J.D. Moyer

beat maker, sci-fi writer, self-experimenter

Month: March 2010

The All-Or-Nothing Reflex

I meant to do that.

Kia and I noticed a new behavior on the part of our daughter, right around the time she started to walk and carry things.  If she was carrying, say, a glass of milk, and she spilled a little bit, she would immediately dump the rest of the milk on the floor.  At first we thought this was accidental, but it soon became clear the action was deliberate; if a little bit was going to spill, then all the milk was going on the floor.

She’s just turned two, and this all-or-nothing reflex is still in effect.  She and I were playing with Duplo blocks (the oversize Legos), and she had just constructed something she wanted to show Mommy.  Running into the other room, she dropped the creation; it broke into its constituent parts.  Instead of crying, she ran back to the table where we were working, dumped the box of Duplos onto the floor, and then swept the remaining Duplos from the tabletop onto the floor, until every last one lay underfoot.  The entire time she wore a look of grim, dire concentration; knit brow and pursed lips.

OK, I get it.  It’s unsettling to think that you’re not in control of life (randomly dropping things), so you reconcile your physical environment so that it feels like you’re in control (I meant to deposit all the Duplos on the floor).  Child Psychology 101, right?

What I found unsettling, after thinking about it, was that I still do this.  As do most adults, I think.

Why not break all of them?

The illusion of willpower is a rickety contraption, prone to constant breakdowns.  We do what we can to bolster the sense that we control ourselves and our lives.  Human beings are in the uncomfortable position of being 100% responsible for our own lives (whether we accept the responsibility or not), while not being 100% in control of our own bodies and minds.  We say things we don’t mean to say.  We eat things we don’t mean to eat.  We’re sometimes nice to people we don’t like, and mean to people we love.  We make plans and then do something else, or do nothing at all.  In every way the ship is big but the rudder is small; we want to control ourselves (and, even more frustratingly, others), but the best we can do is nudge.

Examples of the all-or-nothing reflex:

  • altogether quitting a new diet or eating plan after a few cheats
  • quitting an exercise plan after missing a few sessions
  • not going to class or stopping studying after falling behind in coursework
  • never calling a friend because you’ve owed them a call for a little too long
  • abandoning a creative project after hitting a difficult patch or getting stuck

We’re all familiar with these behaviors, right?  All basically equivalent to dumping your milk on the floor …

There is always a motivation for self-destructive behavior.  How do we subconsciously benefit?  The benefit of the all-or-nothing reflex is that we maintain the illusion that we’re in control, that we’re calling the shots.  We also avoid the burden or willpower expenditure of following through with the original plan (rebuilding the Duplo creation, literally or figuratively picking up the pieces).

This picture adequately represents the warring motivational subcenters of the human mind.

Zooming out, it’s worth analyzing our own self-destructive behaviors — even the minor ones.  If we consistently sabotage our own success in any particular area of life, there’s probably something we fear about change in that area.  What burdens do we imagine success will bring?  Are those fears realistic, or can we preserve the things we like about the status quo?

A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part III — PALEO!

This post is a continuation of A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I and Part II.  In this post I’ll discuss three proponents of the so-called Paleolithic Diet.  In Part II I introduced the Paleolithic Diet and discussed its core concepts — if you’ve never heard of it you might want to read that post first.

Meat. Not required as part of the Paleolithic diet, but not discouraged either.

In short, the Paleo Diet is a method of eating that excludes foods that were not widely available or consumed by our pre-agricultural ancestors, such as grains, legumes, dairy products, refined sugar, oil, and salt, instead favoring non-starchy vegetables, less-sweet fruits, meat, fish and seafood, poultry, eggs, nuts, and seeds.

Personally, I no longer find this way of eating to be “kooky” in any sense.  When I first heard about it, it seemed both radical and silly.  Sure, it’s reasonable to cut back on white sugar and white flour, but to also cut out whole-grains?  Wholesome oats and brown rice are out?  Whole-grains are good for you, aren’t they?

