learning while we sleep

new research finds that humans can learn while asleep. a recent study found that volunteers took deeper breaths when exposed to a pleasant smell while they slept and shallower breaths when exposed to an unpleasant smell. by pairing a high pitched beep with the pleasant smell the volunteers eventually began to take deeper breaths when the beep was presented even without the pleasant smell all while asleep. not only did learning take place during sleep, it also carried over to the research subjects’ behavior during wakefulness. while they had no conscious recollection of what they’d experienced while sleeping, they acted on their learning while awake, taking deeper breaths when the high pitched beep was sounded during their wakeful hours.

while the implications of these findings interest me on many levels, a few thoughts in particular have held me captive since their discovery.

if we are learning while we sleep, what is the cell phone under our pillow teaching us?

if smells and sounds presented during sleep “taught” reactions to the volunteers that persisted during wakefulness, how are the rings, beeps, vibrations, or even simple presences of our phones (and other screens) in our beds teaching us?

it appears that sleep provides an opportunity for our brains to consolidate our learning. this means that we take material we’ve been presented with during wakeful hours and encode it into more deeply integrated memory as we rest. if we study for a test then take a nap, we’re likely to recall more than we would without sleeping.

several years back a fad diet centered on a pill to be taken before bed. “lose weight while you sleep!” “burn fat while you dream!” were tag lines used in ad campaigns. what impressed me most about the fact that this diet pill sold well was the fact that it exposed our tendency to forego the rest of the night for the worries of the day. “since i can’t seem to make myself skinny during the day, how about i go to bed hoping to tackle my weight problem while i sleep.”

sleep is intended to function as a “breather” for our minds and bodies. dreams help us work through situations from our day and our cells regenerate while we sleep. as the size of our technological devices has decreased and screens have become an integral part of many bedrooms (think televisions, laptops, screen based readers, ipads, ipods, and phones) it seems as though these vital functions of sleep are now in competition with those stressors that fill our days. whether we use technology in the bedroom to entertain, stay in touch, do our work, or keep us from feeling lonely we are abstaining from opportunities to learn to let the concerns of the day go and settle into the rest that night might offer. aside from the research findings that illuminated screens can act as mood de-stabilizers and stimulants, the mere psychological dependence upon being fully connected, even while we supposedly sleep, seems worthy of a good, hard look.

as a people we have nearly fully embraced the belief that we can’t get by without a cell phone during our waking hours. do we need to make this our night time reality as well? sure, there are fun apps (that seem so useful) intended to read our sleep cycles via movement and find the best time to sound the alarm based on them. there are timers designed to turn our “falling asleep” music down, and eventually off, when our movements suggest we are asleep. cable, hulu, youtube, and netflix allow a cast of characters to keep us company through the entire night. and we are left learning, through it all, that quiet, rest, and nothingness are to be avoided at all costs. reinforcing the truth of our technological dependence during the day we consolidate the notion that being unplugged is not worth the cost. even the cost of rest.

and so we’re left asking, what’s the worst thing that could happen if i left my phone charging on the kitchen counter and pulled out that silly old alarm clock out of the goodwill box in the garage? what might i miss if i let my texts and emails and television shows wait until daylight? and what might i receive?


murder is (still) not entertainment

it’s been a month since the tragic mass murder at a colorado movie theater during the midnight release of “the dark night rises.” 12 families are 30 days into grieving their loved ones and 57 others are helping shooting victims regain a new sense of normalcy.

summer is coming to a close. pencils and binders fill store shelves and the cavalcade of new releases at the movie theater have slowed down. we’re heading into fall. people have final vacations to take and school years to ready themselves for. movie theaters aren’t where folks spend the last few weeks of summer. looking at the revenues from this years’ june and july block busters, however, our theaters were busy these last couple of months. when you look at the list of films that brought in droves of viewers it seems as though our fascination with violence has not waned from previous years. violence sells. so does murder.

some will argue with me, “it’s not violence that we crave. it’s action. just adrenaline pumping action.” others will say, “superhero movies aren’t focused on violence, they’re pure escapist fantasy fun. the violence is a means to an end. lighten up.” some will accuse me of being a kill-joy, a spoil-sport, and an over-reactor. i’ve decided, however, that i can handle those arguments and names more than i can handle being silent.

