Sleep Tight

Human beings spend, on average, approximately one third of their lives asleep; eight hours a night, every night, for the entire seventy-odd year duration of our lives. We have created inventions and devised entire living spaces dedicated to our pursuit of this activity, which makes it all the more strange how relatively little we understand about it.

The actual mechanisms surrounding sleep are actually quite well documented; ‘everyone knows’ that there are two types of sleep, REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, characterised by one’s eyes moving around rapidly beneath closed lids whilst the rest of one’s muscles remain paralysed, and non-REM (or NREM) sleep. Less people know that NREM sleep is also typically subdivided into three separate types of its own; N1, in which the body is semi-awake and able of moving around, N2, in which one’s brain activity begins to change and it becomes harder to wake up the subject concerned, and N3, in which the body becomes even less responsive. In most people, sleep follows a fixed cycle of N1, then N2, then N3, N2 again and finally a short period of REM sleep before either awakening or the cycle starting again.

Of all these stages, it is REM sleep that provides the most interesting question. Contrary to popular belief, REM sleep is not the only period in which dreams occur (experiments in which sleepers are interrupted during different stages of their sleep cycle reveal that dreams can occur at pretty much any time), but dreams occurring during REM sleep are more common and the most memorable afterwards. It is also during this period in which a subject’s brain activity, at least in humans, most closely resembles that when the subject is awake, but a subject in REM sleep is also hardest to wake up and the least responsive to outside stimulus. It is for this reason that REM sleep is also someone known as ‘paradoxical sleep’.

However, the main reason REM sleep is so interesting is because it is thought to be the only sort of sleep that ‘matters’. To explain; some people nowadays are, apparently, terribly worried by how much time they spend asleep that could be more productively spent watching cat videos on YouTube, so have endeavoured to find alternative sleep patterns that minimise the amount of time they need to spend dead to the world. Most of these involve taking short naps at regular intervals throughout the day, adding up to about two hours sleep time total. An example is the ‘ultraman’ sleep schedule, which involves sleeping for 20 minutes at a time every four hours. When people are first adapting to this technique, it absolutely ruins them; their body is barely getting past the N1 stage before its preset cycle is broken, and they spend their days in a perpetual fuzz of sleep-deprived madness. However, after a week or so, their body learns to adapt to the change, and they find that their ‘power naps’ are perfectly sufficient to survive their sleep needs. When these successful adapters are monitored during one of these naps, it turns out that all of their 20 minute snooze is REM sleep, rather than the 20-25% normally expected. That they are able to function on this two hours of REM just as well as others are on their eight hours of ‘normal’ sleep, which comes out to around 2 hours REM, 6 hours NREM, suggests that it is the 2 hours of REM that causes us to feel rested, and as such is the only ‘important’ aspect of sleep.

This theory would probably be more understood and widely respected were it understood precisely what sleep is for. Whilst sleep deprivation is known to increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and heart disease and to adversely affect the brain, skeletal muscles and immune system, indicating its importance, nobody is quite sure precisely how or why any of it happens. Stanford researcher William Dement, who has spent over 50 years studying sleep and is the man who discovered the different stages of sleep, once said that “As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy.” Some theories suggest that sleep’s restorative properties stem from the way different chemicals and hormones are secreted during different sleep stages due to differential brain activity, but these arguments generally don’t explain the apparent importance of REM sleep despite it being so neurologically similar to wakefulness. Some suggest that sleep is an energy saving tactic, highlighting the effect that it has on the metabolism of a sleeping subject. However, whilst the body’s resting metabolic rate does decrease whilst sleeping, it only does so by between 5 and 10 percent, which is not evolutionarily sufficient justification on its own for spending eight hours a day incredibly vulnerable to attack. Not only that, but animals who hibernate (a fundamentally different process than sleeping), frequently wake up and go to sleep almost immediately, indicating that sleep fulfils an entirely different function (or set of functions) not satisfied by hibernation alone. Others highlight evidence supporting the idea that REM sleep is crucial to brain development in infants (most of a baby’s sleep time is spent in a REM state), but this doesn’t adequately explain why adults need lots of REM too. Yet another set of adherents point out the connection between sleep and memory, which may also be linked to why our brain reacts so badly to sleep deprivation, but offer no explicit link between the two or the way sleep affects our body physically. The true answer, if ever it is found, will probably lie somewhere in between all of these theories.

