The media is messing with us. At least, our memories.

The distracting nature of modern media is having a terrible effect on what we learn.

Photographers crowd a press conference for the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing's Great Hall of the People on March 2, 2019.

Photo by Greg Baker / AFP
  • Modern media isn't necessarily harming our memory systems though it is impacting what we remember.
  • We used to retain reams of valuable information; now we're more likely to memorize URLs and passwords.
  • The process of deep learning is being sacrificed to our addiction to novelty.

You'll likely have to be Gen X (or older) to understand this question: do you remember your childhood phone number? Educational neuroscientist Jared Cooney Horvath asks this very question in his recent article on memory. As my eyes ran over that opening sentence, ten digits immediately sprang to mind even though I left home in 1993.

Certain memories are so engrained we'll likely never forget them. Yet some information seems to stand the test of time. Seniors suffering from dementia can sometimes instantaneously recall songs from their childhood. Repeated listening somehow circumvents amyloid plaque buildup in their aging brains.

We learn through novel experiences, such as the hot stove we had no business touching. Trauma imprints quickly. For the most part, memories form thanks to the strengthening of preexisting synapses, as pointed out by Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb in 1949. The neurotransmitter glutamate becomes an epoxy across synapses. The more we strengthen that connection through repeated exposure, the stronger the memory.

The process of long-term potentiation (LTP) was introduced by Norwegian physiologist Terje Lømo in 1966. Receptor activation excites synapses. Glutamate screams across channels to ensure you remember. Fascinatingly, LTP is not a one-off. It's a process. Copies of your memories are reproduced over and over and over. That's why Grandma recalls yelling when the Beatles came on the radio even as she forgets your name. Music binds to the deepest part of self.

How Memory Works

Those are the neurological mechanics, in which repetition is the key to forming lasting memories. Before the advent of the internet, remembering played a much more prevalent role in our lives.

For millennia, humans held the stories of their tribe in their minds. Oral storytellers memorized hundreds of thousands of lines of verse, such as the Mahābhārata. As writing became more widespread and more people learned how to read, we had to remember less. Imams recite the Quran; most Muslims turn the pages. They don't need to memorize what's in their pocket.

Remembering takes time. As Horvath points out, we memorize better in short bursts. Sleeping between bouts of studying helps commit information to memory. In a data-drenched society that barely sleeps, how much we actually remember is a contentious issue.

Part of the problem is the exploitation of attentional capacities. Coining the term "deep work," computer science professor Cal Newport writes that switching from task to task trains your mind to "never tolerate an absence of novelty." A day of Web surfing is never as rewarding as accomplishing a pre-made list of tasks. You'll always feel drained and scattered mindlessly clicking around. How much information you retain while surfing is negligible.

As with ancient Indians memorizing shloka through recitation and repetition, the writer Nicholas Carr points to the discovery of the generation effect by cognitive psychologists in the 1970s. "People remember words much better when they actively recall them—when they generate them—than when they read them from a page." Retaining information is akin to physical exertion. Your muscles only get stronger when you use them.

How often do we stop and think deeply about a question before turning to Google? Convenience has a price. Horvath doesn't strike an apocalyptic tone, though he does point out we're more likely to memorize usernames and URLs than epic literature. Or any literature at all.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

Engagement is currency in the attention economy. How many times have you repeated a headline without having actually read the article? Unless you grapple with the ideas presented after clicking, you're unlikely to retain the story. You missed an opportunity for contemplating nuance. At times, the gist is enough, but the gist can't be enough for everything.

Horvath concludes that our memory systems are still intact. The content of what we remember is troubling. Empty calories are not benign. Sugar has a real impact on our bodies. The same holds true with information. Horvath finishes with two questions:

"Do we like how we are currently using our memory? Do we like how this may be altering our learning, our discourse, our evolution?"

This inability to wrestle with complex topics is fueling a rise in conspiracy thinking. As Nature recently pointed out, coordinated efforts by anti-vaccination activists exploit fears during this pandemic, exploiting a pre-existing mistrust of media and government. While there are real issues to consider, the rate of conflation around topics such as science and public health is troubling. As the NY Times notes, this could have dire consequences if a vaccine for the novel coronavirus emerges.

Where we place our attention define what we learn. If, as Horvath suggests, the only information we retain are passwords, we must question how effective even having a memory is. In some ways, that's a more frightening prospect than losing it altogether.

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Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His next book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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