Whole-grains may be good for you when compared to eating refined grains, and that’s what most of the research examining the health benefits of whole grains has looked at.  For whatever reasons, few researchers have compared a diet including whole grains to a diet including no grains.  Those that did found that a grain-free diet led to rapid weight loss, improved glucose tolerance, faster muscle gain, and a number of other benefits (please see Part II for links to clinical studies).

The Paleolithic Diet has been around since the 70’s, but more recently a number of Paleo evangelists have been spreading the word; grain-free is the way to go.  I’ll introduce three of these health nuts and you can draw your own conclusions.

Arthur De Vany

I first became aware of Arthur De Vany after reading an interview with him about nutrition and exercise, and seeing the picture on the right.  A guy approaching seventy who looks that ripped?

Arthur De Vany, at age 68, going for a quick sprint.

There are plenty of meatheads in their twenties or thirties can develop a ripped physique, even if their diet includes Pop Tarts and pasta.  Decent genetics, lots of working out, maybe some steroids, and BAM! there you go — comic book muscles.  But Art De Vany — he seemed to defy aging.  It got me, and a lot of other people, very curious.

I began reading Arthur De Vany’s blog at http://www.arthurdevany.com.  I learned about his system of health dubbed Evolutionary Fitness, based on a “Paleo-Med” eating plan (a cross between Paleolithic diet and Mediterranean diets) and short, irregular bouts of intense physical exercise, with an emphasis on weight-lifting, sprints, jumping and leaping, and no distance running or jogging (the latter two being actively discouraged).  He also blogged about more personal things, including his beloved wife passing away, his frustrations with his incompetent softball team, and his occasional trouble with insomnia.  His blog included a wide range of intellectual ideas; he shared his opinions and theories about teaching, Hollywood economics, evolution, climate change, and a number of other topics.  I use the past tense because he has since made his blog private — its popularity was resulting in excessive bandwidth fees and occasional outages.  Art De Vany himself is still going strong — and you can still read his blog if you don’t mind paying the subscription fee.

One interesting feature of his previous public blog is that he would occasionally post a picture of a meal.  At first Art seemed a bit baffled — why were those simple posts so popular?  His readers kept requesting more pictures of his meals.  The fact is that it’s hard to imagine what a grain and starch free meal looks like if you’re used to eating cereal and milk for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, and pasta for dinner.  Seeing pictures of Art’s breakfasts (maybe an omelet with fruit on the side, or a pork chop with half a melon, usually with a cup of black coffee), and lunches and dinners (colorful salads, grilled vegetables, sizzling steaks, racks of ribs, slices of avocado, olives, sometimes a glass of wine or a beer) helped me and a lot of other people think more creatively about our meals.  That’s what a diet is, after all, it’s meals.  You’ve got to put food on the table three times a day, and like it, in order to stick to any kind of eating plan.

There was an ad I saw about ten years ago (I forget what for), a picture of a juicy steak like this and the caption was “the new health food.” No longer so shocking …

At the time I was reading his blog on a regular basis, Art De Vany’s version of the Paleolithic Diet included lean meat, poultry and eggs, seafood, nuts, non-starchy vegetables (both raw and cooked), and fresh fruit.  Olive oil and olives were included, as well as some wine and cheese (the “Med” part of “Paleo-Med”).  De Vany, at least at that time, limited his saturated fat intake by trimming the fat off of his steaks, and preferring low-fat cheeses such as Jarlsberg.

For supplements, Art De Vany takes (and recommends) cod liver oil and l-glutathione, the first for its Omega-3 and vitamin A content, the second for its antioxidant and anti-aging properties.  He also recommends Mark Sisson’s supplement pack, which is how I came to learn about Sisson (who I’ll discuss next).