a month ago countless people were being shot and killed on screen in the movie that was being projected as fourteen were murdered in real life. on screen, cameras pan away from victims in order to focus on the action elsewhere. in real life, during the colorado shootings, however, those hit were either killed or are now dealing with injuries ranging from paralysis and amputation to lost eyes and internal organs. all are left with hospital bills and the psychological trauma that accompanies such an event. fear of crowds, exaggerated startle responses, nightmares, inability to enter enclosed spaces, and countless other symptoms face those who have witnessed real life murder. onscreen murder, however, seems to leave us un-phased.

i recently watched an interview with two young women who were in the colorado theater during the shooting. they described the moments between the first gun shots and the apprehension of the gunman as surreal. one of them pointed out that the movie was still playing and provided an eerie backdrop and soundtrack for the real life scene. other victims have spoken of the chilling realization that the green laser sight spot they’d so often seen in films was actually being seen on the bodies of those next to them as the gunman chose his victims.

what an oxymoron, real life murder playing out in front of a screen where clean, tidy murder is offered as entertainment.

in the days following the incident we, as a people, were horrified. we read the news. we searched for motivations for such violence and watched the cell phone videos of those present over and over and over again. we talked about murder and even about how violence in entertainment impacts us. even still, we kept on going out to movies, playing our games, and living our lives. somehow, time passed and we were on to other news stories. how quickly (and conveniently) our attention shifts.

in "the dark night rises," the onscreen violence is simply a part of a far flung story meant to entertain. at other times the violence and murder found onscreen may be said to be for point making. or consciousness raising. regardless of the intent of the film (or game) maker, however, flooding ones’ senses with the images and sounds of violence has an impact on ones’ neurological functioning and mental states. just as we inoculate our children to potentially deadly diseases by giving them small doses of the diseases themselves, so we inoculate ourselves to the reality of murder by passively watching it happen before our eyes without any sense of consequence or reality. as a result we become shockingly emotionally unresponsive to the reality that murder creates.

every image we consume counts. it is within each of our personal power to make deposits into our intellectual, emotional, and physiological “health accounts.” we can chose deposits that enhance our emotional intelligence, empathy, and relational capabilities or that numb us to others who are put in harm’s way. we can chose to flood our brains and our minds with images that are life giving or those that are murderous. we may spend our entertainment dollars affirming the unconscious assumption that murder can be entertainment (with no consequences) or we can become mindful of what we are taking in and how it affects our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. in so doing, it is my hope that we can, in our lives and in our entertainment choices, find ways of affirming and celebrating life for all its beauty rather than for its potential to end in “exciting” ways. 

what will you do to celebrate life today? what will you do to celebrate someone else’s life today? what might it look like to affirm the lives of those you encounter? how will you make your choices count, in every important way?


what i learned at summer camp

i have never been a camper. i faked sick in order to leave outdoor education camp early as a fifth grader and am known for the “i love NOT camping” sign in my van. i’ve signed on for long, group road trips, slept on church floors, been on serve trips and retreats, but camping has never been among the activities i desire to experience. until this past week.

months ago a friend asked if i might consider serving on a planning committee for an upcoming high school camp. not just any camp, this is the one that my husband grew up going to and that both my children adore. i couldn’t just say no. so, i said i’d help with the planning but i just couldn’t work out actually being there all week, missing the time with clients and invading the camp space that my daughter needed as her own. one meeting into planning, however, i was hooked on the team and couldn’t imagine spending four months planning only to miss the actual event. i was in and i was going to have to deal with my camp phobia and hesitancies about leaving work to “work.”

on the morning i left for camp i realized that i had mindlessly chosen my “not so much a hugger” t shirt to wear. knowing that a cigar is rarely just a cigar, i chuckled at how my unconscious mind was working to communicate with my fellow camp staff. “don’t hug me and we’ll get along fine this week” didn’t seem like the best message to lead with so i changed clothes and drove to camp, fearing how i’d fare. an introvert in an extrovert’s body i knew that sharing the week with 350 high school aged campers and 50 staffers would be a stretch. while exceedingly comfortable speaking to large groups, i’d never “taught” high schoolers and i’d never worked with youth or youth workers. i figured i’d be the oldest person at camp by at least 20 years and i was confident that i was going to be asked to gain “street cred” with the campers and staff by looking ridiculous in skits or by eating bizarre concoctions that i was dared to consume. i was somewhat terrified by the time i arrived.

