[Paleopsych] Psychology Today: The Perils of Higher Education
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Tue Mar 29 15:47:39 UTC 2005
The Perils of Higher Education
Psychology Today, March-April 2005 v38 i2 p64(5)
The perils of higher education : can't remember the difference
between declensions and derivatives? Blame college. The undergrad life
is a blast, but it may lead you to forget everything you learn. Steven
[ First, a summary from the Chronicles of Higher Education
A glance at the March/April issue of Psychology Today: Living it up --
and learning less
It is no surprise that college students often stay up all night, eat too
much fatty food, and get drunk, but the effects of those activities on
learning and memory are surprisingly detrimental, says Steven Kotler, a
"It turns out that the exact place we go to get an education may in fact
be one of the worst possible environments in which to retain anything
we've learned," he writes.
Drinking binges don't affect students just until they sober up, he says.
Alcohol can have longer-term effects on the brain. An animal study
showed that brain cells formed during a bout of drinking did not work
properly once they matured and that those cells died faster than normal
ones, he says.
Eating too much fat and sugar can also have harmful effects on memory
and learning, he says. So "students who fuel their studies with fast
food have something more serious than the 'freshman 15' to worry about:
They may literally be eating themselves stupid," he writes.
And staying awake all night, even to study, is not smart, either, Mr.
Kotler says. One study showed that people who stayed up for 24 hours
after learning a new skill had lost it completely a week later, he says.
Different types of memory are refreshed during different sleep phases,
so optimal memory performance requires a full eight hours of sleep.
"All this news makes you wonder how anyone's ever managed to get an
education," he writes. "Or what would happen to GPA's at a vegetarian
university with a 10 p.m. curfew."
An excerpt of the article is available at
WE GO TO COLLEGE TO LEARN, TO SOAK UP dazzling array of information
intended to prepare us for adult life. But college is not simply a data
dump; it is also the end of parental supervision. For many students,
that translates into four years of late nights, pizza banquets and boozy
weekends that start on Wednesday. And while we know that bad habits are
detrimental to cognition in general--think drunk driving--new studies
show that the undergrad urges to eat, drink and be merry have
devastating effects on learning and memory. It turns out that the exact
place we go to get an education may in fact be one of the worst possible
environments in which to retain anything we've learned.
DUDE, I HAVEN'T SLEPT IN THREE DAYS!
Normal human beings spend one-third of their lives asleep, but today's
college students aren't normal. A recent survey of undergraduates and
medical students at Stanford University found 80 percent of them
qualified as sleep-deprived, and a poll taken by the National Sleep
Foundation found that most young adults get only 6.8 hours a night.
All-night cramfests may seem to be the only option when the end of the
semester looms, but in fact getting sleep--and a full dose of it--might
be a better way to ace exams. Sleep is crucial to declarative memory,
the hard, factual kind that helps us remember which year World War I
began, or what room the French Lit class is in. It's also essential for
procedural memory, the "know-how" memory we use when learning to drive a
car or write a five-paragraph essay. "Practice makes perfect," says
Harvard Medical School psychologist Matt Walker, "but having a night's
rest after practicing might make you even better."
Walker taught 100 people to bang out a series of nonsense sequences on a
keyboard--a standard procedural memory task. When asked to replay the
sequence 12 hours later, they hadn't improved. But when one group of
subjects was allowed to sleep overnight before being retested, their
speed and accuracy improved by 20 to 30 percent. "It was bizarre," says
Walker. "We were seeing people's skills improve just by sleeping."
For procedural memory, the deep slow-wave stages of sleep were the most
important for improvement--particularly during the last two hours of the
night. Declarative memory, by contrast, gets processed during the
slow-wave stages that come in the first two hours of sleep. "This means
that memory requires a full eight hours of sleep," says Walker. He also
found that if someone goes without sleep for 24 hours after acquiring a
new skill, a week later they will have lost it completely. So college
students who pull all-nighters during exam week might do fine on their
tests but may not remember any of the material by next semester.
Walker believes that the common practice of back-loading semesters with
a blizzard of papers and exams needs a rethink. "Educators are just
encouraging sleeplessness," says Walker. "This is just not an effective
way to force information into the brain."
WHO'S UP FOR PIZZA?
Walk into any college cafeteria and you'll find a smorgasbord of French
fries, greasy pizza, burgers, potato chips and the like. On top of that,
McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and other fast-food chains have been
gobbling up campus real estate in recent years. With hectic schedules
and skinny budgets, students find fast food an easy alternative. A
recent Tufts University survey found that 50 percent of students eat too
much fat, and 70 to 80 percent eat too much saturated fat.
But students who fuel their studies with fast food have something more
serious than the "freshman 15" to worry about: They may literally be
eating themselves stupid. Researchers have known since the late 1980s
that bad eating habits contribute to the kind of cognitive decline found
in diseases like Alzheimer's. Since then, they've been trying to find
out exactly how a bad diet might be hard on the brain. Ann-Charlotte
Granholm, director of the Center for Aging at the Medical University of
South Carolina, has recently focused on trans fat, widely used in
fast-food cooking because it extends the shelf life of foods. Trans fat
is made by bubbling hydrogen through unsaturated fat, with copper or
zinc added to speed the chemical reaction along. These metals are
frequently found in the brains of people with Alzheimer's, which sparked
To investigate, she fed one group of rats a diet high in trans fat and
compared them with another group fed a diet that was just as greasy but
low in trans fat. Six weeks later, she tested the animals in a water
maze, the rodent equivalent of a final exam in organic chemistry. "The
trans-fat group made many more errors," says Granholm, especially when
she used more difficult mazes.