Art De Vany is an interesting character.  His writing style can come off as over-authoritative, but at the same time he’s obviously well-educated and extremely knowledgeable.  I heard a radio interview with him, and was surprised by how soft-spoken he was … somehow I expected a more macho or at least enthusiastic tone.  How to put this … he’s like a nerd-athlete hybrid.

Art De Vany’s views around climate change have generated some controversy.  His opinion, as I understand it, is that most models of climate change are bunk; there is too much randomness and there are too many variables that influence climate to be able to generate a reliably predictive model.  This opinion has somehow “rippled out” among the “Paleo community” as it is; there seems to be a large of number of “climate skeptics” or “global warming deniers” — whatever you want to call them — among Paleo diet enthusiasts.  Maybe it has to do with people who identify themselves as bucking the status quo and thinking differently from the mainstream.  Or maybe it’s the macho thing, eat meat and drive a big car?  I really don’t get it.  The logical approach to environmental issues if you are a skeptic of global warming models is extreme conservationism, as outlined here (see entry #120) by Nassim Taleb (the author of The Black Swan, and also a follower of Art De Vany’s Evolutionary Fitness program).

I’m glad I discovered Art De Vany’s site … it influenced me to eat more healthfully and helped me imagine what a meal without a “pile o’ starch” could look like.  But it wasn’t until I started reading Mark Sisson’s blog, marksdailyapple.com, that the Paleolithic Diet really came together for me.

Mark Sisson

Mark Sisson is a former professional athlete (distance runner and triathlete) who now writes a popular blog at marksdailyapple.com.  He’s written a number of books on diet and exercise, and also runs a supplement company called “Primal Nutrition.”

Mark Sisson doesn’t seem to own any shirts.

He’s 56 and in very good shape.

His blog is an abundant (and sometimes overwhelming) source of information.  He’s not kidding about the daily part; there really is a new, detailed post every day.  Topics are centered around what Sisson calls the “Primal Blueprint” — his holistic plan for total health that is based on his version of the Paleolithic diet — but also branch out to cover a vast array of health-related topics.

Sisson’s version of the Paleolithic Diet is comparatively easy to follow.  He recommends cutting out grains, legumes, potatoes, and refined sugar almost entirely, but moderate amounts of coffee, tea, wine, beer, salt, dark chocolate, and even cheese are not discouraged.  Sisson comes right out and says that a Paleo Diet should be a high fat diet.  The first time I read that, I remember feeling skeptical, but those two words turned out to be the key for me to personally adopt a Paleo eating style.  Before I started using more olive oil, butter, coconut oil in my cooking, and eating fattier cuts of meat and more fatty fish, I would just get too hungry if I wasn’t eating breads and cereals.

Sisson also recommends supplementing with fish oil.  In fact, he recommends supplementing with just about everything.  Check out the ingredient list for his top-selling supplement “Damage Control Master Formula.”  If those doses are

If I ate like this every night I wouldn’t have to take any fish pills.

supposed to be daily, some of them strike me as too high.  The water-soluble vitamins aren’t a problem, but trace minerals like zinc, copper, selenium, and manganese can build up in the body and have toxic effects.  This article references symptoms of manganese toxicity occurring in individuals drinking water with levels as low as 2mg/liter (each dose of Damage Control Master Formula has 10mg).  On the other hand, the same article points out only one case of manganese toxicity from supplement use, and none from food, so maybe 10mg/day is a reasonable dose.

Questions of dosages aside, Sisson gives the impression of genuinely caring about the health of his readers and customers — I don’t doubt his claim that his supplements contain fresh, high quality ingredients.

There is definitely a sense of community among the readers of Sisson’s blog — people supporting each other in a lifestyle choice that many people view as radical (for some reason people are more threatened by the idea of the Paleolithic diet than they are by vegetarianism).  Sisson often shares reader testimonials — like this one which I found to be quite moving.  It parallels my own experience — feeling that my body was somehow permanently damaged or broken (with adult-onset asthma and allergies in my case) and then experiencing a total cessation of symptoms within days of changing my diet.  A “second chance,” a “new lease on life,” — those phrases don’t do the feeling justice.  Here’s a brand new bodyone that works! That’s more what it felt like.

