/ Maggie Koerth-Baker / 8 pm Fri, Oct 21 2011
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  • Science Book Club: The Siesta and the Midnight Sun

    Science Book Club: The Siesta and the Midnight Sun

    Why did you choose go to sleep last night at the particular time you did?

    Maybe you were just plain tired. But, chances are, there were other factors involved in that decision, as well. Where you hoping to get a certain number of hours of rest before you had to get up and go to work? Maybe it just felt like time to crawl into bed, because your friends and family were, too. If you stayed up later, would you feel like you were doing something wrong? Do your sleep patterns change when you've spent time in another country?

    Sleep, and the physical cycles that drive it, aren't just about biology. The patterns and expectations surrounding sleep have varied greatly throughout human history and from place to place. Sleep is cultural. If you want to understand the science of sleep, you have to learn both biochemistry and anthropology.

    That's the message at the heart of Jessa Gamble's The Siesta and the Midnight Sun. This is a book about how circadian rhythms work. But it's also a book about how the invention of the clock and the long arm of Western colonialism changed the way human beings relate to the world around them in a really fundamental way.

    I'll be honest. That perspective took me off-guard. I dove into this book expecting to learn some cool biology. And I did. Gamble spends the first third of the book talking about how seasonal and daily rhythms manifest in animals and plants ... and how we see traces of those rhythms in humans. You'll discover that in some species, like sheep, hormone levels drop and the testes actually retreat into the male's body for much of the year, preventing breeding at times when food is scare. And you'll find that male humans still carry echoes of this: Their reproductive hormones peak at the beginning of summer and drop off at the end of summer, taking condom sales and STD diagnoses along with them.

    I also expected to learn some practical advice about what we should do to sleep in a more healthy way. That's in the book, too. Gamble actually recommends a couple of cool smart phone applications. Jet Lag Fighter helps you prepare for a cross-country or trans-oceanic flight by slowly acclimatizing you to different sleep patterns over a number of days leading up to your trip. Sleep Cycle alarm clock asks you to sleep with your head on your phone. It then uses the phone's accelerometer to monitor your movement and determine where you are in your sleep cycles. That way, you can make sure that your alarm goes off when you're already at a light stage of sleep, which leaves you feeling more rested.

    (There's also a really interesting section where Gamble discusses the perils of a fad "natural" health trend that recommended people change their sleep pattern to take multiple short naps throughout the day—and never really sleep for hours at all.)

    But The Siesta and the Midnight Sun is really at its most intriguing (and Gamble's writing is at its best) when the book moves past the biological basics and into the deeper story of how and why humans choose to go against their circadian rhythms, and how those changes affect us.

    This involves a lot of cultural relativism—sleep has always meant something different to people in the Arctic compared to people in the tropics. It involves some critique of how cultures dominate and change each other—before the 9-5 work day, Arctic cultures were able to adapt their lives to the demands of extreme seasons and the midnight sun in a much more comfortable way. And it also involves issues of class. It is impossible right now to read about what happens to a human body subjected to shift work, particularly swing shift work, without thinking of it in the context of the 99%. As a well-off, self-employed person, I have the privilege of adjusting my sleep schedules to match what makes me feel healthy. Meanwhile, someone who needs to work the late shift accepts an increased risk of cancer and what amounts to constant, life-long jet lag in exchange for a paycheck.

    Ultimately, The Siesta and the Midnight Sun is a lot like the biological processes it documents and deconstructs—utterly fascinating, but not always comfortable. And that's a good thing.

    Image: Midnight Sun, June 1. 2007, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from artic's photostream

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    1. Why did you choose go to sleep last night at the particular time you did?

      Because that’s when the baby stopped crying.

      The book sounds interesting, though.

      1. No joke.  And then I chose to go to sleep later on when the 6 year old went back to bed after I took him down to the bathroom.  Later on, I chose to sleep in the spare bed for a bit after all the kids snuck into our bed and I couldn’t be arsed to move them all back.

        But I remember, and hopefully look forward to those days when sleep was a matter of choice rather than desperation.

    2. Perhaps this review can be rerun once it is available in the USA?  I looks very interesting, but I cannot even pre order on amazon.com (only amazon.ca) right now, so a little hard to remember I may want it.

    3. This stuff is cool…

      After eleven years in the subarctic I’ve adjusted, but I remember my first years: buying black-out cloth to cover the windows so that I could sleep in the summer, winter mornings when I was, literally, unable to move even after ten hours of sleep. It’s no joke.  Pretty soon, it will be completely dark by 5pm, where I live. If I don’t get out every day and do something aerobic, in the fresh air, particularily around noon, when there is direct sun to shine in my face, I will start wanting to go to bed earlier and earlier each night, as the light goes away.

      The midnight sun in summer is a drug. It’s intoxicating and exhausting…a continuous low buzz, like too much caffeine. If you are not careful, you  forget to sleep. There are no external cues…the angle of the sun barely changes hour to hour, so you don’t think to check as time passes. Like that holiday planet from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it always seems to be late afternoon.  It’s great for hiking and gardening, but anyone inclined to binge alcohol or other substances can get into serious trouble. The light gives them the energy to just keep partying through days that never really end. Sometimes I go south in May, or early June and fall asleep over dinner or while out having drinks with friends. I will not have seen real dark for weeks at that point and the setting sun triggers an immediate bodily shut-down.  Again, physical activity helps you cope…if you are truly exhausted, you sleep no matter how bright the sun is.

      Apparently, caribou (reindeer) are selected to suppress their daily clock… they eat and sleep in short patterns as an adaptation to an environment where there is sometimes no night, sometimes no day and much changing around between those seasonal extremes.

      1. The sun isn’t even going above th 35 degree line anymore. I biggest impact of winter days, for me, comes from the angle of the sun. Sure 4 hours of sunlight is not a lot, but the fact that it’s so golden and red the whole time really throws me off.
        I love it. The north is wonderful.

      2. There is an excellent Northern Exposure episode where Joel experiences this ‘high’ and crashes right before the big basketball game, not to awake for 3 days.

    4. Is it petty and churlish of me to point out that the amazon.ca list price is $20.06 for the hardcover, but the Kindle edition (available if you’re using a Canada-registered Kindle) currently costs $28.46?

      I read a column about this book months ago, had it on my wish list, and would have bought it after reading this post if it were a more reasonable $15 or so. The book looks great – but $28.46 seems more than a little steep!

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