Critical Review: NOVA Science NOW: Sleep
by Sean Faulk
Video serves as a rich medium with an explosion of elements that can be shaped to fit many purposes. In the NOVA Science NOW video, Sleep (2007), executive producer Paula Apsell blends these elements--photography, animation, language, music, sound--into a carefully crafted piece that both fascinates and, more importantly, educates the viewer. The colorful excitement and informality of the video suggest that one of its goals is to spark interest—to fire up thoughts. But there is a secondary motive to entertaining the audience: it keeps them watching so that they may absorb the true lesson of the video. Essentially, Apsell aims to communicate to the public an urgent message--the importance of sleep. However, due to its effort to entertain, the video's science, though accurate, is bare. But that is enough for Apsell, who simply erects the skeletal structure of the science, to emphasize only the sturdiest bones, only the most valuable pieces of information, while simultaneously enchanting her audience.
Narrator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a famous astrophysicist and popular scientist, is exploring his own dreamscape to the sounds of fingers snapping, whispering winds and jazz. He walks across a barren desert under a purple twilight sky with Saturn in perfect view.
The video begins in a surreal world that immediately sets a mystical tone. Narrator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, a famous astrophysicist and popular scientist, is exploring his own dreamscape to the sounds of fingers snapping, whispering winds and jazz. He walks across a barren desert under a purple twilight sky with Saturn in perfect view. A few random objects are scattered across the shimmering gray sands; then a humanoid fly and mouse wearing suits fill Tyson's thought bubble as he rests against his pillow. Everything about this opening segment establishes the piece's energy and excitement. The color, animation, music, and blatant silliness immediately let the viewer know that this video will be enjoyable. The mysterious, supernatural elements of Tyson's dream sequence, such as the strange sky and dancing mouse, create an atmosphere of wonder and curiosity. The visual landscape of the opening segment suggests that the need for and meaning of sleep is an important puzzle for scientists to solve.
From the start, the NOVA Science video stands out from other scientific documentaries on sleep. Conversely, the introduction to the 60 Minutes piece from CBS, “The Science of Sleep,” aims to evoke a completely different reaction from viewers. No music, no visuals, no oddness--just Leslie Stahl sitting on a stool talking to the audience, without even a trace of the light and fun atmosphere of the NOVA video.
As the NOVA video progresses, the science steps into the spotlight, but the playfulness and charm remain. Apsell maintains this charm through her choices of people, in interviewers and scientists. Our primary guide through the world of sleep science is Neil deGrasse Tyson; Apsell selects him because he is not only a credible scientist, but also a fun, excitable person. Tyson's infectious energy engages the audience, encouraging them to pay close attention. Similarly, the scientists Apsell chooses to interview are both personable and well respected in their fields. As they guide us through the science of their experiments (sometimes via voice-over—who needs to see them talk?), they simultaneously entertain and clarify, fascinate and educate.
... the experiment takes a group of fruit flies, deprives them of sleep, and observes them in comparison to a group of flies that did sleep. The difference between the two groups is shockingly clear; the sleep-deprived fruit flies can barely move.
The first study presented in the film is a fruit fly experiment with neuroscientist Dr. Amita Sehgal from the University of Pennsylvania. Apsell likely includes this experiment first because its results are simple yet powerful. On the most basic level, the experiment takes a group of fruit flies, deprives them of sleep, and observes them in comparison to a group of flies that did sleep. The difference between the two groups is shockingly clear; the sleep-deprived fruit flies can barely move. Through creatively presenting this simple yet compelling experiment, Apsell grabs viewers in the initial minutes and introduces them to the astonishing importance of sleep.
