in a financial hole knows that it can be difficult to escape, and it turns out that the reasons for this may be rooted just as deeply in biology as they are in socioeconomics. Early in 2015, scientists from Columbia University in New York City confirmed what many others had long suspected: children from low-income families, which tend to be disproportionately ethnic minorities, have a lower overall brain volume and decreased capacity for memory than their wealthier counterparts. The researchers suggest that this difference may begin while a child is still in the womb. Considering what we know about the effects of stress on our ability to learn, it’s not hard to imagine why people of lower socioeconomic status often struggle to improve their financial situation (hint: it’s not just because they can’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps”).
From the Bench to The Hill
One way to break this cycle is revamping and improving the effectiveness of our educational system. If we understand more about how the brain works to learn and remember, and especially how differences in environmental stressors like socioeconomic disparity play into this, we can craft better, scientifically-informed educational policies that are designed to directly address these differences.
Of course, few would deny that many of the root causes of socioeconomic disparity in America are deeply entrenched in political corruption, institutionalized racism and the greed of a select few. Obviously, learning about how learning works in the brain is not going to solve social injustice. Still, as our understanding of complex human behaviors like learning becomes more sophisticated, neuroscientists will have an increasingly important role to play in the conversations surrounding issues of social justice and public policy. And while we’re at it, maybe someone can figure out why Antonin Scalia hasn’t yet learned that we’re no longer in the year 1950.
George Carlin’s take on wealth disparity and the American Dream:
Music video for Radiohead’s All I Need. Social injustice may be a huge problem in the U.S., but the unfortunate reality is that things can always be worse:
As of a few days ago, I am officially one twentieth (approximately) of the way through my PhD program. I mentioned in a previous post that coming to the University of Washington’s graduate program in neuroscience was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I had a fantastic experience during my first quarter – I performed research I truly care about, met a lot of great people, had the opportunity to learn more about myself while adjusting to life in a new city, and did it all with relatively low levels of stress.
Still, at this point, it’s hard to say if going to graduate school really was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The truth is that I’ve only just begun, and my interests and goals (like most people’s) will morph and change as time goes on, and likely won’t even be recognizable a few years from now. Graduate school, and PhD programs especially, are extremely long-term commitments that require a singular focus on a very specific topic. As such, the decision to go to graduate school shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Because I know so many people that are either considering or planning to enter a PhD program in the near future, I thought I’d put together a list of a few important questions I asked myself that helped me reach my decision. This list is geared towards those thinking about pursuing education beyond a Bachelor’s, but the questions here are really applicable to evaluating any major life decisions you might be facing.
Are you doing this because “you should”, or because you want to?
The first, and maybe the most obvious question to ask yourself when deciding to pursue a PhD (or any major career or lifestyle decision) is why you actually want to do it. I’ve noticed many people tend to pursue advanced degrees after college because it’s what their peers are doing, they want to postpone getting a “real job”, or they think it’s their only option – in short, because they feel like they “should”.
Do things because you want to, not because you should. Especially if that thing is committing five years of your life to a PhD program. Otherwise, you’re doing a disservice to yourself and the people that are counting on you to produce quality work. In a college environment, pressure from professors to pursue advanced study will probably be high, especially if you’re already performing research. Don’t get sucked into this world if it’s not what you want. I’ll admit that part of what initially led me down this road was momentum and a sense that going to grad school was something I should do. Fortunately I realized this, and it turned out that I had several legitimate reasons why I felt going to grad school was for me. Still, if you don’t think carefully about the reasons for your decision, you may realize it’s not for you after you’ve already begun.
Do you really need that advanced degree to pursue the work you’re interested in?
The truth is, the information age is changing the way knowledge is created and disseminated. It’s perfectly feasible to identify free online education resources, put your nose to the grind, and bring to life that new app idea or computationally model the latest theories in astrophysics. Check out this site for a great perspective and interesting self-experimentation with what this might look like. Of course, if you’re like me and your line of work involves hazardous chemicals, expensive equipment and living test subjects, this won’t necessarily apply.
Are you independent and self-motivated?
Starting a PhD or embarking on a radical career change will undoubtedly involve a great deal of independent and self-motivated work. Unlike in the undergraduate environment, no one is going to make you come to class or give you regular tests. Science in particular tends to be a bit of a solo endeavor at times, so if you need someone to hold you accountable in order to be productive or if you dislike spending time in your own head, you may want to think twice about grad school.
Are you comfortable living a minimalist lifestyle?
It’s common for people to graduate college and feel like they need to immediately enter the workforce, make a bunch of money and start saving for retirement (which is an absurd idea anyway). If this is your mentality, going to graduate school is definitely not for you. Graduate stipends aren’t very high, particularly for non-STEM fields. You’ll make enough money to survive, but if you can’t handle living modestly then steer clear.
