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.

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Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so…

In the dim and distant past, time was, to humankind, a thing and not much more. There was light-time, then there was dark-time, then there was another lot of light-time; during the day we could hunt, fight, eat and try to stay alive, and during the night we could sleep and have sex. However, we also realised that there were some parts of the year with short days and colder night, and others that were warmer, brighter and better for hunting. Being the bright sort, we humans realised that the amount of time it spent in winter, spring, summer and autumn (fall is the WRONG WORD) was about the same each time around, and thought that rather than just waiting for it to warm up every time we could count how long it took for one cycle (or year) so that we could work out when it was going to get warm next year. This enabled us to plan our hunting and farming patterns, and it became recognised that some knowledge of how the year worked was advantageous to a tribe. Eventually, this got so important that people started building monuments to the annual seasonal progression, hence such weird and staggeringly impressive prehistoric engineering achievements as Stonehenge.

However, this basic understanding of the year and the seasons was only one step on the journey, and as we moved from a hunter-gatherer paradigm to more of a civilised existence, we realised the benefits that a complete calendar could offer us, and thus began our still-continuing test to quantify time. Nowadays our understanding of time extends to clocks accurate to the degree of nanoseconds, and an understanding of relativity, but for a long time our greatest quest into the realm of bringing organised time into our lives was the creation of the concept of the wee.

Having seven days of the week is, to begin with, a strange idea; seven is an awkward prime number, and it seems odd that we don’t pick number that is easier to divide and multiply by, like six, eight or even ten, as the basis for our temporal system. Six would seem to make the most sense; most of our months have around 30 days, or 5 six-day weeks, and 365 days a year is only one less than multiple of six, which could surely be some sort of religious symbolism (and there would be an exact multiple on leap years- even better). And it would mean a shorter week, and more time spent on the weekend, which would be really great. But no, we’re stuck with seven, and it’s all the bloody moon’s fault.

Y’see, the sun’s daily cycle is useful for measuring short-term time (night and day), and the earth’s rotation around it provides the crucial yearly change of season. However, the moon’s cycle is 28 days long (fourteen to wax, fourteen to wane, regular as clockwork), providing a nice intermediary time unit with which to divide up the year into a more manageable number of pieces than 365. Thus, we began dividing the year up into ‘moons’ and using them as a convenient reference that we could refer to every night. However, even a moon cycle is a bit long for day-to-day scheduling, and it proved advantageous for our distant ancestors to split it up even further. Unfortunately, 28 is an awkward number to divide into pieces, and its only factors are 1, 2, 4, 7 and 14. An increment of 1 or 2 days is simply too small to be useful, and a 4 day ‘week’ isn’t much better. A 14 day week would hardly be an improvement on 28 for scheduling purposes, so seven is the only number of a practical size for the length of the week. The fact that months are now mostly 30 or 31 days rather than 28 to try and fit the awkward fact that there are 12.36 moon cycles in a year, hasn’t changed matters, so we’re stuck with an awkward 7 day cycle.

However, this wasn’t the end of the issue for the historic time-definers (for want of a better word); there’s not much advantage in defining a seven day week if you can’t then define which day of said week you want the crops to be planted on. Therefore, different days of the week needed names for identification purposes, and since astronomy had already provided our daily, weekly and yearly time structures it made sense to look skyward once again when searching for suitable names. At this time, centuries before the invention of the telescope, we only knew of seven planets, those celestial bodies that could be seen with the naked eye; the sun, the moon (yeah, their definition of ‘planet’ was a bit iffy), Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. It might seem to make sense, with seven planets and seven days of the week, to just name the days after the planets in a random order, but humankind never does things so simply, and the process of picking which day got named after which planet was a complicated one.

In around 1000 BC the Egyptians had decided to divide the daylight into twelve hours (because they knew how to pick a nice, easy-to-divide number), and the Babylonians then took this a stage further by dividing the entire day, including night-time, into 24 hours. The Babylonians were also great astronomers, and had thus discovered the seven visible planets- however, because they were a bit weird, they decided that each planet had its place in a hierarchy, and that this hierarchy was dictated by which planet took the longest to complete its cycle and return to the same point in the sky. This order was, for the record, Saturn (29 years), Jupiter (12 years), Mars (687 days), Sun (365 days), Venus (225 days), Mercury (88 days) and Moon (28 days). So, did they name the days after the planets in this order? Of course not, that would be far too simple; instead, they decided to start naming the hours of the day after the planets (I did say they were a bit weird) in that order, going back to Saturn when they got to the Moon.

However, 24 hours does not divide nicely by seven planets, so the planet after which the first hour of the day was named changed each day. So, the first hour of the first day of the week was named after Saturn, the first hour of the second day after the Sun, and so on. Since the list repeated itself each week, the Babylonians decided to name each day after the planet that the first hour of each day was named, so we got Saturnday, Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday.