Throughout the discussion of the fruit fly experiment, Apsell sustains the film's energy through music, word choice, and animation. During the entire segment, swinging, upbeat music plays in the background, making the experiment seem even more exciting. A menacing soundtrack plays loudly while the camera focuses on the main piece of equipment for the experiment, “the deprivator,” a machine that jostles the flies around, preventing them from falling asleep. This choice in music portrays “the deprivator” as a powerful machine with a mind of its own; Apsell hopes to engage the viewer with this awesome tool of modern science. Tyson's words also help paint the picture of “the deprivator” as a cool piece of machinery that would be fun to play with. “It's like riding a roller coaster during an earthquake,” he says. These words and the music are details that a viewer may find intriguing, and may even remember after watching the video. Apsell and Tyson rely on creativity and absurdity not only to fascinate the audience, but also to communicate key concepts in the science of sleep. People tend to remember things that are silly. Thus, Apsell also includes an animation of a fly going to sleep, which is meant to charm the audience, and remind them of the effective shot of the two adjacent groups of fruit flies—the active, energetic ones who did sleep, and the motionless ones who didn't.
But this lively portrayal of the experiment dilutes the methods and results at the heart of the science. Aside from the image of the two drastically different groups of flies, the experiment's only other conclusion is the connection between “mushroom bodies” and memory. The video simply states the possibility of a relationship between sleep and memory, and that this relationship operates through a section of the fruit fly's brain called the “mushroom body.” Though this is true, the science delves much deeper. According to an article co-authored by Amita Sehgal, mushroom bodies in fruit flies “participate in the consolidation or retrieval of memories involving olfactory cues, courtship conditioning and context-dependent visual cues by mechanisms that include cAMP [Cyclic adenosine monophosphate] signaling” (Joiner, et al., 759). This is a much more detailed explanation of the role of a mushroom body. Due to the fast pace and simplicity of the video, the viewer (assuming no prior knowledge) can only guess that the mushroom body is some mushroom-shaped organ in the fruit fly's head. The study, however, shows that the mushroom body is a region important to memory and sleep, thereby suggesting “memory and sleep may involve similar molecular pathways (cAMP signaling) and anatomical regulatory loci (MBs)” (Joiner, et al., 759). Though the video presents the conclusions as a vague relation between sleep and memory, the actual science is more precise.
The absence of such specific scientific details in the video, however, is intentional. For Apsell, the details of the research don't carry nearly as much weight as the conclusions, the meaningful discoveries. She is thinking about her intended viewers and her primary purpose: she seeks to fascinate and teach a general audience with a limited science background and probably little patience for calculations and esoteric terms. Throughout the video, there appear no graphs or charts, and few technical details. Apsell wants to awaken the curious scientists and brave experimenters within the children in the audience--and excite adults with cutting-edge science, if only for a brief moment within their busy schedules. And, to everyone, she wants to stress the importance of sleep in building memory.
In a later segment of the video, Apsell and Tyson use a more complicated sleep experiment to expose the link between sleep and memory, but they don't flesh out the procedure. Instead, they harness the elements of video to express their core message that sleep is crucial to learning and memory. This segment follows Tyson and Matthew Wilson, an MIT sleep scientist, as they explore an experiment involving sleeping rats. Wilson shows Tyson the setup: rats run a maze and then go to sleep, all while wearing transmitters that monitor their brain activity. Tyson calls these devices “mindreaders,” and is clearly amazed by Wilson's ability to view “a map of the thoughts of rat[s]”; as he confesses, “that's remarkable.” Such language engages the viewer; if Tyson is excited about the science, it's more likely the audience will be, too. Essentially, the experiment showed that the rats “replayed” their maze journey during sleep; they form memories while they slumbered, picking out specific bits of their maze experience to remember.
... the quick cuts, sharp noises, and overlapping images against a background of blurred visions, wonderfully depict the sleeping mind. And of course, they reinforce the idea that memory is intricately linked with sleep.