Can you be flexible and open-minded about job prospects after you graduate?
Many people enter grad school with the intention of one day becoming a tenured professor at a university. Unfortunately, there are far fewer tenure-track academic jobs than there are qualified applicants. Contrary to what most people may think, the job market for freshly-minted PhDs is incredibly bleak, especially if you’re entering the life sciences or the humanities. It’s important to keep an open mind about career paths outside of academia after graduation. For example, I’m really interested in science writing and science policy as alternatives or in addition to performing research. Branching Points (created by a former UW Neuroscience graduate student) and The Verstile PhD are great resources for exploring options beyond the ivory tower.
What actually makes you happy?
When I was applying to programs, I had a professor tell me that getting a PhD requires you to abandon everything else in your life and pour all of your time and energy into research. He even told me that if I didn’t become a socially awkward recluse, I’d be doing it wrong.
Not only is this mentality inaccurate, it’s completely toxic. Based on my limited personal experience and conversations with others, one of the single most important things to consider is methods for keeping your life full outside of graduate school. When I came to UW, another professor told me that the students who work 80 hours a week and never leave the lab are the ones who are more likely to burn out and leave their program. Too many students allow their egos to get wrapped up in their science, are unable to cope when things don’t go the way they’re supposed to and nothing else is there to fill the void.
If you’re thinking about grad school, pause and first think about what fulfills you outside of academics. Make sure you can make time while you’re in school to pursue creative endeavors, get plenty of exercise, and travel outside of your comfort zone. Be willing to be honest with yourself about your level of satisfaction with the graduate school experience, and to explore exit strategies if the bad times begin to outweigh the good. Surround yourself with supportive friends and family, and never be willing to sacrifice your own happiness for the sake of adding a few extra letters to the end of your name.
If anyone has questions about how I adjusted and am currently adjusting to life as a grad student, or wants to share their own tips, feel free to contact me and I’ll either get back to you directly or address your questions in a future post.
Currently listening to: José González Tiny Desk Concert. “With the Ink of a Ghost” is absolutely haunting, and I can’t get it out of my head.
Currently reading: A Primate’s Memoir: A Neuroscientist’s Unconventional Life Among the Baboonsby Robert Sapolsky. A Stanford neuroscientist recounts stories from decades of summers spent studying baboons in the East African bush. Part pop science introduction to primate behavior, part love letter to East Africa, Sapolsky’s writing is unbelievably vivid and poetic, and is currently inspiring me to rethink the kinds of research I’ll want to pursue in the future.
Although it’s only been about a month and a half, I feel comfortable saying that coming to the University of Washington to study neuroscience was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my short, mostly indecisive life. I’ve been lucky to interface with some of the world’s leading neuroscientists on a daily basis and learn from them about topics like vision, decision-making, sleep, drug addiction, brain tumors, virtual reality, memory, robotics and artificial intelligence.
After a whirlwind first couple of weeks spent completing last-minute fellowship applications, heading into the Cascade mountains for science retreats and exploring Seattle, I’ve finally started to get settled in. The first year of the program requires “rotating” through three different labs, where I’ll need to complete a series of mini-projects. Come June 2016, I’ll have to decide on a thesis lab, where I’ll spend the next few years trying to answer a new question about how the brain works.
My first rotation is with circadian neurobiologist Horacio de la Iglesia, where we’re studying sleep architecture and circadian rhythm in Dravet syndrome. The disease, which is caused by a single genetic mutation, causes severe childhood epilepsy, symptoms of autism spectrum disorders (ASD), learning impairment and sleep disruption. The goal of the project is to better characterize how sleep is affected by this mutation at a neurobiological level in the hope that sleep-based therapies can be developed for patients with epilepsy, autism and learning disorders.
Although my focus is on the Dravet syndrome project, the de la Iglesia lab has recently been in the news for a very different set of discoveries. In August, Horacio and his colleagues published a study demonstrating that access to artificial light in a traditionally hunter-gatherer society is linked to shorter sleep duration. The team studied two separate communities of the Toba tribe residing about 30 miles apart in the Argentinian Chaco. One had access to electricity and artificial light while the other didn’t, but they were otherwise ethnically and socioeconomically very similar.
By fitting participants with actimeters (basically, fancy wrist watches that can detect movement and other physiological or environmental indicators that the wearer is asleep) and asking them to fill out daily journals, the researchers were able to gather information about sleep stage, duration, onset and wake time. Participants in the tribe with access to artificial light got about an hour of sleep less on average than the tribe without, while both tribes tended to sleep longer in the winter than the summer. While there are plenty of laboratory studies out there suggesting that artificial light disrupts sleep, this study was one of the first to investigate these effects in a natural setting.
