When you think of Alan Alda, you probably picture your favorite episode of M*A*S*H, the award-winning, long-running television show that ran in the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s more to Mr. Alda then that one role. Among other interests, he has a passion for science and making it accessible to young people, and as a result he initiated a challenge a few years back, inviting scientists to explain difficult concepts in terms that eleven year olds could understand. His initial challenge was to answer the question, “What is flame?” Since that time his questions have become known as the Flame Challenge, and this year’s question will address an issue that many adults would like the answer to as well: What is sleep?
The question is being posed to scientists from all around the world, who have been asked to provide submissions in the form of either writing, graphics, or a video. All answers that are received will be reviewed by a panel of children who will determine who best answers the question in a way that is understandable. When asked why he chose sleep for this year’s question, Mr. Alda said, “Sleep is something mysterious to all of us at every age. I think the idea that you get drowsy and drop off at a certain point is a weird experience, and it happens to everybody. So what is it? Why do we do it?”.
His own interest aside, the opportunity to come up with each year’s question is a group effort that derives from an online poll. This year’s other top questions involved electricity, wind, and germs, but sleep was the winner by far. The judges will choose from among all entrants to select the two answers that they believe provide the best explanations, and the winners will each be awarded $1,000 and a trip to the World Science Festival, held each year in New York City.
This is not Mr. Alda’s first quest into the world of sleep. He took part in a notable episode of the Scientific American Frontiers series, in which he participated in a sleep laboratory study at Harvard University’s Sleep Lab in an attempt to understand where dreams come from. In the episode, titled, “What’s in a Dream,” he was hooked up to all of the normal sleep laboratory sensors and then his brain’s associative powers were tested by flashing words across a video screen for him to determine whether or not they were related. In some cases the image on the screen was actually a nonsense word.
While awake, Mr. Alda associates the words on the video screen well. He is then permitted to sleep for a while, and woken up from REM sleep and tested again. The test showed that after REM sleep his brain was better able to make the word associations, even in those cases where the word provided was a nonsense word. The scientists conducting the test theorized that this is how the brain turns nonsense into dreams.