Ask Science: Synthesizing sleep science for learning, memory, and cognition at all ages

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Chris Jolly

I masterfully soothe the disgruntled alarm clock into quiet submission. Eight minutes later, I’m reminded of my alarm’s unbearable short memory - I grudgingly drag myself out of bed feeling spent and unrested. A few blissful hours of late-night flow state at the expense of my hard-won morning self-care. I did it! I got my project done, but is it worth the cost? The benefit is clear and immediate to me. But what is the cognitive cost of my short-term sleep deprivation?

Science as an institution has yielded tremendous improvements in lifespans and standards of living through advances in medicine, technology, and more. At a zoom-outed level, the trajectory is undeniable and clear at every level. In the minutiae of day-to-day life, however, I often find myself wishing I knew the most current trustworthy scientific knowledge on [insert topic of interest]. I don't know where to turn.

Ever wish you could just Ask Science?

We live in an age of information abundance and it’s overwhelming to the point of debilitating. If I google a topic broadly, I can't trust any website that doesn't cite sources. And even if I am lucky enough to find relevant primary academic articles, I don't necessarily have the area expertise to understand which journals, studies, and outcomes are worth considering.

Often, I read popular science books by leading researchers, such as Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker. But as Alexey Guyez so eloquently proved in his book teardown, even experts need to be approached with reserve and skepticism.

I have an upper bound of layperson masochism for sifting through academic articles. And even still, I don't know who or what I can trust.

Sometimes I wish I could turn to "Science" as I would turn to a trusted, well-reasoned friend and ask them a simple question. In the ideal case, "Science" would respond with the current state of awareness pointing to what's been studied and learned, complete with nuance and caveats, and then humbly express where we sit at the boundary of human knowledge. What do we know for certain? What can we reasonably infer from what we know? What is outside the bounds of claims we can make? And, most importantly, how does that map to a specific scenario I'm navigating in my own life?

I am not aware of any simple, humble, trusted, action-oriented sources for synthesized academic knowledge (if you have any suggestions, send them my way!). Such a source is critical for my 50-year master plan and will ultimately crystallize into the Universal Theory of Thriving.

Together with a global team of researchers, students, and practitioners I am taking the first steps in creating such a resource. Our first stop: sleep and learning.

Sleep and learning touches everyone at every age

My interest in sleep stems from a deeply dysfunctional personal relationship. "Sleep is a waste of time! Least is best, and see how much more I can do!" I naively proclaimed more times than I care to admit. Not surprisingly, my poisonous productivity obsession resulted in physical, psychological, and emotional fatigue that caused harm to self and others. Surprise! Sleep is really important to our health and wellbeing.

Dumb as I may sound, that was genuinely a surprise to me when I read Walker's book. I immediately prioritized getting more sleep and began to feel the difference in my personal relationships and professional outputs. But Walker's narrative, already demonstrably questionable, doesn't yield much practical advice beyond "Get enough quality and quantity of sleep". Makes sense, I suppose, though how does that play out specifically as I'm making nuanced decisions about balancing sleep, family, work, school, projects, and community?

For our first pilot, our team opted to narrow the grandiose scope to sleep and learning (and may narrow it further still). This week I started a master’s degree program, so it's especially relevant for me right now. Beyond my personal inquiry, sleep and learning is poorly understood and even more poorly communicated and implemented for children, adults, and the aging. A critical piece of Thriving is learning and it appears sleep can be a powerful tool in the pursuit of intellectual and experiential knowledge.

Whether I'm tending to myself, my children, my parents, my friends, or anyone else in my community, understanding the current science of sleep and learning is empowering. But only if it helps answer specific questions that impact daily decisions.

