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Miles O'Brien has a wonderful piece on NewsHour about the neuroscience of sleep and other forms of brain-rest, including meditation. I was present for some of the taping and research, and I love how the story turned out.
Sleep deprivation can cause serious health and cognitive problems in humans. In short, it can make us fat, sick and stupid. But why do humans need so much sleep? Science correspondent Miles O'Brien talks to scientists on the cutting edge of sleep research and asks if there's any way humans might evolve into getting by with less.
This hummingbird is sleeping in a specialized research container connected to a machine that measures how much oxygen it is breathing. According to forrestertr7, who posted the video to YouTube, this experiment was part of research aimed at understanding the differences between the metabolism of hummingbirds and that of larger species. After its nap, the hummingbird was released back into the wild.
But what about the snoring? Does the hummingbird really need a tiny, little beak strip, or what? I asked science blogger Joe Hanson, who posted this video to Twitter earlier today, and he did some research. Turns out, it's not totally unreasonable to call that adorable little wheeze a "snore". But, at the same time, hummingbirds have very different biology than we do. A snore for them isn't the same as a snore for us.
Hummingbirds have incredibly high metabolic needs. To do all that buzzing around and to keep their tiny bodies warm, they eat the human equivalent of a refrigerator full of food every day, mostly in the form of high-energy nectar and fatty bugs. Because of their small size, they also lose a lot of body heat to the air. In order to preserve energy on cool nights, they have the ability to enter a daily, miniature hibernation called torpor.
...Just before morning, their natural circadian rhythms kick in and they start to thaw out, like heating a car engine on a cold day. What we see in the video is probably a bird coming out of torpor (which is what the scientists in the video were studying), starting to breathe in more oxygen to raise its body temperature, and making that adorable snoring noise.
Read the full story at Joe Hanson's blog, It's Okay To Be Smart
Coinciding with the beginning of the US school year, researchers at UCLA published a study last week showing a correlation between lack of sleep and poor academic performance. Some 500 high schoolers kept two-week diaries of their sleep habits, how well they understood and participated in classroom work, and their scores on assignments and tests. The ones who slept less did less well in school.
The headlines on this study—like the one at Smithsonian.com, where I first saw it—tout the results as evidence that you shouldn't stay up late cramming. But cramming usually is a special-occasion thing—something you do the night before a test—not a daily occurrence. This study is really about chronic sleep deprivation, habits and behaviors that happen over weeks and months. Along with several other studies that have come out in recent years, it helps build a persuasive case not against occasional cram sessions, but against academic routines that all-but require students to operate constantly on an abnormal sleep cycle.
Placebos have no repeatable physical effect that can be broadly demonstrated to exist. But, if people believe the placebo can help them, it often does—especially for inherently subjective issues like pain relief.
Nocebos are what happens when a placebo (again, something that technically has no physical effect on the body) causes a negative side-effect, simply because the person believes that such side-effects are likely to happen to them.
There is a lot we don't understand about both of these effects. After all, running really detailed tests would inherently involve unethical behavior—intentionally not treating patients or intentionally trying to induce a negative reaction in them. But that doesn't mean you can ignore these phenomena.
A great example comes in a recent column by Alexis Madrigal on The Atlantic. You're probably familiar with the idea of sleep paralysis—the experience of waking up, being mentally awake, but still physically paralyzed. This happens to people all over the world. And, all over the world, it's long been explained in folklore as the work of demons and evil spirits. (The fact that sleep paralysis is often accompanied by feelings of terror, and the sensation of something sitting on your chest doesn't hurt in that regard.) Normally, sleep paralysis brings a few minutes of terror, but no lasting harm. In the mid-1980s, however, it suddenly became capable of killing. The catch, the men it killed were all recent Hmong immigrants, living in the United States. Researcher Shelley Adler thinks it was actually a nocebo effect that killed these men—they believed themselves into an early grave.
[In America] some Hmong felt that they had not properly honored the memories of their ancestors, which was a known risk factor among the Hmong for being visited by the tsog tsuam. Once the night-mare visitations began, a shaman was often needed to set things right. And in the scattered communities of Hmong across the country, they might not have access to the right person. Without access to traditional rituals, shamans, and geographies, the Hmong were unable to provide themselves psychic protection from the spirits of their sleep.
Drawing on all this evidence, Adler makes the provocative claim that the Laotian immigrants of the 1980s were in some sense killed by their powerful cultural belief in night spirits. It was not a simple process.
"It is my contention that in the context of severe and ongoing stress related to cultural disruption and national resettlement (exacerbated by intense feelings of powerlessness about existence in the United States), and from the perspective of a belief system in which evil spirits have the power to kill men who do not fulfill their religious obligations," Adler writes, "the solitary Hmong man confronted by the numinous terror of the night-mare (and aware of its murderous intent) can die of SUNDS."
Via Christopher Ryan
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.
Image: "Flaming June" by Lord Frederic Leighton (1895). via Wikimedia Commons
Since everyone is reporting on their long-term self-experimentation this week*, I thought I'd share my own major breakthrough. I strongly believe that waking yourself up with alarms is extremely bad for your health, creativity and productiveness.
I'm coming up on the 8th anniversary of my decision to eschew alarm clocks. It started when I noticed that I often awoke before my alarm went off anyway. After reading an article about ten years ago in Nature on timing the end of nocturnal sleep (PMID: 9892349), I gave alarms up in 2003 and have not looked back. I decided to try working without a net, and after some trial and error, I found what works for me. I have never overslept (a problematic word, IMHO) or missed anything important. Details after the break. Read the rest
Read the rest
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute recently conducted a field study to learn the effects of morning light on teenagers' sleep cycles. They concluded that a lack of exposure to early morning light can result in a 30-minute delay in the onset of sleep.
"If you remove blue light in the morning, it delays the onset of melatonin, the hormone that indicates to the body when it's nighttime," explains Dr. Figueiro. "Our study shows melatonin onset was delayed by about 6 minutes each day the teens were restricted from blue light. Sleep onset typically occurs about 2 hours after melatonin onset."Lack of morning light keeping teenagers up at night
The study findings should have significant implications for school design. "Delivering daylight in schools may be a simple, non-pharmacological treatment for students to help them increase sleep duration," concludes Dr. Figueiro.
The new research has applications for more than 3 million shift workers and Alzheimer's patients who suffer from lack of a regular sleep pattern.
Studies have shown that this lack of synchronization between a shift worker's rest and activity and light/dark patterns leads to a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, seasonal depression and cancer over decades.