Mark Sisson’s blog is a great source of information, and his tone is friendly, non-dogmatic, and nonjudgmental.  If a friend or family member expresses interest in changing the way they eat, I usually refer them to marksdailyapple.com

Loren Cordain

Dr. Loren Cordain is a professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at Colorado State University, and is the author of The Paleo Diet, a popular book published in 2002.

Dr. Cordain, rockin’ the center part.

Cordain’s take on the Paleolithic diet is similar to both Art De Vany’s and Mark Sisson’s.  He suggests that genetically, human beings are poorly adapted to eat grains, beans, dairy products, alcohol, and salt, and recommends eating fruits and vegetables, lean meat, seafood, poultry, nuts, and seeds instead.

In the Paleo community, Cordain’s view that saturated fat intake should be limited is controversial.  In The Paleo Diet, Cordain clearly puts saturated fats in the “bad fats” category, along with trans fats and polyunsaturated fats like corn oil (as opposed to “good fats” like Omega-3 fish oils and monounsaturated fats like olive oil and avocado).  In the same book he argues that wild game is quite lean as compared to domestic cattle.

Since then, it seems that Cordain’s view on saturated fats has become more nuanced.  If you carefully read the FAQ on his website you’ll see that Cordain no longer recommends reducing saturated fats.  He seems to consider them more “neutral” than “bad” at this point, and concedes that prehistoric humans probably preferred fattier meat when they could get it (this coincides with the Inuit’s warnings regarding the overconsumption of lean winter caribou as discussed in my previous post A Meta-analysis of Kooky Diets, Part I).

Cordain still holds to the view the eating lots of bacon, sausage, and other salty, fatty meats is no good for health and may raise the risk of heart disease.  To me this seems reasonable, despite the fact that it overlaps with conventional dietary wisdom.

Cordain has some interesting views regarding tomatoes.  Unlike other Paleo advocates, he considers them a neolithic food (my wife Kia challenged this assumption when she heard it — tomatoes had to grow in the wild somewhere and someone must have been eating them since pre-agricultural times.  The Department of Horticulture at University of Wisconsin-Madison agrees with her — early inhabitants of what is now Peru probably dined on wild tomatoes.)

Beautiful, delicious, and … evil?

In any case Cordain consider the lectin in tomatoes (which, by the way, is impervious to heat) to be harmful to human health.  He views the peanut lectin, the protein casein in milk, and grain lectins with equal disdain, but we already knew those foods were not allowed for wannabe cavemen, didn’t we?  But the delicious and healthful tomato?  Packed with vitamin C, potassium, lypocene, and glutathione?  Really?

If you have the time, and can stomach it, watch Cordain’s hour long lecture on lectins and multiple sclerosis.  It’s fascinating (and disturbing).  He explains in great detail how various lectins make their way into the bloodstream and interact with the immune system, essentially tricking your own body into attacking itself.  I used to use a great deal of tomato paste in my cooking — I don’t any longer after watching the video of his lecture.  I still sometimes eat fresh tomatoes though, as long as they’re ripe.  (Did you know green tomatoes have a poison calls solanine in them?  Yes, fried green tomatoes = poisonous snack.)

SUMMARY

There are a number of criticisms of the Paleolithic Diet, but most of them are quite weak.  The low-fat diet recommended for the past several decades by official sources in the U.S. has been largely debunked; in practice it has led to massive weight gain, greater instances of Type 2 diabetes, and no appreciable reduction in heart disease or cancer.