The key conclusion that can be taken from this post is, therefore, that sleep is weird. And that’s before we’ve even touched on the weirdest part of sleep: dreams, which I wouldn’t touch here with a ten foot pole. Some things just plain don’t want to be explained, and any field in which Inception isn’t a wholly ridiculous concept is most certainly one of them.


The Rich and the Failures

Modern culture loves its celebrities. For many a year, our obsessions have been largely focused upon those who spend their lives in the public eye- sportsmen and women, film and music stars, and anyone lucky and vacuous enough to persuade a TV network that they deserve a presenting contract. In recent years however, the sphere of fame has spread outwards, incorporating some more niche fields- survival experts like Bear Grylls are one group to come under the spotlight, as are a multitude of chefs who have begun to work their way into the media. However, the group I wish to talk about are businessmen. With the success of shows like Dragon’s Den and The Apprentice, as well as the charisma of such business giants as Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, a few people who were once only known of by dry financiers are now public figures who we all recognise.

One of the side-effects of this has, of course, been the publishing of autobiographies. It is almost a rite of passage for the modern celebrity- once you have been approached by a publisher and (usually) ghostwriter to get your life down on paper, you know you’ve made it. In the case of businessmen, the target market for these books are people in awe of their way of life – the self-made riches, the fame and the standing – who wish to follow in their footsteps and as such, these autobiographies are basically long guides of business advice based around their own personal case study. The books now filling this genre do not only come from the big TV megastars however- many other people smart enough to spot a good bandwagon and rich enough to justify leaping onto it appear to be following the trend of publishing these ‘business manuals’, in an effort to make another quick buck to add to their own long personal lists.

The advice they offer can be fairly predictable- don’t back down, doggedly push on when people give you crap, take risks and break the rules, spot opportunities and try to be the first one to exploit them, etc. All of which is, I am sure what they believe really took them to the top.

I, however, would add one more thing to this list- learn to recognise when you’re onto a loser. For whilst all this advice might work superbly for the handful of millionaires able to put their stories down, it could be said to have worked less well for the myriad of people who lie broken and failed by the wayside from following exactly the same advice. You see, it is many of those exact same traits – a stubborn, almost arrogant, refusal to back down, a risk-taking, opportunistic personality, unshakeable, almost delusional, self-confidence – that characterise many of our society’s losers. The lonely drunk in the bar banging on about how ‘I could have made it y’know’ is one example, or the bloke whose worked in the same office for 20 years and has very much his own ideas about his repeated passing over for promotion. These people have never been able to let go, never been able to step outside the all-encompassing bubble of their own fantasy and realise the harsh reality of their situation, and indeed of life itself. They are just as sure of themselves as Duncan Bannatyne, just as pugnacious as Alan Sugar, just as eager to spy an opportunity as Steve Jobs. But it’s the little things that separate them, and keep their salary in the thousands rather than the millions. Not just the business nous, but the ability to recognise a sure-fire winner from a dead horse, the ability to present oneself as driven rather than arrogant, to know who to trust and which side to pick, as well as the little slivers (and in some cases giant chunks) of luck that are behind every major success. And just as it is the drive and single-mindedness that can set a great man on his road to riches, so it can also be what holds back the hundreds of failures who try to follow in his footsteps and end up chasing dreams, when they are unable to escape them.

I well recognise that I am in a fairly rubbish position from which to offer advice in this situation, as I have always recognised that business, and in some ways success itself, is not my strong suit. Whilst I am not sure it would be all too beyond me to create a good product, I am quite aware that my abilities to market and sell such an item would not do it justice. In this respect I am born to be mediocre- whilst I have some skills, I don’t have the ambition or confidence to try and go for broke in an effort to hit the top. However, whilst this conservative approach does limit my chances of hitting the big time, it also allows me to stay grounded and satisfied with my position and minimises the chance of any catastrophic failure in life.

I’m not entirely sure what lessons one can take from this idea. For anyone seeking to go for the stars, then all I can offer is good luck, and a warning to keep your head on your shoulders and a firm grip on reality. For everyone else… well, I suppose that the best way to put it is to say that there are two ways to seek success in your life. One is to work out exactly where you want to be, exactly how you want to be successful, and strive to achieve it. You may have to give up a lot, and it may take you a very, very long time, but if you genuinely have what it takes and are not deluding yourself, then that path is not closed off to you.

The other, some would say harder, yet arguably more rewarding way, is to learn how to be happy with who and what you are right now.