Asking sleep & learning questions that matter

To make this project immediately productive, we will focus on research questions that directly address decisions we need to make on a daily basis. For example:

  • Where does the 8 hours / night number come from? Is that real, or is it like the bogus 8 cups / day number?
  • How can I figure out the ideal hours of sleep for my own peak cognitive performance?
  • What is the decay curve for learning / cognitive performance for every hour less than the ideal amount?
  • How does sleep training impact a child's emotional regulation and learning?
  • What is the best way to mitigate challenges from two adults sleeping together with offset chronotypes?
  • Will I hurt my cognition / learning / memory if I go to bed 2 hours later and wake up 2 hours later? Still 8 hours, just offset.
  • If I fall asleep easily, do I need to go to bed at roughly the same time? How much does sleep start time variance impact learning functions?

I genuinely don't know (yet!) if any academic literature exists to answer these questions. I do know, however, that if I had the answers to these questions I could orient myself and my commitments to show up as the best version of myself in formal (graduate program) and informal (the rest of life?) learning settings.

Now it's your turn! What sleep & learning (/ memory / cognition) questions are most immediate and urgent for you? For your family and love ones? What sleep questions, once answered, would empower you to make different decisions and Thrive?

We are curating a master list and I will joyously add your inputs to our master list (and follow up when we have something to show for our efforts).

Synthesizing academic awareness into simple, meaningful insights - a pilot project

A brilliant, global team has gathered to collaborate on this project (names and links at the bottom of this article). Spearheaded by Joel Chan, a professor of information science at the University of Maryland, we're utilizing his knowledge synthesis framework to deconstruct and synthesize academic information in a scalable, meaningful way.

As a quick summary, our process steps include:

  • Collect questions to explore (seriously, send your Ask Sleep Science questions my way!)
  • Read the top 5-10 relevant literature review articles
  • From those lit reviews, pick the top 25-50 most cited or most influential direct research articles
  • For each article, systematically parse out context & observation notes into a shared library
  • Individually synthesize responses to key research questions
  • Compare, contrast, and combine individual answers into a single, free, public-facing document

This pilot will be a success when we share an academic synthesis around actionable sleep & learning questions geared toward non-academics.

If you would like to get involved and collaborate with us, drop me a quick note (henry @ this URL) and we'll try to get you involved. For those interested in more general updates, I'll share progress and learnings in my newsletter (sign up at the bottom of this page).

Gazing beyond the deliverable horizon

After we celebrate our hard work and output, the real fun begins!

First and foremost, I'm excited to share the final writeup with each of the authors we reviewed for their feedback and rebuttal. Is what we found aligned with their understanding of the literature? Is there anything we misrepresented or didn't understand clearly? Are there other studies we should add to fill in areas we suggested as current gaps in understanding?

The researchers are the experts, after all, and I am genuinely curious and intrigued to build bridges in both directions. Based on the responses and engagement we get from primary authors, I imagine we'll update our document with any new awareness from the iterative process of sharing, discussing, and learning.

If the project and our output is well received, I'm fascinated to dig deeper into scaling up to create more similar documents in more domains. Perhaps we look at other areas of sleep. Or maybe we expand to other higher value areas of inquiry where our communities crave to Ask Science. I don't know where this can lead us, but I revel in the craft of building bridges, connections, and empowerment.

And, if there is a desire for this type of Ask Science synthesis, how can this work be made sustainable with monetization? Is there a way to incentivize the parsing and synthesis of academic articles so we can continue to distill and refine actionable insights from academic inquiry?

I have many more questions than answers, and I look forward to exploring them openly as we build in public with you.

Pilot Project Collaborators

Joel Chan (website, Twitter, LinkedIn)
Joel is a researcher and professor at University of Maryland exploring systems that support creative knowledge work. 

Catherine Rickwood (website, Twitter, LinkedIn)
Catherine is an independent consultant, writer, speaker, and thought leader on aging in Australia.

Chinat Yu (Twitter, LinkedIn)
Chinat is a Computer Science major at Johns Hopkins University with an interest in learning analytics and education technologies.

Nikki Huang (Twitter, LinkedIn)
Nikki is an undergraduate student at the UNSW Australia majoring in Psychology and Neuroscience.

Matthew Brockwell (Twitter)
Matt is a practicing adult general psychiatrist based in Berkeley CA and sleep health plays a big part in his professional practice.

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