Still, others think that these concerns are probably completely overblown. Just two months after Horacio’s study was published, another group study out of UCLA reported that three different hunter-gatherer tribes without access to artificial light at similar latitudes in Tanzania, Namibia and Bolivia don’t sleep any more than modern humans in industrialized societies. As in the Toba study, the team used actimeters to gather information about sleep duration, ambient light and temperature. The findings were widely reported by a number of different news outlets.
While these results may be captivating, particularly to the typical screen-addicted modern human, the authors get a little overzealous when they make the claim that:
“the observed patterns are not unique to their particular environmental or cultural conditions but rather are central to the physiology of humans living in the tropical latitudes of the San and Hadza groups, where our species evolved…sleep in industrial societies has not been reduced below a level that was normal for most of our species’ evolutionary history”.
There are a number of big problems with this suggestion. First, it assumes that the fundamental physiology underlying sleep hasn’t changed much, if at all, in the approximately 2 million years since humans began migrating out of Africa. While that may be a blink of an eye on an evolutionary time scale, there’s no reason to think that the staggering array of social and environmental conditions humans across the planet have faced in the last 2 million years wouldn’t place extraordinary selective pressure on certain characteristics of sleep. Second, the study relied solely on actimeters to determine sleep and wake times, which present a number of technical problems and sources of error that can be ameliorated by coupling them with a sleep diary like the one in the Toba study. Third and most important (though definitely not last – there are number of problems with their statistical analyses I won’t go into here), the study didn’t include any control groups with access to electricity and artificial light to compare the three tribes against. Without this crucial control, it’s hard to make any definitive conclusions about how modernization has or hasn’t changed our sleeping patterns.**
While this debate may remain open-ended, it’s probably safe to say that shutting off your computer, smartphone, tablet, television or any other screen you may feel a compulsion to incessantly check before bed wouldn’t hurt. Of course, there are a number of compromises out there for screen junkies like myself, such as f.lux. But if there’s any bit of simple practical advice I can offer after spending the last couple of months studying circadian rhythms, I’d say that assaulting your retinas with social media feeds full of asinine bullshit like this probably won’t help you fall and stay asleep.
** Little disclaimer: I should note that these are my own views, and don’t necessarily reflect those of Horacio de la Iglesia or anyone else on his team.
Evolutionary psychologist, author and podcaster Christopher Ryan talking about hunter-gatherer societies (though not about sleep). I recommend checking out more of his stuff if you’re at all interested in the kind of research described above:
After many months of anticipation, my final few days as a Tucsonan are upon me. On September 16th, I’ll be leaving Tucson for Seattle to begin graduate school. While I’m incredibly excited to move to a new city and start my graduate work, I’m saddened and slightly anxious at the idea of leaving behind my family, friends and the place I’ve called home for nearly my entire life. As I make final preparations for the move, I’m finding strength and resolve in reflecting on an experience I had earlier this summer.
From May 18 to June 26, I was lucky enough to backpack around Europe with three of my best friends. We decided to begin our trip with a six-day biking tour of Ireland’s west coast. Our planned route took us through three counties and multiple towns and cities, totaling nearly 170 miles of total travel. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not in great physical shape, and none of us engaged in any kind of serious preparation beforehand (myself perhaps least of all). The night before we began, I was unsure about whether I was actually up for the task.
We set out on the first day from the town of Westport, heading south through Galway County towards Connemara National Park. It was a pretty rude awakening – 36 miles in all, half of which was through freezing cold rain, heavy wind and uphill climbs. Despite the challenges, the Irish countryside proved to be more beautiful than any of us could have imagined. Every painful mile was rewarded with an even more gratifying landscape – rolling green hills dotted with ancient ruins, endless bogs, deep blue lakes and plant life that had a bizarrely tropical appearance. We arrived at our hostel that day soaking wet from head to toe, and I felt the most intense physical exhaustion I’ve ever experienced. I realized pretty quickly that this tour was going to be a test of my mental toughness, perhaps even more so than my physicality.
This proved true on Day 2, a 21-mile journey to the small town of Clifden. Although the weather, terrain and distance were much more agreeable, each stroke of the pedals was by sheer force of will against my screaming leg muscles. Breaking the journey up with a little hike through Connemara National Park definitely helped, and Clifden ended up being full of friendly people and great live music.
