Let’s Sleep On It

“The clearest finding is that sleep does not serve just a single purpose. Instead it appears to be needed for the optimal functioning of a multitude of biological processes—from the inner workings of the immune system to proper hormonal balance, to emotional and psychiatric health, to learning and memory, to the clearance of toxins from the brain. At the same time, none of these functions fails completely in the absence of sleep. In general, sleep seems to enhance the performance of these systems instead of being absolutely necessary. And yet anyone who lives for months without sleep will die.”Robert Stickgold, Scientific American, October 2015

Borg Regenerating
Borg Regenerating
Sleep deprivation and the effects of reduced amounts of sleep are now being studied seriously at several universities. According to Robert Stickgold, director of the Center for Sleep and Cognition at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, lack of sufficient sleep reduces the creation of antibodies produced by vaccination and thereby undermines their effectiveness, reduces the ability to clear glucose from the blood (the function of insulin), increases blood levels of the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin, and decreases the quantity of a hormone called leptin which inhibits hunger by signaling the brain that there is no need to eat. The results are increased feelings of hunger which contribute to obesity.

Other research suggests that memory fixation occurs during sleep and that with sleep deprivation we are likely to form twice as many memories of negative life events as of positive events. This results in biased, and potentially depressing, memories of the day’s events.  Under certain circumstances, this can lead to major depression and may contribute to other psychiatric disorders as well.

An important finding for educators is that sleep after learning leads to the selective stabilization, strengthening, integration and analysis of new memories. In this way sleep controls what we remember and how we remember it. It also prevents the deterioration of memories over time and can actually improve them. It selectively strengthens memories that our brain deems valuable. What is valuable for the brain is information that can help enhance future performance.

Other lines of research are exploring the implications of the increase in inter-cellular space that occurs in the brain during sleep. This results in a better flow of cerebrospinal fluid between the brain and the spine. Experiments with mice demonstrate that betaamyloid (the precursor of the amyloid plaques found between neurons in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients) is cleared from the brain during sleep at twice the rate seen in awake animals.

Overall, the results of studies on the role of sleep in hormonal, immunological and memory functions suggest that a lack of sufficient sleep could result not only in being very tired, but sick, overweight, forgetful and very blue.

Black Holes and General Education

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”—Albert Einstein.

Albert Einstein
Albert Einstein

College students in Quebec, Canada find that their chosen program of study always includes General Education courses in Humanities, English, French, and Physical Education.

While there is some controversy about the General Education requirement educational authorities continue to see benefit in it, perhaps in preparing graduates who are “better rounded” and able to continually enrich their own lives as adults.

While languages, Humanities, and Physical Education seem reasonable inclusions in General Education, excluding other disciplines from the core curriculum may leave students with important gaps in their understanding of the physical world.

It has been just over a hundred years since Albert Einstein experienced a series of eureka moments that overthrew conventional understandings of our universe. Despite the overwhelming impact of his Special Theory of Relativity and, four years later, his General Theory of Relativity most students  studying a century later know little of such important notions as spacetime and gravity.

Scientists had come to understand gravity as a pull to Earth and later, thanks to Isaac Newton, as a force of attraction between any two masses. Then came Albert Einstein. In 1915 he revealed, in his general theory of relativity, that gravity is not a force so much as the by-product of a curving universe. In other words, what we think we know about gravity from everyday experience is wrong.

Einstein’s spacetime continuum connects the three dimensions of space to time as the fourth dimension. To describe the position of any object we have to define its distance from the three axes of 3D space but also indicate when, in time, it was there. This seems counter-intuitive since we customarily think of time as a totally separate dimension from space. For Einstein it is seamless and endless.

Spacetime can be compared to a large mattress which is easily compressed by a large object such as a bowling ball. The depression made by the bowling ball creates a curvature in the “spacetime” mattress. Any neighbouring small objects will naturally roll toward the depression. In short, it is the presence of large objects in the cosmos which bends the spacetime continuum and creates the effects we call gravity. The curvatures of spacetime dictate the movements of the heavenly bodies and create our sensation of always being pulled to the ground. Even light can be bent to follow its contours.

In the wake of Einstein’s work Physicists grapple with a number of problems. The various beaviours of matter in the universe require at least two separate theories to explain them. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics cannot yet be harmonized to produce one theory of nature, sometimes referred to as the Theory of Everything. In addition, more recently explored phenomena must be incorporated into whatever theory will triumph. These include dark energy, dark matter, and dark holes. Understanding dark holes, which are plentiful and far away, is important in building and correcting theories that describe our universe.

Do the implications of Einstein’s work constitute important general knowledge in the same way we now understand that the earth is round and that we are not at the center of our galaxy?

General Education implies general knowledge. The difficult question is, “What constitutes an adequate general knowledge?” The answer is complicated by the fact that it changes, almost daily.