The segment is a tour de force of the power of video: the camera taking on the point of view of the scurrying rat in the maze, the energetic music blasting as the rats travel the maze in fast motion, the colorful (and simple) animations of the brain and its regions of activity during sleep. These aspects grip the audience, but also assist in their understanding of the science. The camera perspectives enable viewers to visualize the experiment, and the brain animations help them to recognize the connection between sleep and their brains, between sleep and memory. But the most remarkable elements of this segment are the camera editing and sound effects employed to illustrate our perception of sleep, or, more simply, what we see when we sleep. These features, the quick cuts, sharp noises, and overlapping images against a background of blurred visions, wonderfully depict the sleeping mind. And of course, they reinforce the idea that memory is intricately linked with sleep.
Again, the essence of the science is revealed, but the specifics are unexplored. Apsell fills the entire segment with journeys into the rat's brain rather than with explanations of the experiment itself. All the viewer knows is that scientists can detect brain activity in the rat's hippocampus and visual cortex during sleep, and can identify that activity as the rat learning through replay. However, according to the research paper “Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep” co-authored by Wilson, the actual way the scientists detect brain activity is much more complicated. They search for “spiking patterns [of neural activity] at the population level in the visual cortex and hippocampus during SWS [Slow-wave sleep].” This is effective because “[i]n the neocortex, cells display active depolarized (up) and silent hyperpolarized (down) states in vitro, in anesthetized animals and during SWS” (Ji & Wilson, 100). The video simplifies this information by calling it the rat's “map of thoughts,” a map that is seemingly easy to read. From the research, though, it is evident that this visual interpretation of the rat's mind is much more complex. But Apsell omits these details so that she doesn't sacrifice the clarity of the ultimate message.
A complex understanding of sleep science is not the video's real aim. Rather, the goal of Apsell's is to set minds in motion, to encourage awareness of why we hop into bed every night. In the final video sequence, Apsell and Tyson repeat the phrase “processing memory” at least three times; this strategy of repetition is used to plant the idea in the heads of viewers. At the end of the episode, Apsell uses the elements of video once more to express the great significance of sleep, and the importance of our perception of sleep. The ominous music, the time-captured movement of people in a train station, the blur of citizens walking in the streets among each other in slow motion—all these convey a sense of urgency, and broaden the scope of the piece: sleep affects all of humanity, and all of the world. Summarizing the experiments and facts of the video, Tyson trims it all down to its core, to the heart of sleep science—sleep is crucial for thought, for learning and for processing the world around us. Without sleep, humans could not function. Tyson emphasizes the critical importance of sleep by asking what our “24/7 culture is doing to our ability to think straight.” MIT professor, Matthew Wilson, gives the last words of the piece, saying that when we choose not to sleep, “what we sacrifice, in a sense, is wisdom.”
The beauty of the video is its humble complexity. It's a little firecracker seed with a burning message. The lightness, fun, and visual splendor grab the audience from the beginning. It takes everyone, from excitable children and teenagers to curious old folks, on a journey through sleep—hooks them from the start and keeps them going with awe-inspiring, cutting-edge science and powerful significance. This film doesn't need facts, graphs, and scientific lingo to hit home; the central insight still emerges clearly. Nova Science NOW: Sleep may overlook many specific details of the science, but the producers still achieve their goal: the viewer will go to bed that night knowing that the mushy memories of their day will crystallize overnight, and all they have to do is close their eyes.
Ji, Daoyun, and Matthew Wilson. “Coordinated memory replay in the visual cortex and hippocampus during sleep.” Nature: Neuroscience. 10.1 (2007): 100-107. Print.
Joiner, et al. “Sleep in Drosophila is regulated by adult mushroom bodies.” Nature: Letters. 441.8 (2006): 757-760. Print.
“Sleep.” Prod. Paula Apsell. NOVA Science Now. PBS. WGBH, Boston. 10 July 2007.
<http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/sciencenow/3410/01.html>. 17 March 2010.
“The Science of Sleep.” Prod. Shari Finkelstein. 60 Minutes. CBS. WCBS, New York. 16 March 2008.
<http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/03/14/60minutes/main3939721.shtml>. 17 March 2010.