come to find out, i had nothing to be terrified of. as it turned out, i loved camp. not liked. not tolerated. loved. truly. when the week ended i felt truly sad to leave the packed, exhausting, demanding, hug fest that my week had been. i drove away a different person, working on how i’d make time next summer to return. i want to return. here is why:

1 i learned about myself. there is nothing like a new experience to teach me about the places in which i am stuck or unaware. being completely out of my element, having to ask for help and/or information (how does meal time work here? where do i need to be when?), and not being in complete control of my time brought me new insights. come to find out i actually can fall asleep before midnight, i don’t need to snack between meals, and when free time is built into the schedule i actually enjoy it rather than filling it with tasks.

2 i learned how to share. i didn’t just get to do what i wanted. all five of us on our team needed to come to consensus. i couldn’t just put things where i wanted them or arrange the programming as i saw fit. i needed to listen and bend and flex. i had to make space for others and usually found their ideas to be better than my own after i got over the initial sting of disappointment of not getting my way. i had opportunities to serve my team and to have them serve me. humility is most authentic when learned first hand.

3 i learned to take risks within my team. at the beginning of the week i took on a task i didn’t like (partially because i knew it would teach me alot) and, when i became over burdened by it, i asked others to take it from me for a day. this is something i avoid at all costs in my day to day life. in order to accomplish new tasks placed on my plate at camp, however, i had no choice but to either go without sleep (which i seemingly needed more than i do at home because i was spent at the end of each day) or to ask for help. this was no small task for me and yet the payoff was huge. i admitted, to myself and others, that there were limits to my ability to accomplish and, in so doing, embraced my humanity more openly and received gracious care from others.

4 being uncomfortable (and out of control) grows me. i ate what the cooks made, when they made it. i was on the camp schedule and was where they wanted me when they wanted me there for 7 full days. i had very little cell phone coverage and no internet. i couldn’t “fill my time” by being productive or mindless with either technology. there was no fridge to raid when i was bored. i learned how often i rely both on things outside of myself and on my freedom to escape a situation to divert attention from feelings of discomfort and/or tasks i don’t want to tackle. this week was different. in quiet moments i was faced only with myself and my resourcefulness or lack thereof. in following the preset schedule i learned to “submit” to the needs and rhythm of the group. these were powerful points of learning and growth for me.

5 i found out that my age didn’t matter. i never imagined that i would fall into the nearly universal rut of fearing irrelevance as i age. sadly, however, this has not been wholly true. spending a week with high schoolers and young adult staff, however, challenged my thinking. they saved me seats at dinner. they told me i was “rock star,” “adorable,” and (my favorite) “smart.” they wanted to braid my hair and talk neurobiology during free time. they taught me card games and dance moves and asked for the names of the tracks i played as we gathered. they borrowed my clothes. by the end of the week i was wearing my pajamas and baseball caps all day and not caring about the dark circles that come with age and exhaustion. i felt energized by the community i was embedded in and somehow even began initiating hugs with this family i’d spent the week with. the years between us melted away in every good and meaningful way. the truth they spoke to me was every bit as important as the truth i spoke to them.

the reason i feel compelled to share these lessons here is that i want to challenge each of us to think ahead about next summer. to decide NOW if there might be places where our presence might not only matter but might also grow us in new and important ways. if we think and dream and plan NOW about making a difference THEN, it might actually make its way on our to-do lists to research camps, complete volunteer applications, and pencil a week off next summer to serve.  in so-doing we open ourselves to the truly surprising experience of being grown while helping others to do the same.

if you’re bereft of ideas as to where to start in finding meaningful camps to volunteer with, here are a few of my favorites:
camp to belong (http://camptobelong.org) this amazing camp offers siblings who live apart from each other, in the foster care system, the chance to reunite for a week at camp. this is an amazing organization that operates internationally.

twin rocks friends camp (http://www.twinrocks.org) twin rocks is a beautiful quaker camp on the oregon coast. they have opportunities for week long service or summer long internships.