Sometimes the Paleo diet is lumped in with Atkins, but this doesn’t make sense; unlike Atkins the Paleo diet is rich in antioxidant-packed fruits and vegetables, is low in salt, and very low in processed foods of any type.  It is generally low-carb, but far from zero-carb (Sisson recommends keeping carb intake between 50 and 100g/day if you want to lose body fat, up to 200g/day depending on your size and muscle mass in order to maintain).

One criticism that I consider to be at least semi-valid is the fact that humans have evolved biologically in the 10K years or so since we invented agriculture.  Some of us have genetically adapted to our “new” neolithic diet, at least to some extent.  I, for one, have no problem digesting lactose.  I’m lactose tolerant — I inherited the “right” genes from my European ancestors who co-evolved with cattle (less than 25% of humans carry this gene, and yet we talk about “lactose intolerance” as if it were some kind of rare disorder!).  People whose ancestors evolved in agrarian societies tend to have more copies of the gene that helps produce amylase, the enzyme in saliva that breaks down starch.  This is one example, discussed in this NY Times article, of how culture and the human genome co-evolve.

That’s the big picture — we push against our environment, our environment pushes back, and we either adapt ourselves, or change our environment, or both, or we perish.  Human beings haven’t stopped evolving genetically.  In fact, we’re changing faster than ever.  Still, genetic change happens slowly, over many generations, and it’s obvious that the modern industrial diet of highly processed, high-carb fake food is not the ideal fuel for the human body and mind.  Paleo diet advocates (myself included) would go further and say that the relatively “new” foods like grains, legumes, dairy products, and nightshade vegetables, while they may not be harmful in small amounts, are not ideal staples (and for most people in the world they are staples).

Another possibly valid criticism is that not everyone in the world can afford to eat a diet that is high in protein and low in grain.  This might be true — we know that the world’s fisheries are overburdened, and also that it takes a great deal of water, pasture and/or grain to raise a cow, but these facts must be weighed against the following counter-arguments.

  • The collapse of the world’s fisheries has as much to do with poor ocean resource management (a lack of protected areas, poor enforcement of existing protections, wasteful and destructive fishing practices, etc.) as it does with how much fish we eat.
  • Growing grains and beans takes up an enormous amount of land and water and fossil fuel fertilizers and pesticides; intensive polycultural farming techniques that produce meat, vegetables, and eggs might give us more food in exchange for less land and water, and improve the soil quality while we’re at it.
  • The number of overweight people in the world (not just the U.S.) has reached epidemic proportions.

Some of use may be better adapted to “modern” foods, but most people would probably experience health improvements if they switched to a diet that more closely resembled what our distant ancestors ate.  I think groups who would most benefit from a Paleolithic diet, in order, would include:

  1. Anyone with a direct intolerance of gluten, anyone with celiac disease, anyone with IBS, anyone who has noticeable trouble digesting grains and/or dairy products
  2. Anyone with an autoimmune disorder of any kind, including multiple sclerosis, arthritis, lupus, asthma, or allergies.
  3. Anyone with (or at risk for) Type 2 diabetes, Metabolic Syndrome/Syndrome X
  4. Anyone who wants to reduce their risk of heart disease, cancer, and dementia
  5. Anyone who wants to gain muscle, lose body fat, have more energy, have clearer skin, not get sleepy after meals, sleep better at night, have a higher sex drive, and feel happier.

Did I leave anyone out?

Sleep Experiment – A Month With No Artificial Light

In an earlier post, I mentioned how my family (it’s not something you can do without your whole household participating) went without artificial light (including all electric lights, TV, and computers) after sundown, for all of June in 2009.  June, being the month of the longest days, was the easiest month for such an experiment.

“Full of Ideas” by Cayusa

Soon after writing that post, we decided to try the experiment again, but this time for the month of February — a month with much shorter days and longer nights.  I was traveling during the last week of February, so it was effectively only a twenty day experiment.  Still — both the effects and the experience itself were dramatic. In a nutshell: more sleep, better sleep, improved mood, and an entirely different rhythm to both waking and sleeping life.  There were some downsides too, which I’ll also discuss.

