When Norah Wolk reached out to scientists to see if she could discuss her research interests, she did not get many responses. A junior in high school at the time, “not many of them wanted to have a conversation with a high schooler,” she recalled. But it only took one responsive postdoctoral researcher to have a major impact: Remington Mallett from Ken Paller’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab at Northwestern responded to Wolk in a move that would create a 2-year-long collaboration that culminated in Wolk presenting their work in a poster at CNS 2023.
Wolk’s project started as part of a research program at her high school in northern California, Marin Academy, which encouraged students to contact scientists. When Wolk started talking to Mallett via Zoom, she never imagined where it would lead. With Mallett’s expertise and mentorship, Wolk conceptualized a study that would use mindfulness for targeted memory activation in sleep. Wolk would eventually visit the lab in Chicago, learning from Mallett and others how to use EEG and other electrography equipment, and working directly with study participants.
“I didn’t know that I was going to be able to actually go to the lab and do hands-on work,” Wolk said at the CNS 2023 meeting. “And I never expected to be able to attend a conference or anything like that. I thought it was going to be more like online research, reading a bunch of papers and completing an analysis or something like that, but this has definitely been better than my expectations.”
At CNS 2023, as a high school senior, Wolk presented the research she conducted with Mallett, answering questions from university students, postdocs, and faculty alike about the study design and lucid dreams more generally. In the study, the research team asked participants to do a breath counting mindfulness task, pressing one button for breaths 1-8 and another button for breath 9.
“That way, we could track if they were actually keeping count of their breathing,” she explained. “And while they were doing this task, we were playing an auditory cue. Once they went to sleep, we tracked their sleep stages until they got into REM sleep and then replayed the sound in hopes that it would reactivate their memory of completing the task.”
The goal was to be able to trigger higher order cognition, which is believed to be key to inducing lucid dreams while sleeping. When dreams are lucid, it can enable people to better control their dreams or get themselves to wake up, including during nightmares, she said.
Wolk became inspired to pursue this work after watching a virtual TEDx Marin conference with her family about sleep and nightmares. Until she got into contact with Mallett, however, she didn’t even know lucid dreams were something that could be studied. She is grateful for the support of Mallett and the Paller lab, and the coordinators for her school’s research program, Amy Strauss and Emily Willingham. “It’s been a very supportive community for me,” she said.
Like the overall research experience, presenting at CNS 2023 exceeded Wolk’s expectations. “I didn’t really know what it would be like, but it has been so cool to be here,” she said at the meeting. “I just love hearing from all the different scientists in the different symposiums … and to hear how passionate people are about their work. And it was so cool to see that other people were excited about my project too. It’s been a great experience to get to meet all different types of people who share a passion for science.”
-Lisa M.P. Munoz