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The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained

The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained

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The Universal Pastime: Sleep and Rest Explained

380 pages
5 heures
Aug 13, 2014


Why the interest in rest and sleep? - All living things possess a sense of time. Like all animals - as well as plants, fungi and bacteria - we humans are hard-wired for a daily rhythm of rest and activity. The machinery that generates this daily rhythm resides in each and every one of our cells and it powerfully orchestrates our behavior. Setting aside time for rest and sleep optimally fits all living things and their bodily processes to the conditions of life. In fact, rest and sleep are deeply rooted in ancient biology, so much so that these characteristics have been conserved over the deep time that spans the three and a half billion years of life on earth. The dawn of the 24-hour industrial and technological society, however, occurred less than one hundred and fifty years ago. This time span constitutes only three human generations, and is but a ‘blink of an eye’ on the grand scale of natural history that spans billions of years. As a result of the technological age, humans are now the only living things that purposely ignore, disrupt and coerce the natural cycles of our cellular machinery to conform to artificially-imposed and often-irregular daily schedules. Given that sleep has major influences on body and mental health, the implications of understanding the states of rest and sleep, and why they exist, are large.
Aug 13, 2014

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The Universal Pastime - Richard L. Horner



I thought it useful at the beginning of this book to clearly identify my main motivations and aims for writing it. I do this not only to enable the interested reader to understand the mindset of a working scientist at a research-intensive University, but also to constantly remind myself to stick to these original ideals, not least because they form the essential foundation for the overall structure of the book. The primary motivation to write this book is my growing realization that it is an important responsibility for any scientist to communicate more with the public about the current state of knowledge in our chosen areas of research and teaching, for the reasons of promoting interest in science, increasing the awareness of new breakthroughs, and perhaps informing personal choices that can promote health or inform public policy. With this primary motivation in mind, the book is also structured to fill a particular niche. There are several well-written and informative popular books on sleep written by professional writers, but the direction typically chosen by such writers is not the one that I plan to take with this book. Rather, what I aim to tackle is the difficult problem of explaining why we actually rest and sleep, and to do so from fundamental principles of biology.

You may well ask do we really, at this point of our current state of knowledge, not really know why we sleep and dream? Well actually we do not, and this book aims to explain why and fix that knowledge gap. To bring you up to speed, on July 1st 2005 one of the top scientific journals in the world - Science (www.sciencemag.org) - published its 125th anniversary issue and highlighted the most compelling but unresolved scientific questions. Among those ‘hard’ questions were: What Is the universe made of?; What is the biological basis of consciousness?; Are we alone in the universe?; How hot will the greenhouse world be?; and will Malthus continue to be wrong? (The Reverend Thomas Malthus and his insight of 1798 are introduced on the first page of Chapter 1). Those questions, and the other one hundred and twenty identified in the anniversary issue of Science tackle big picture ideas. Interestingly, listed among the big unresolved questions were: Why do we sleep? and, Why do we dream?

In 2010 these questions remained unanswered and I decided to tackle them. I had researched aspects of the brain in sleep all my academic life and had taught an advanced undergraduate course on the subject for over ten years, as well as a graduate course. I was also looking for a new challenge and decided to tackle the biggest ones in the field: Why indeed do we sleep and why do we dream? To tackle such big questions, however, required lots of motivation to spend my ‘spare’ time differently. This choice requires an explanation.

The life of a working research scientist is an interesting and testing one, yet the activities and challenges of academic life will be unfamiliar to many outside of the profession. Academic appointments at research intensive universities come with the explicit expectation of the establishment of an active research program and publication of original research findings in peer-reviewed scientific and/or medical journals, preferably of high caliber because these garner the most prestige for both the scientist and the university. This process of research and publication in scientific journals can be thought of as a process of knowledge creation (or discovery) followed by its dissemination. These activities are viewed as so important that academic appointments at research intensive universities are made almost exclusively with regard to prior research activities and productivity, with judgments based on the number and caliber of publications, and the fit of the candidate’s research to the needs of the individual departments involved in the hiring. The anticipation (and hope) is that this demonstrated research potential and fit translates to future success for all concerned, with the emphasis on getting funding for research projects, from which the university benefits both financially and by reputation.