WHY

The first time we tried the experiment, in June 2009, we were primarily interested in catching up on sleep.  Our daughter was born in March of 2008 — after more than a year a full night’s sleep was still elusive.  As someone who had always been a night-owl at home, but never had any trouble going to sleep by 8:30 when camping, I already suspected that artificial light (as opposed to firelight, starlight, or moonlight) was what was keeping me from going to bed earlier.  Reading this article by Verlyn Klinkenborg in the New York Times confirmed that suspicion.

An even earlier, unrelated 30-day experiment (I’ve done over a dozen at this point), during which I resolved and attempted to go to bed earlier, had failed miserably.  On average I’d gotten to bed 45 minutes earlier; say quarter-after-eleven instead of midnight.  I just found it impossible to go to bed when I wasn’t sleepy (which I distinguish from tired — just because your mind and body need sleep doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll feel sleepy).  Just trying — willing myself — to go to bed earlier didn’t work very well — it certainly didn’t result in the kind of radical sleep improvement I was looking for.

On the other hand, the June experiment with no artificial light was a huge success.  Kia and I immediately started going to bed between 9 and 10 instead of around midnight.  We quickly caught up on sleep, sleeping ten or eleven hours a night at first, then normalizing around eight hours.  One thing we both noticed was a huge boost in mood — moments of unexplained, unreasonable joy would strike us at random times during the day.  I’m not talking about the calm sea of serenity — I’m talking about bursts of goofy delight — the kind that’s really obnoxious to the moody people around you.

So … we wanted to try it again.

THE RULES

Compared to June, February was a whole different ball game.  Some days in June the sky was light until 9:30pm — in February we ended up lighting the candles as early as 5pm.  I was concerned about not being able to get any work done, so we set 7:30pm as a cutoff for computers getting turned off.  Here’s a list of the rules we decided to live by:

  • no artificial light, including overhead lights, lamps, and the refrigerator light
  • candles allowed
  • computers allowed until 7:30pm
  • TV not allowed after sundown (except TV on computers until 7:30)

THE NEGATIVES

Anger
One thing I experienced during the experiment was anger and frustration at not being able to f*cking see anything.  Stepping on toys on the floor, bumping into table corners, searching for matches by moonlight — none of it fun.  Cooking by candlelight can also be difficult.  After a day or two I gained some awareness around what was happening emotionally.  I did choose to do this, after all.  The key to dealing with the anger was to conduct my actions more carefully, and with more foresight, during the long evenings.  Light the candles before it gets totally dark.  Make sure to light a couple candles in the bathroom.  Be vigilant about cleaning up toys (and getting our daughter to clean up her toys) before it gets dark.

Drip drip drip.

Wax
Wax is pollution.  Little wax drips, everywhere, are hard to avoid when you’re walking around (or stumbling over things) while holding a candle.  Scraping hardened wax off of tables and floors is a drag.  Kia was reading a book — it might have been a George Elliot novel, in which people who stay up late are called wax-drippers.  This seems to imply that, at least in pre-Industrial England, most people didn’t even bother lighting candles; they just went to bed when it got dark.

The pollution angle; it made me think about how entire classes of pollution can disappear, practically overnight.  In the horse-and-buggy age, major cities were covered in horse shit.  It was a serious problem, with no end in sight.  Once the car came along, the horse shit vanished.  Wax drippings similarly disappeared as a major problem with the advent of the electric light.  This book review in the New Yorker talks about the same idea in more detail.

If we’d had proper candle-holders with wide bases this problem could have been avoided, or at least attenuated.

