Explained: How memories are 'pruned' during sleep

The pair of papers suggest that sleep is crucial in order to wipe out memories. Yep – it turns out that, sometimes, it's smart to forget.

A fuzzy image of people walking in a city, representative of non-sharp memory recall.
When weaker memories aren't "pruned" during sleep, our recall of important information suffers, causing fuzzy memories. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Why do we sleep? We know what happens when we don't get enough. But what is its evolutionary purpose – what kind of changes do our brains undergo when we sleep? A pair of papers published in the journal Science in 2017 have evidence to suggest our brains undergo a pruning cycle while we rest.

Its important to note these studies are still in their early stages. The tests were done on mice.

The results of the study suggest sleep may allow our synapses to undergo a maintenance period. Synapses are the gaps between neurons, across which information is transmitted, and they are a critical part of memory formation. The studies posit that the sleep process trims the fat and adds clarity to our memories, letting us forget the less relevant information while strengthening memories that may be important. When blocking the chemical responsible for trimming the synapses during sleep, the researchers found those mice's memories became fuzzy.

However, its uncertain whether this is a function of sleep, or if sleep is the function. These tests were done in a lab setting, controlled and optimized. However, modern humans don't abide by a natural sleep cycle anymore – we look at our phones before bed and expose ourselves to things that cause our brains to think sleep is not on the menu. Some believe this has caused a spike in sleep aids.

The Atlantic reported back in 2014 that the use of sleeping pills has been on the rise:

"The number of prescriptions for nonbenzodiazepine sedative hypnotics, a group of drugs to which zolpidem belongs, grew 30 times over between 1994 and 2007—that's five times faster than the growth of insomnia diagnoses over the same period of time, and 21 times faster than the growth of patient complaints of sleeplessness. Somewhere between 50 and 70 million Americans are currently thought to suffer from sleep disorders, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and around 4 percent of adults use prescription medication to get a good night's rest."

Joshua Liao, a physician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School, says much of the issues relating to insomnia can be dealt with by practicing good sleep hygiene. If people avoided napping, eating or drinking caffeine or alcohol, and looking at their phone right before bed, they might not require a chemical crutch to get some rest.

The evidence for sleeping pills giving people restorative sleep relies mostly on self-observation.

“Do you feel more rested, more alert, more able to concentrate, less irritable on medication versus off?" Dr. Daniel J. Buysse told the New York Times. "If all those things are true then I would say it's more restorative. If a hypnotic drug leaves you feeling hung over or more anxious, if it causes you to order five hickory smoked turkeys on the Internet without remembering, then it's probably not good."

But the larger question of what happens to our brains in the longterm is still unknown. The abundance of light and our "natural" bedtime habits have changed considerably in these modern times. What we do know is the practice of good pre-bedtime habits might help you get a good night's rest and, if the study above proves true for humans, form clearer memories.

The New York Times has more on this study.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Harvard study finds perfect blend of fruits and vegetables to lower risk of death

Eating veggies is good for you. Now we can stop debating how much we should eat.

Credit: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • A massive new study confirms that five servings of fruit and veggies a day can lower the risk of death.
  • The maximum benefit is found at two servings of fruit and three of veggies—anything more offers no extra benefit according to the researchers.
  • Not all fruits and veggies are equal. Leafy greens are better for you than starchy corn and potatoes.
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Cephalopod aces 'marshmallow test' designed for eager children

The famous cognition test was reworked for cuttlefish. They did better than expected.

The common cuttlefish

Credit: Hans Hillewaert via Wikicommons
Surprising Science
  • Scientists recently ran the Stanford marshmallow experiment on cuttlefish and found they were pretty good at it.
  • The test subjects could wait up to two minutes for a better tasting treat.
  • The study suggests cuttlefish are smarter than you think but isn't the final word on how bright they are.
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If we do find alien life, what kind will it be?

Three lines of evidence point to the idea of complex, multicellular alien life being a wild goose chase. But are we clever enough to know?

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