Now, you may have noticed that these are not the days of the week we English speakers are exactly used to, and for that we can blame the Vikings. The planetary method for naming the days of the week was brought to Britain by the Romans, and when they left the Britons held on to the names. However, Britain then spent the next 7 centuries getting repeatedly invaded and conquered by various foreigners, and for most of that time it was the Germanic Vikings and Saxons who fought over the country. Both groups worshipped the same gods, those of Norse mythology (so Thor, Odin and so on), and one of the practices they introduced was to replace the names of four days of the week with those of four of their gods; Tyr’sday, Woden’sday (Woden was the Saxon word for Odin), Thor’sday and Frig’sday replaced Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday and Venusday in England, and soon the fluctuating nature of language renamed the days of the week Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

However, the old planetary names remained in the romance languages (the Spanish translations of the days Tuesday to Friday are Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi and Vendredi), with one small exception. When the Roman Empire went Christian in the fourth century, the ten commandments dictated they remember the Sabbath day; but, to avoid copying the Jews (whose Sabbath was on Saturday), they chose to make Sunday the Sabbath day. It is for this reason that Monday, the first day of the working week after one’s day of rest, became the start of the week, taking over from the Babylonian’s choice of Saturday, but close to Rome they went one stage further and renamed Sunday ‘Deus Dominici’, or Day Of The Lord. The practice didn’t catch on in Britain, thousands of miles from Rome, but the modern day Spanish, French and Italian words for Sunday are domingo, dimanche and domenica respectively, all of which are locally corrupted forms of ‘Deus Dominici’.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a natural conclusion, or even much of a point to it. But hey; I didn’t start writing this because I wanted to make a point, but more to share the kind of stuff I find slightly interesting. Sorry if you didn’t.

Questionably Moral

We human beings tend to set a lot of store by the idea of morality (well, most of us anyway), and it is generally accepted that having a strong code of morals is a good thing. Even if many of us have never exactly qualified what we consider to be right or wrong, the majority of people have at least a basic idea of what they consider morally acceptable and a significant number are willing to make their moral standpoint on various issues very well known to anyone who doesn’t want to listen (internet, I’m looking at you again). One of the key features considered to be integral to such a moral code is the idea of rigidity and having fixed rules. Much like law, morality should ideally be inflexible, passing equal judgement on the same situation regardless of who is involved, how you’re feeling at the time and other outside factors. If only to avoid being accused of hypocrisy, social law dictates that one ‘should’ pass equal moral judgement on both your worst enemy and your spouse, and such a stringent dedication to ‘justice’ is a prized concept among those with strong moral codes.

However, human beings are nothing if not inconsistent, and even the strongest and most vehemently held ideas have a habit of withering in the face of context. One’s moral code is no exception, and with that in mind, let’s talk about cats.

Consider a person- call him a socialist, if you like that sort of description. Somebody who basically believes that we should be doing our bit to help our fellow man. Someone who buys The Big Issue, donates to charity, and gives their change to the homeless. They take the view that those in a more disadvantaged position should be offered help, and they live and share this view on a daily basis.

Now, consider what happens when, one day, said person is having a barbecue and a stray cat comes into the garden. Such strays are, nowadays, uncommon in suburban Britain, but across Europe (the Mediterranean especially), there may be hundreds of them in a town (maybe the person’s on holiday). Picture one such cat- skinny, with visible ribs, unkempt and patchy fur, perhaps a few open sores. A mangy, quite pathetic creature, clinging onto life through a mixture of tenacity and grubbing for scraps, it enters the garden and makes its way towards the man and his barbecue.

Human beings, especially modern-day ones, leave quite a wasteful and indulgent existence. We certainly do not need the vast majority of the food we produce and consume, and could quite happily do without a fair bit of it. A small cat, by contrast, can survive quite happily for at least day on just one small bowl of food, or a few scraps of meat. From a neutral, logical standpoint, therefore, the correct and generous thing to do according to this person’s moral standpoint, would be to throw the cat a few scraps and sleep comfortably with a satisfied conscience that evening. But, all our person sees is a mangy street cat, a dirty horrible stray that they don’t want anywhere near them or their food, so they do all they can to kick, scream, shout, throw water and generally drive a starving life form after just a few scraps away from a huge pile of pristine meat, much of which is likely to go to waste.

Now, you could argue that if the cat had been given food, it would have kept on coming back, quite insatiably, for more, and could possibly have got bolder and more aggressive. An aggressive, confident cat is more likely to try and steal food, and letting a possibly diseased and flea-ridden animal near food you are due to eat is probably not in the best interests of hygiene. You could argue that offering food is just going to encourage other cats to come to you for food, until you become a feeding station for all those in the area and are thus promoting the survival and growth of a feline population that nobody really likes to see around and would be unsustainable to keep. You could argue, if you were particularly harsh and probably not of the same viewpoint as the person in question, that a cat is not ‘worth’ as much as a human, if only because we should stick to looking after our own for starters and, in any case, it would be better for the world anyway if there weren’t stray cats around to cause such freak out-ness and moral dilemmas. But all of this does not change the fact that this person has, from an objective standpoint, violated their moral code by refusing a creature less fortunate than themselves a mere scrap that could, potentially, represent the difference between their living and dying.

There are other such examples of such moral inconsistency in the world around us. Animals are a common connecting factor (pacifists and people who generally don’t like murder will quite happily swat flies and such ‘because they’re annoying’), but there are other, more human examples (those who say we should be feeding the world’s poor whilst simultaneously both eating and wasting vast amounts of food and donating a mere pittance to help those in need). Now, does this mean that all of these moral standpoints are stupid? Of course not, if we all decided not to help and be nice to one another then the world would be an absolute mess. Does it mean that we’re all just bad, hypocritical people, as the violently forceful charity collectors would have you believe? Again, no- this ‘hypocrisy’ is something that all humans do to some extent, so either the entire human race is fundamentally flawed (in which case the point is not worth arguing) or we feel that looking after ourselves first and foremost before helping others is simply more practical. Should we all turn to communist leadership to try and redress some of these imbalances and remove the moral dilemmas? I won’t even go there.

It’s a little hard to identify a clear moral or conclusion to all of this, except to highlight that moral inconsistency is a natural and very human trait. Some might deplore this state of affairs, but we’ve always known humans are imperfect creatures; not that that gives us a right to give up on being the best we can be.