I spent the end of last week at the National Academy of Sciences Kavli Frontiers of Science Symposium at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center in Irvine, California. This happens annually, and is a fascinating meeting at which young (-ish, i.e. below 45 years old) scientists from across the disciplines come together to speak and participate in discussions about a range of topics.
I was there to chair and give the introductory talk in a session titled “How Many Dimensions does the Universe Have?”. I was supposed to give an overview of the idea of extra dimensions, how they might avoid detection, and why one might want to think about the idea in the first place. After that, I was followed by Gary Shiu, who talked about the role of extra dimensions in string theory, and then Jonathan Feng, who talked about testing extra dimensions.
Our session was fun, and people seemed to enjoy it. But I had most fun at the other sessions. The complete list was:
- Artificial Photosynthesis / Alternative Energy Sources
- Biometrics: Identity Technologies
- Evolutionary Origins of Human Cognition and Behavior
- Extrasolar Planets
- How Many Dimensions Does The Universe Have?
- Memory and Learning
- Prepare Immediately for Whatever Happens Next
As has probably become clear from my posts, I travel to a lot of different conferences of different styles. There are always some interesting sessions and plenty of creative people to talk to. Even so, this meeting was the most intellectually stimulating such event I’ve been to in quite some time. I attended every session and spent almost all the time outside of them discussing aspects of the science either with the speakers or with some of the other attendees. Some of these were in my own, or related fields (David Berenstein, Albion Lawrence, Per Berglund, Fred Adams and our very own Risa), while many others were experts in some of the non-physics topics listed above.
There were far too many excellent talks to report comprehensively, so I thought I’d just focus on one that I particularly enjoyed. In the session on Memory and Learning, Matthew Walker delivered a highly entertaining and fascinating talk on the role of sleep in learning and consolidating memories. Matthew spoke at length about his work, but it was a particularly simple experiment that seemed to get most people’s attention.
The method was to take two groups of students (who, apparently, are a plentiful and cheap source of subjects for these experiments) and to put them through the same set of events. First, they were taught to perform a simple task that, if I recall correctly, involved rapidly punching in sequences of numbers on a pad. The students were then tested twelve hours later and again twenty-four hours later, to measure how well they had learned to perform this task. The difference between the two groups of students was that one group underwent the initial training in the morning, while the second group did so in the evening.
So what were the results? Well, the group that trained in the evening showed a large degree of learning (success on the test) on both tests – the morning afterwards and later that day. However, the group that trained in the morning showed only some degree of learning in the evening, but a much greater degree (a 40% increase), equal to that of the first group, the following morning, after a good night’s sleep.
This is pretty fascinating, demonstrating that a significant amount of important learning goes on during sleep. But there’s more. You might think, just from this experiment, that you don’t properly learn something until you sleep, and so you just have to wait until you get a chance to go to bed and you’ll finally learn what you studied. However, other experiments show that if you don’t get a good sleep in the twenty four hours following studying or training, then you never get the benefits of learning during sleep, no matter how much sleep you get when you eventually go to bed.
There are many examples of situations in which these results are important but, for those of us in education, it is worth pointing out to our students that that all-nighters are awful if you really want to learn your subject matter and that a good night’s sleep may make the difference between failing and acing an exam.