Life is not just a body

Today, I am in a bad mood. When I get into this particular bad mood, my thoughts turn a little dark. So, as such, this post is going to be on the subject of death.
People die all the time- just about the only certainty of anyone’s existence is that it’s going to happen eventually. Death is perfectly necessary, and for most humans living in the developed world, it happens after a long and hopefully fulfilling time on this earth. In fact, across nature this is a fairly established pattern- if a wildebeest survives to be full-grown, it’s likely that, barring illness or injury, it will continue to live until it is old enough to become a prime target for the lions again. Another regularly occurring feature is the method of death- animals die either of disease, or they are hunted and killed- this is the natural cycle. However, humans are the exception to the rule, as we have taken death and killing to an entirely new level.
The most obvious example of this is pure, cold-blooded murder. Humans are not the only species to fight and kill one another over, for example, a mate, but they are the only race to commit pure slaughter of innocents on such a massive scale as has been done. Psychopathic killings, grotesque genocides- many times throughout human history killing innocent people has been done for no justifiable reason. The Nazi genocides were of course the worst example of this- millions upon millions of people, innocent of any crime, were slaughtered like worthless animals simply for being different to a perverted image of perfection.
With its prevalence in everyday culture, the true impact of actually killing someone can often be forgotten. Consider it for a moment. You are the killer, faced with an innocent figure, begging you for their life. They have a life, maybe a family. They are a person just like you or I. They have hopes, dreams, emotions- they could be a wonderful person, do amazing things, help other people.  Once they are gone, all that can never be. You have removed someone’s child, someone’s parent. You have removed someone’s protector, someone’s friend. By removing them, you are abandoning their friends, their partners, their relatives, leaving them alone without a shoulder to lean on. When one really thinks about it, human beings can be truly amazing, capable of doing truly amazing things. Now, ask yourself- how is anybody capable of taking a perfectly innocent life?
Notice how all the above points make no reference to the destructive effect on the body- the real crime of a murder is not the destruction of their vehicle to live and breath, but the destruction of their ability to think and, in a more philosophical sense, be. There is something truly and deeply inhuman about idea of deliberately targeting a fellow human being’s soul to be forced to undergo the most horrible atrocities against its nature, to be battered and bent and destroyed. And that is why there are two other crimes I wish to talk about here that I believe, loosely, to be in the same bracket as murder.
The first of these is torture (and also, for much of the same reasons, rape). For anyone who hasn’t read it already, I refer you to part 3 of George Orwell’s ‘1984’. For everyone who has read it already, read it again- it’s a great read and I always thought that his descriptions of the effects of torture were especially accurate. Orwell makes a very telling point- the torture does not stop when Winston’s body is battered and destroyed- it stops when he surrenders his will. At that point, he has ceased to be Winston Smith, a man under his own control- his very being has been bent into the party doctrine. One does not even have to force the surrender for torture to be the basest of crimes- deliberately causing another human being to hurt and suffer. Deliberately making the life of another worse to the point of mental collapse, another person like yourself… now there is inhuman.
The last of the three crimes in this bracket is somewhat far removed from the other two, and is certainly not as severe a crime as either- it is defamation of character, ie formulating lies about another person in order to make them social rejects and generally ruin them. This varies widely in scale, from simple bullying (something else I have an obsessive hatred of on principle), to… well go onto BBC iPlayer, watch the latest episode of Sherlock and you get the idea- its a far more effective and complete victory than murder ever would be. The really interesting thing about this is the effect that it has on the mind. Loneliness is never noted as being a good thing for one’s mental health, but when it is combined with the knowledge that it is perpetuating for as long as you remain in the same sphere of existing, it is enough to drive you insane. Knowing that you are innocent of what is being said, and yet simultaneously having that fact thrown back into your face at every turn sends the mind into a spiral of confusion and chaos, ruining someone from the inside out. It may seem like something completely alien from the inhuman atrocities of torture and murder, and when it is performed ineffectually its effect is trifling. But doing it properly, to the right target in the right way, watching all the structure of the life they lead crumble about them, is one of the most destructive forces to target the mind.
I don’t really know why I wrote this, or if it sounds like some disjointed ramble or not (if it does, please comment and say so). But this has been going round my head for the past 24 hours, and I kind of needed to get it off my chest. My apologies for the dark subject matter, I’ll try to be more light-hearted next time