When she examined the rats' brains, she found that trans-fat eaters had
fewer proteins critical to healthy neurological function. She also saw
inflammation in and around the hippocampus, the part of the brain
responsible for learning and memory. "It was alarming," says Granholm.
"These are the exact types of changes we normally see at the onset of
Alzheimer's, but we saw them after six weeks," even though the rats were
Her work corresponds to a broader inquiry conducted by Veerendra Kumar
Madala Halagaapa and Mark Mattson of the National Institute on Aging.
The researchers fed four groups of mice different diets--normal,
high-fat, high-sugar and high-fat/high-sugar. Each diet had the same
caloric value, so that one group of mice wouldn't end up heavier. Four
months later, the mice on the high-fat diets performed significantly
worse than the other groups on a water maze test.
[Graphic omitted] The researchers then exposed the animals to a
neurotoxin that targets the hippocampus, to assess whether a high-fat
diet made the mice less able to cope with brain damage. Back in the
maze, all the animals performed worse than before, but the mice who had
eaten the high-fat diets were most seriously compromised. "Based on our
work," says Mattson, "we'd predict that people who eat high-fat diets
and high-fat/high-sugar diets are not only damaging their ability- to
learn and remember new information, but also putting themselves at much
greater risk for all sorts of neurodegenerative disorders like
WELCOME TO MARGARITAVILLE STATE UNIVERSITY
It's widely recognized that heavy drinking doesn't exactly boost your
intellect. But most people figure that their booze-induced foolishness
wears off once the hangover is gone. Instead, it turns out that even
limited stints of overindulgence may have long-term effects.
Less than 20 years ago, researchers began to realize that the adult
brain wasn't just a static lump of cells. They found that stem cells in
the brain are constantly churning out new neurons, particularly in the
hippocampus. Alcoholism researchers, in turn, began to wonder if chronic
alcoholics' memory problems had something to do with nerve cell birth
In 2000, Kimberly Nixon and Fulton Crews at the University of North
Carolina's Bowles Center for Alcohol Studies subjected lab rats to four
days of heavy alcohol intoxication. They gave the rats a week to shake
off their hangovers, then tested them on and off during the next month
in a water maze. "We didn't find anything at first," says Nixon. But on
the 19th day, the rats who had been on the binge performed much worse.
In 19 days, the cells born during the binge had grown to maturity--and
clearly, the neurons born during the boozy period didn't work properly
once they reached maturity." [The timing] was almost too perfect," says
[Graphic omitted] While normal rats generated about 2,500 new brain
cells in three weeks, the drinking rats produced only 1,400. A month
later, the sober rats had lost about half of those new cells through
normal die-off. But all of the new cells died in the brains of the binge
drinkers. "This was startling," says Nixon. "It was the first time
anyone had found that alcohol not only inhibits the birth of new cells
but also inhibits the ones that survive." In further study, they found
that a week's abstinence produced a twofold burst of neurogenesis, and a
month off the sauce brought cognitive function back to normal.
What does this have to do with a weekend keg party? A number of recent
studies show that college students consume far more alcohol than anyone
previously suspected. Forty-four percent of today's collegiates drink
enough to be classified as binge drinkers, according to a nationwide
survey of 10,000 students done at Harvard University,. The amount of
alcohol consumed by Nixon's binging rats far exceeded intake at a
typical keg party--but other research shows that the effects of alcohol
work on a sliding scale. Students who follow a weekend of heavy drinking
with a week of heavy studying might not forget everything they learn.
They just may struggle come test time.
CAN I BURN A SMOKE?
If this ledger of campus menaces worries you, here's something you
really won't like: Smoking cigarettes may actually have some cognitive
benefits, thanks to the power of nicotine. The chemical improves mental
focus, as scientists have known since the 1950s. Nicotine also aids
concentration in people who have ADHD and may protect against
Alzheimer's disease. Back in 2000, a nicotine-like drug under
development by the pharmaceutical company Astra Arcus USA was shown to
restore the ability to learn and remember in rats with brain lesions
similar to those found in Alzheimer's patients. More recently Granholm,
the scientist investigating trans fats and memory, found that nicotine
enhances spatial memory in healthy rats. Other researchers have found
that nicotine also boosts both emotional memory (the kind that helps us
not put our hands back in the fire after we've been burned) and auditory
There's a catch: Other studies show that nicotine encourages
state-dependent learning. The idea is that if, for example, you study in
blue sweats, it helps to take the exam in blue sweats. In other words,
what you learn while smoking is best recalled while smoking. Since
lighting up in an exam room might cause problems, cigarettes probably
aren't the key to getting on the dean's list.
Nonetheless, while the number of cigarette smokers continues to drop
nationwide, college students are still lighting up: As many as 30
percent smoke during their years of higher education. The smoking rate
for young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 has actually risen in the
All this news makes you wonder how anyone's ever managed to get an
education. Or what would happen to GPAs at a vegetarian university with
a 10 P.M. curfew. But you might not need to go to such extremes. While
Granholm agrees that the excesses of college can be "a perfect example
of what you shouldn't do to yourself if you are trying to learn," she
doesn't recommend abstinence. "Moderation," she counsels, "just like in
everything else. Moderation is the key to collegiate success."
STEVEN KOTLER, based in Los Angeles, has written for The New York Times
Magazine, National Geographic, Details, Wired and Outside.
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