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Soap Box

MIT Museum

Oct. 16, 30 and Nov. 14
6:00 – 7:30 p.m.

The MIT Museum’s Soap Box lecture series kicked off last Wednesday with MIT Professor Matthew Wilson leading a discussion on “Sleep, Memory, and Animal Dreams.” This was the first in a series of 3 free neuroscience-related discussions being given at the MIT Museum. The way that a Soap Box discussion works is the following: the guest speaker gives a context to the audience, framing the discussion to be had and inspiring questions within the audience. Some time later, the audience breaks off into small groups to discuss the topic and to develop questions to ask the speaker via Twitter. Audience members reconvene after they’ve had ample time to fill the #MITSoapBox Twitter feed with questions and ideas. The speaker then tries to provide insight to as many questions as possible in the time remaining.

Professor Matthew Wilson is a Professor of Neuroscience and a Picower Scholar at MIT. His research focuses on hippocampal learning and memory, and during this Soap Box talk, he discussed the hippocampus as it relates to memory, sleep, and dreams.

The first question Wilson posed to the audience was: “How do we gain wisdom? How do we learn from the world?” He went on to introduce the idea that we do this during sleep. When we dream during non-REM sleep, we tend to recreate parts of our day. Say you washed dishes a few hours before you went to bed, then you may dream of washing dishes over and over again at this stage of sleep — dreams tend to be repetitive and contain mundane subject matter. The more interesting dreams occur during REM sleep. Wilson proposes that it is during REM sleep that we build models of the world and take things for a test drive. This is why dreams we have during REM sleep can be unrealistic and extraordinary, incorporating some elements from our experience, but also putting a new and unbelievable twist on things. For example, if I went grocery shopping at Shaw’s earlier in the day, then I might dream I was buying bananas there and then flew to the dairy section.

Research that Wilson conducts in his lab supports these ideas. The experiment he summarized for us involved running rodents through mazes and then monitoring their sleep, all the while using electrodes to record their brain waves. Patterns recorded while the rodents were running through the maze matched patterns recorded at the beginning stages of their sleep. When the rodents experienced REM sleep, new patterns appeared amongst the patterns recorded from the maze.

If you are at all interested in neuroscience I would definitely recommend attending future Soap Box talks at the MIT Museum (and you might want to plan on getting there a bit early, since the space fills up quickly). The next two remaining talks are: “How Our Brains Learn and Remember” with MIT Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience John Gabrieli 6–7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 30, and “How Does Stress Drive PTSD?” with MIT Professor of Neuroscience Ki Goosens 6–7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 14.