Less Productivity
Sometimes getting in a couple hours of work (in the broadest sense, including creative work and “fun” work) after the kid goes to bed can make a day feel more productive.  Feeling productive, while not important for everyone, is important for my own mental well-being.  I don’t really buy into the idea of the Protestant Work Ethic (nobody works harder than Japanese salarymen, and they’re pretty far removed from any Calvinist cultural heritage), but I do feel better at the end of the day if I’ve created wealth, whether it be in the form of billable hours, progress on a music or writing project, fixing up the house — anything with a tangible, observable result that has at least a chance of positively affecting my own (or someone else’s) future experience.

It’s hard to be productive by candlelight.  I took to writing longhand in a notebook, which I’m still doing, but in the evenings I couldn’t work on music production (computer needed), clean the house (more light needed), work on programming projects (computer needed), work on artwork, contracts, or email correspondence for Loöq Records (once again, computer needed), or most anything else that results in feeling like I got something done.

No TV
This is more of a wash than a negative.  I didn’t watch any TV during the experiment — there just wasn’t any time.  I like TV — at least good TV — and I missed it somewhat.  It wasn’t that it wasn’t allowed — I could have watched my favorite shows during the day if I’d really made it a priority.

Now that it’s March I’m all caught up on Lost.  Thank you Hulu — the motives of the smoke monster are slowing becoming clear.

THE POSITIVES

Sleep
Going in, I wasn’t as sleep-deprived this time, but we immediately started going to bed earlier.  Sometimes I would sleep straight through the night, 10 to 6 or so.  Other times I would go to bed really early, like 8:30, and then get up around 2:30am.  This was alarming at first, but then I remembered that this sleep pattern was quite common in pre-electric light days.  When this happened I would end up reading or writing by candlelight for an hour or two, then going back to bed.  This is apparently called bimodal sleep, as noted in the Verlyn Klinkenborg New York Times article where he describes an experiment conducted by sleep researcher Thomas Wehr (Wehr ‘s volunteers have subjected themselves to to 14 hours of darkness each night):

What Wehr found was remarkable. The first night the volunteers slept 11 hours, and in the first weeks of the experiment they repaid 17 hours of accumulated sleep debt — i.e., they slept 17 hours longer than they would have called normal for the same period. It took three weeks for a sleep pattern to stabilize, and when it did it lasted about eight and a quarter hours per night. But it was not consolidated sleep, and it was not just sleep. Over time, Wehr explained, “another state emerged, not sleep, not active wakefulness, but quiet rest with an endocrinology all its own.”

Each night the volunteers lay in a state of quiet rest for two hours before passing abruptly into sleep. They slept in an evening bout that lasted four hours. Then they awoke out of REM sleep into another two hours of quiet rest, followed by another four-hour bout of sleep and another two hours of quiet rest before rising at 8 A.M. This pattern of divided sleep, separated by rest, is called a bimodal distribution of sleep, and it is typical of the sleep of many mammals living in the wild, which is to say that it is atypical of humans living in modern Western society. Yet in a forthcoming article, to be published in a volume called “Progress in Brain Research,” Wehr concludes that “in long nights . . . human sleep resembles that of other mammals to a much greater extent than has been appreciated.” Bimodal sleep, punctuated by quiet rest, was a pattern to which modern Americans reverted almost as soon as they were given the chance.

“In healthy people,” Wehr remarked, “this bimodal pattern of sleep would be called a sleep disorder, although the resemblance to animal sleep confirms its naturalness. And as people get older they revert to this pattern of divided sleep. Perhaps it gets harder to override it.”

I asked Wehr whether any of his subjects had gone crazy lying in the dark during those long nights.

None had. “Anyone could do it,” he said.

In addition to getting enough sleep each night, the quality of my sleep was definitely better.  We’re still co-sleeping with our daughter, now 2, and any restlessness tends to affect me most.  On bad nights I sometimes prefer the couch to our overcrowded bed.  However no couch for the month of February — when I was sleeping, I was out cold.

Illuminated.

