Last night, I ventured up to the 40th floor of the new 7 World Trade Center building at 250 Greenwich Street for a panel discussion that was held at the New York Academy of Sciences. The subject of the discussion was “The Science of Sleep & Dreams” and is part of the continuing Imagine Science Film Festival, running until November 16th throughout New York City. The evening started with a visually stimulating experimental short that utilizes animation to simulate what it would look like if we could see the brain “dreaming“. This short presentation was followed by a flickering light display called “The Dream Machine” – which creates an effect that essentially puts people into a state of sleep (or near sleep for some). You can see a picture of its effect on Imagine Science Films’ Facebook Page.
First up to talk was Professor Matthew A. Wilson, a professor of Neuroscience. He studies memory, how it is formed and how it is used. A part of his research delves heavily into dreams and he explores how dreams help with memory creation and maintenance. His experiments involve rats, mazes and the like. Hearing him talk about his experiments is intriguing and thought provoking. Mr. Wilson has found a mechanism to “hear” the dreams of his rodent subjects and can interpret what is heard into graphics, thus studying the rat’s dreams literally on a visual level. What he has established is that rats who are trained to run a maze, often dream about running mazes. There are some statements Mr. Wilson made that, for one reason or another, have stuck with me through the course of the night and I’m unsure as to why. Statements like “when the rat moves, it thinks about where it is, when it stops it thinks about where it could be“.
Erin J. Wansley from the Harvard Medical School was next to speak. What is a dream and how do our minds select which of the barrage of experiences will be dreamed? She explores this and the idea that sleep helps us to remember. Her tests have shown that her human subjects who have dreamed tend to retain knowledge and those that don’t dream tend to have a more difficult time with retaining knowledge. Her discussion also delved into the structure of dreams and how those structures change through the course of the night. For example, early in the night the dream is in rehearsal mode, exercising what was learned while in an awake state and later on in the night it connects with historical experiences to help refine its own understanding of what it has learned. So the next time you have a dream in a strange locale you haven’t been to in decades or a dream that features people you haven’t thought about in years – it’s likely that your brain is using what is available to make sense of certain information.
Filmmaker Alan Berliner is a documentary filmmaker who describes his profession as about having “access”. So it’s easy to understand why this self-described insomniac made himself the subject of his own film WIDE AWAKE, which explores his inability to sleep. While they didn’t show the film in its entirety, they did show clips and the filmmaker talked briefly about his insomnia and a little about his experience making a film about it. As soon as I get around to watching it on Netflix, I’ll post my thoughts on it separately, but I will say that I am genuinely intrigued by what I saw.
Fun Ideas I took from the panel discussion last night:
1. Did you know that babies smile in their sleep long before they learn to smile while they are awake? As we all know, smiling is an essential survival skill so it makes sense that the early on the brain would be actively teaching itself how to work it.
2. Dreams are no stranger a phenomenon than being awake, in that we don’t quite understand being awake as much as we don’t understand being asleep.
3. Lack of control of sleep and dreaming is what disturbs us, not necessarily the content of our dreams.
4. Drowsy driving is equivalent to drunk driving on a cognitive level. I knew this, but wanted to reiterate it since I am an advocate of safe driving. Human error is normally the result of fatigue. So get some sleep friends, especially if you’re operating heavy machinery!
5. Lack of sleep and psychosis have a connection.
6. Dreams are often a depiction of movement through space, where time has been altered (or at least the dreamer’s perception).
7. Dreams are in part, a reflection of the processing of memory in the brain.
8. Studies have shown that the direction an athlete flies and the jet lag can often determine who the winner of an NFL or MLB game will be.
IMAGINE SCIENCE FILMS: The Imagine Science Film Festival is in their fifth year and is intended to bridge the gap between science and art by featuring films that feature scientific themes in a unique way. This includes documentary, experimental/avant-garde cinema, narrative fiction (like sci-fi yehehe)… basically an infinitesimal collection of styles. The festival will run from November 8 through the 16th at various venues throughout New York City. For screening & other events that are a part of this film festival, I urge you to visit their website: http://www.imaginesciencefilms.org/