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SLEEP ON IT

ALDOUS HUXLEY’S Brave New World describes a chilling example of childhood indoctrination through sleep-learning. This novel takes place in a London of 2540 (referred to as 632 A.F., After Ford, another distressing aspect in which God has been supplanted by mechanization, 1908 being the first year of the Model T).

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Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, Chatto & Windus, 1932. See also the CBS Radio Workshop version at SFF audio.

Recent research suggests that Huxley missed in his prediction by 535 years. The May 20, 2015, issue of Science magazine announces research on “Unlearning implicit social biases during sleep” as well as a summary article “Exploiting sleep to modify bad attitudes.”

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As noted by Gordon B. Feld and Jan Born in their summary, deep sleep (the slow-wave variety as opposed to its rapid-eye-movement REM phase) helps memory formation. This form of slow-wave sleep reactivates neuronal traces formed during the preceding period of wakefulness. What’s more, this reactivation can be triggered by subtle auditory or olfactory cues.

This phenomenon was confirmed by the research of Xiaoqing Hu, Northwestern University, and his colleagues. Prior to 90-minute naps, 40 test participants were given information of two sorts about race or gender, one set that reinforced stereotypes, another that was counter to these biases. Given an “incongruous” pair, such as Woman and Math, participants were to respond by pressing a button and received audible feedback.

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“Sleeping your way out of a bad attitude.” Image from Science magazine of the AAAS, May 29, 2015.

During their subsequent nap, some participants got replays of the audible cues, thus reactivating the newly learned associations. In the research summary, Feld and Born note, “Only when this sound was re-presented during slow-wave sleep did the post-training reduction in implicit social bias survive and was even evident one week later.” They also suggest that the effect would be even stronger with normal overnight rest because of its typically longer periods of slow-wave sleep.

I offer firsthand experience of intellectual activity while slumbering. Back when I was in graduate school…. No, let’s rephrase this without implying I slept through lectures: During my graduate school years, I often struggled off to sleep after an evening of trying to prove one mathematical proposition or another. Then, shortly after falling asleep, I’d dream of a really nifty proof. Of course, the next morning, it was forgotten. So, to capture these dreamy mathematical nuggets, I placed a pencil and pad on my bedstand.

The result was decidedly less successful than the research described in Science. My notepad contained marvelous mathematical gibberish: “If I take a contravariant functor of the pastrami sandwich and look at its inverse isomorphism….”

However, it did get me into untroubled slumber.

Researcher Hu and his colleagues observe in their abstract, “Although people may endorse egalitarianism and tolerance, social biases can remain operative and drive harmful actions in an unconscious manner. Here, we investigated training to reduce implicit racial and gender bias.”

These days particularly, this is a noble goal. In their summary, Feld and Born note, “This present study is the first to demonstrate that this method can be used to influence behavior at an entirely unconscious level.” However, they also recall Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World and observe, “… this research also needs to be guided by ethical considerations. Sleep is a state in which the individual is without willful consciousness and therefore vulnerable to suggestion.”

Yep, like being persuaded that an inverse isomorphism of a pastrami sandwich cofunctor could work. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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