Typically, however, little or no regard is normally paid to teaching ability (or lack thereof) in the hiring process for faculty positions at research intensive universities, partly because the junior applicant will likely not have been involved in any general educational dissemination of scientific knowledge because this detracts from the time necessary to be ‘competitive’ for faculty positions. As an explanation, to be competitive any scientist must be totally focused on performing research experiments and publishing the results in scientific journals. This reality is where the phrase "publish or perish" comes from. The process of publication of scientific papers is, however, a difficult and sometimes tortuous process. A scientist needs to develop a ‘thick skin’ during the screening process prior to publication of their scientific findings as he or she is buffeted by the criticisms of normally two or three anonymous peers. Those comments and criticisms may range from small suggestions for improvement, to major revisions including altered interpretation and additional analyses which sometimes require extra experiments, the latter coming with the added burden of scarce time and monetary resources to perform those experiments. After all the extra work and re-writing, however, there is no guarantee from the scientific journal that they will even publish the paper because it has to be evaluated again, normally by the same anonymous peers. Occasionally, a paper is rejected outright; in such circumstances, and after a suitable period to calm down and reflect upon the comments of the anonymous peers, the paper is re-worked and submitted again to another journal, and the process continues until it is published and this piece of new ‘knowledge’ is added to the vast professional scientific literature. Overall, writing and publishing scientific papers can be frustrating yet intellectually rewarding - usually in that order.

Science certainly involves the creation of massive amounts of new knowledge. For example, there are currently around 19.5 million scientific articles pertaining to the life sciences and medicine spanning the years 1865-2009, with these articles typically originating from universities and colleges, research institutes, hospitals and industry all over the world. These articles are listed in a variety of databases, such as the one maintained by The United States National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health that can be accessed via a computer search using the term "PubMed". Moreover, the number of articles published per year in the life sciences and medical fields has been growing at an accelerating rate (see Figure A), with scientists competing for the publication of their findings in journals that are the most widely respected, read and cited by other scientists when they write their own papers. Like a popular restaurant, however, such journals are hard to get into; most journals reject the majority of submissions they receive, and unlike some popular restaurants you cannot make a reservation.

Figure A: Number of publications (shown in millions) in the life sciences and medical fields by decade (1900 to 2010).

The process of scientific publication proceeds in conjunction with the more competitive endeavor of applying for external funds to support the scientists research program. By external funds I mean that the scientist’s university does not provide the funds to perform the research, so the scientist must compete for funds by application to governmental agencies or charitable organizations. Scientists from all over the country apply to all the available opportunities. Applications are anonymously evaluated and scored, and they are all then ranked on scientific merit and the past productivity of the scientist. In the Canadian system in which I am involved, only about seventeen out of every hundred submissions is successful per competition. The United States is even more competitive, and I left the United Kingdom before I had to compete for funds so I am not sure of the odds there. Once ranked for funding, however, there are often across-the-board budget cuts that are applied to all successful applications. These cuts allow the funding of one or two extra research projects that otherwise could not be accommodated in the face of tight budget restrictions at the government agencies or charitable groups. Successful applications often provide the scientist with the funds to support research for three to five years (but sometimes only one to two years), with the scientist therefore continually searching for ways to keep the laboratory active and the personnel paid, with this process usually involving the continual writing of new applications for funding. In the long run, any inability to attract research funding leads to an inability to publish, and so an inability to fulfill ones job description. At that point the pressure becomes significant. Laboratory space can be reallocated to another individual, who may be more competitive, and at that time it is best to negotiate a change of job description or find some other form of employment; unless one has the relative ‘protection’ of tenure, in which case salary can drop to ‘minimum for rank’.

