September 22, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

It wouldn’t be unfair to say that many, if not all, of my business ideas lack any real possibility of becoming a reality. However, earlier this week scientists from Germany and Switzerland have seemingly issued support for my latest get-rich-quick scheme, unbeknownst to them.

I am a napper. During periods of intense exam preparation I have been known to resort to short regenerative sleeping periods or ‘power naps’. After four years of research I have concluded that these naps are the best form of procrastination leaving me feeling refreshed and able to get those all important facts off the page and into my head. Based on my groundbreaking findings I have faith in my plan to install napping centers in UK Universities, where for a small fee (to battle my ever increasing student debt) students can spend time (alone!) in a comfortable, soothing environment, getting in some all important ‘shut-eye’ between lectures. Students will then have a place to snooze, generally convalesce and increase their receptiveness to their Professor’s take-home message.

In order for my venture to take off, I need a new angle, something to persuade students to choose ‘Nathan’s Naps’ (name to be confirmed) over the standard head-on-desk approach. Enter Nature neuroscience. New research published online this week has revealed that when we replay memories whilst we are awake, they are vulnerable to manipulation and interference or, as the scientists in the blogosphere seem to put it ,‘tinkering’. But, if we reactivate these memories during our sleep they are protected from this distortion, particularly during deep slow-wave sleep (experienced in those all important napping sessions) which comes before we enter periods of REM sleep.

Revising hard or hardly revising?

In this study, volunteers were required to remember the locations of pairs of cards, officially referred to as a concentration-type game but known to you and me as ‘pairs’. Whilst playing, the volunteers were exposed to an unpleasant smell (unspecified but the mind boggles). After this admittedly tiring game, half of the volunteers spent 40 minutes awake whilst the others curled up and took a much-needed 40-minute nap. Some volunteers, both awake and asleep, were again exposed to the mysterious smell in an attempt to reactivate their memory of the card game. After the 40 minutes were up all of the volunteers played ‘pairs’ one more time and then their ability to recall the original pairs of cards from the first game was tested. Join me after the break for the results.

Welcome back. Those volunteers who hadn’t had their memory jogged by the unpleasant odor, whether awake or asleep, were able to remember around 60% of the original card pairs. The really interesting results came from those volunteers whose memories had been reactivated with ‘the smell’. Those who had foregone the nap and stayed awake for 40 minutes were only able to remember around 41% of the card pairs. Their memory, having been reactivated whilst they were awake, was vulnerable to interference probably from the second game of ‘pairs’. Those volunteers whose memories had been jogged during their sleep successfully recalled the location of 84% of the original pairs.

So, it appears that I somehow need to release an unpleasant smell around students who are learning copious amounts of new facts, for this I have chosen the University library. I then need to release the same smell in my napping centre in order to protect the fragile memories of Britain’s students from unwanted interference, helping them recall what they need to know, when they need to know it. Okay – I know when to admit defeat. The chance of hearing the dragons utter those life-changing words ‘I’m in’ is beginning to seem very slim as it seems unlikely that the combination of an entrance fee and general foul smell of ‘Nathan’s Naps’ will attract much custom, even with the promise of exam success.

Though my business plan may be waning, the science here is not and others have much more realistic and convincing aspirations of how to use this new knowledge. Sara Mednick, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of California, believes that therapists will be able to destabilize traumatic memories and overwrite bad memories, then solidly plant new, happier memories with a nap. Brain scans taken during the research have revealed how memory replay during deep slow-wave sleep involves much stronger activity in the hippocampus (a structure in the brain strongly associated with memory formation) where memories are transferred from short term memory in the hippocampus to long term memory in the cortex. Replaying memories during these periods may speed up the transfer from long to short-term memory, stabilizing it.

For those of you who, like me, are still reeling from the downfall of ‘Nathan’s Naps’ do not fear. I have resorted to the original idea of a simple, comfortable napping centre so watch this space – ‘Nathan’s Naps’ is coming to a University near you! If students want to improve their memory recall with foul smells during their sleep, then they will have to do so elsewhere. I might be convinced to have a separate ‘memory room’ at the back but I will have to sleep on it, which I’m going to do right now.