By Day 3, I felt more fit than I had in nearly a year. My legs were strong and defined, my body lighter and more agile. The passing of miles was becoming more of a meditation than a chore. As I typically biked in complete silence (lagging behind my friends who were in way better shape), I began to notice things about my body and mind I never had before – things I was neglecting as a chronically busy, over-committed college senior. I noticed my thought process becoming sharper and more focused on the present, and my body and mind began to work together more effectively.
Of course, this serenity was short-lived. About 10 miles into a long stretch of seldom-traveled country road, the tube in my back tire blew out. We had two spare tubes and attempted to replace the bad one, but both of them blew out while we were trying to re-inflate the tire. Forrest’s tire blew out shortly after, but luckily we were able to patch his up. Since we were in a rush to catch a 6 pm ferry in the next town over, I spent the last 15 miles of the day riding on a flat. Not only did it make biking that much more difficult, I imagine it was comparable to sitting on a jackhammer. Not something I recommend.
Day 4 found us biking around the Aran island of Innis Mór, a little land mass off the West coast where all the locals speak Gaelic. This was a relatively laid back day that included a visit to the 1,000 year old stone fort Dún Aonghasa. At the end of the day we caught a ferry back to the mainland so we could bike to our next destination. With about 7 miles to go until our hostel, the rear derailleur on Ian’s bike broke in half, completely mangling his chain. He had to walk almost the rest of the way to the hostel (some Eastern Europeans were nice enough to tow him in towards the end), and the next morning we went back to the town the ferry dropped us off in the day before so he could get his bike fixed.
The second half of Day 5 was by far the biggest challenge of the trip. Once Ian’s bike was working, we began an 11 mile ride to the Cliffs of Moher, a massive cliff face towering 702 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. 11 miles may not be a long distance, but the steep near-vertical climb, blinding rain and fog, gale force winds and chronic exhaustion made it feel endless. This pushed me to what was, up to that point, my absolute physical and mental limit. I put every last bit of my energy into completing that climb to the top, completely eliminating from my consciousness every last bit of information that wasn’t directly relevant to the task at hand.
Finally we all made it to the Cliffs. Needless to say, we were pretty sick of being soaking wet and dealing with our bikes falling apart on us, so we decided to throw in the towel and catch a bus to Galway City (our final destination) a day early. After a couple of hours we realized that there weren’t any buses that would take us and our bikes all the way to Galway (about 50 miles from the Cliffs of Moher) without charging us an unreasonable amount of money. So we decided to hop back on the bikes and get as far down the road to Galway as we possibly could.
By this time it was already about 4 in the afternoon, putting the time of our arrival into Galway close to 10 PM, assuming we moved at a decent pace. Forrest and I were so completely exhausted that we only made it about 30 miles down the road, to a town outside of Galway called Kinvara. This was not a smooth ride – we stopped several times for walking breaks, and once because Forrest crashed going down a steep, curvy hill (shout out to Moira Fallon and Keogh’s pub for saving us from collapsing on the side of the road). Sam and Ian made it all the way to Galway that night, which was pretty damned impressive.
Day 6 saw a pretty uneventful 20-mile ride into Galway. I had absolutely nothing left in my gas tank by this point, so I tried to view it as a final test of my ability to put mind over matter, a sort of game to explore ways I could leverage mental tricks to compensate for my physical shortcomings. To say that the first Guinness I had in Galway to celebrate completing the trip was immensely satisfying would be a major understatement.
By now I’ve probably made it sound like this trip was miserably difficult and not something I would do again, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had thanks to the beautiful countryside, awesome company and plenty of stops in Irish pubs along the way.
But the thing that made it truly enjoyable was how far it forced me to step outside my comfort zone. The most important thing I learned was not to impose self-limitations on what I’m capable of.
This is something fairly easy to accept on an intellectual level, but more difficult to internalize and implement in a practical way. We are all prone to self-limitation, whether it’s as small as simply saying “I’m not very good at doing ‘X'”, or as serious as resigning oneself to some soulless life-sucking 9-5 office job out of fear of risk-taking and failure. The bike trip helped me to realize that my own self-imposed limitations are at the heart of the majority of my personal weaknesses.
While I am by no means cured of my tendency to self-limit, nor have I fully corrected even my most minute personal weaknesses, the increased awareness I gained on the trip will be a huge advantage as I take an even bigger step outside my comfort zone – leaving home to pursue a PhD. What I’ve learned about not setting limits on my own abilities will help carry me through the most difficult challenges I’ll face as a grad student. I learned a lot about myself on a 6 day trek through Ireland, and I know this can only continue during a (hopefully not more than) 6 year trek through graduate school. With any luck, I’ll manage to take some bike trips through the Pacific Northwest, too.
Bonus: Some extremely poorly edited GoPro footage from Day 1 passing through Doolough. (Song: No Control by Pepper)
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