Our daughter also got on an earlier schedule.  In January she’d gotten in a bad cycle of staying up until 9 — no fun for anyone.  She would get overtired and overstimulated, and falling asleep was getting harder and harder.  Immediately — by Day 1 of the experiment — she was fast asleep by 7.  What a huge relief.

With no artificial light, there is definitely more time in bed, half-awake.  Wehr refers to this state as quiet wakefulness.

Living year-round on midsummer time, with long days and short nights, “has obtained,” Wehr writes, “for so many generations that modern humans no longer realize that they are capable of experiencing a range of alternative modes that may once have occurred on a seasonal basis in prehistoric times but now lie dormant in their physiology.” While humans worry about how much further we can compact our actual sleep time, we’ve already jettisoned six nightly hours of quiet winter rest. In a most meaningful sense, those are transitional hours. Once in the night and once in the early morning, Wehr’s volunteers woke out of REM sleep, which is strongly associated with dreaming, into a period of quiet wakefulness quite distinct from daytime wakefulness. Perhaps as we’ve learned, over time, to sleep a less characteristically mammalian sleep, we’ve also learned to sleep a less human sleep.

Quiet wakefulness is great, especially when you’re not worried about not being asleep.  In other words, if you’ve already slept seven or eight hours (because you went to bed at 9pm), then being awake, or half-awake, in the middle of the night isn’t accompanied by fears of being tired the next day.  In this state, which sometimes persisted for more than an hour, I would let my mind roam … sometimes just watching my dreamlike thoughts, sometimes directing them a bit.  What will a character in my novel do next?  What color should I paint the garage?  It’s a great time to ask your brain questions which require creative answers.

Alternative Activities & Entertainment
During the long, candlelit evenings, without computers or TV, we found other ways to occupy ourselves.  We read by candlelight, we had friends over for after-dinner drinks and snacks, we played board-games, and, well, use your imagination.  The evenings were long and enjoyable.

Adventure Fantasy, Imagining The Past
The experiment gave our evenings an adventurous flavor.  We were roughing it (a little).  I would sometimes imagine we were living in the woods, far from civilization.  The experience made me consider how each generation lives differently, and that with new technologies we both gain and lose certain types of experiences.  It’s valuable to step out of the current technological zeitgeist — it changes the way you think and perceive the world.

CONCLUSION
The convenience of being able to flip a switch and have instant illumination can’t be overstated.  But the downsides of cheap light may be as serious as the downsides of cheap food.  Artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythms, prevents the production of melatonin, increases the risk of certain cancers including breast cancer and prostate cancer, and can generally wreak havoc with our health.  My guess is that artificial light is causally linked to obesity, depression, immune disorders, and cancer, not to mention daytime tiredness.

Candle time.

After the experiment I see artificial light as something like sugar.  We’re drawn to it, but too much is bad for us.  In fact, it seems to be bad for us in many of the same ways — sleep deprivation reduces insulin sensitivity in the same way excessive sugar intake does.

For me, gone are the nights of having every light in the house blazing.  The refrigerator light is back on, the bathroom light goes on when I’m in there, but otherwise it’s candles and maybe a mood light here and there.  Even with this limited artificial light, the glow from my laptop is keeping me up later.  Last night I slept from 11:45 to 6:15 — not bad but nothing like the solid eight hours I was getting most nights in February (one night I even slept eleven hours — I was tired and there was nothing preventing me from catching up).

I can function with as little as five or six hours of sleep as night.  But with that little sleep (especially for more than one night), I’m not at my best, or my happiest, or my most creative; I’m just grinding through life.  Since the only thing we have in life is quality of our consciousness, and sleep deprivation so obviously and negatively affects the quality of our consciousness, it makes sense to prioritize sleep.  Most people would agree, but almost nobody does dedicate enough time to sleep.  Why?  The ubiquity of artificial light.  It’s like going to a cake store, buying every delicious-looking cake, coming home and arranging them on your dinner table, and then resolving not to eat any sugar.

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