Overall, therefore, the realities of the professional life of an active research scientist is comprised of writing competitive applications to provide the funds to perform novel and significant research, then publishing the results in high caliber scientific journals that are ultimately read and evaluated by a specialized group of fellow scientists. The more publications the better to justify the ‘value’ of the research the next time an application for funding is made to keep the laboratory and research program operating. As such, the life of a working scientist can be fulfilling and exciting, albeit daunting and worrying. This scenario of the realities of modern research, however, leaves little time or incentive for any scientist to communicate with the larger body of society that ultimately provides the funds to perform the research in the first place via their taxes or charitable donations. Another apparent disconnect is that the public often does not hear about many aspects of current science, unless through the attempts of scientific journalists who are appropriately trained in that medium and often excel at it. However, the focus of scientific journalists is often the most ‘newsy’ or ‘catchy’ stories, the impact of which is often short-lived and occasionally over-hyped. Since the public generally does not have access to the latest scientific journals (in which the articles are typically very technical and difficult to decipher anyway), it is up to scientists to communicate in alternative ways because the wider public is often best placed to utilize and directly benefit from the results of the science that we all, as members of society, ultimately fund.

In summary, I decided to write this book because I feel strongly that the practice of science should not only involve both the creation and assimilation of new knowledge that is typically conveyed to specialists, but equally importantly that science should involve the dissemination of that knowledge to all interested parties without an individual having to subscribe to specialized scientific journals or visit a university library. As a member of that public I am also an interested reader of scientific books on various topics and am pleased that the authors spend their time to communicate in that way. Unfortunately, however, for the reasons I have described in this introduction – the culture of modern science fuelled as it is by excessive competition for dwindling research funds and the pressure to publish in the most high-profile and visible technical journals – the tendency is to favor dissemination of knowledge to a small pocket of society; that is other scientists. This culture has created the situation where knowledge is typically disseminated to ever more specialized groups of specialists, who tend to communicate among themselves via even more specialized conferences and journals. This system inevitably leads to an ever-narrowing path of specialization and tunnel vision, a problem to which many working scientists can attest. This ever-increasing specialization leads to an inability to communicate ideas effectively even between scientists working in closely allied but distinct fields, let alone the public. Indeed, a common complaint among scientists that attend seminars or conferences is an inability to follow many of the presentations, either because of the lack of communication skills of the speaker (a problem that is not peculiar to science), but because the presentation "was outside my field of research", another way of saying that the listener was unfamiliar with the technical details and the concepts being proposed. Ultimately, therefore, the knowledge bases in many fields of science are often disconnected from both the practitioners of science as well and the larger body of the general population who actually fund the research.

Ultimately, I hope that by reading this book you will understand why rest and sleep evolved throughout nature, and why rest and sleep are such fundamental biological traits that impact mental and physical health, and longevity. At the very least, the book may be a useful cure for insomnia if it is occasionally dry or too detailed. That notion reminds me of a note sent by a friend who had read a long, detailed and technical research paper. He told me that he had enjoyed the piece, "and could not put it down …. until (he) woke up"

Richard L. Horner, Toronto, 2014

Chapter 1:

The rhythm of life

"… people, despite all their intellectual sophistication, are, at root, children of the animal world. Despite the veneer of mental liberation, on which we pride ourselves, our brains still listen to the sun, the moon and the seasons. The rhythms of life reveal our kinship to the animals with which we share this restless world".¹

The struggle for existence in the economy of nature: from biology to the inevitable Time Crunch

In the Autumn of 1838 Charles Darwin realized the piece of the puzzle that proved crucial to his long argument for the origin of species, he recognized the central role of the continual and severe struggle for existence by all organisms in nature². His insight relied heavily on his reading of An Essay on the Principle of Population that was originally published in 1798 by the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Malthus identified that under optimal conditions all organisms will produce offspring, which will beget more offspring for generation after generation, and so the population will undergo a period of enormous growth in numbers…..until arriving at crunch time. The philosopher Daniel Dennett articulates a simple analogy of this principle which underscores the limits to population growth faced by all organisms, and I repeat this analogy here because it offers an additional point that fits well with the context of this chapter and to which I will return later: A familiar example of Malthus’s rule in action is the rapid expansion of yeast populations introduced into fresh bread dough or grape juice. Thanks to the feast of sugar and other nutrients, population explosions ensue that last for a few hours in the dough, or a few weeks in the juice, but soon the yeast populations hit the Malthusian ceiling, done in by their own voraciousness and the accumulation of their waste products – carbon dioxide (which forms the bubbles that make the bread rise, and the fizz in champagne) and alcohol being the two that we yeast-exploiters tend to value³.

This principle was a tipping point for Darwin. It was a crucial piece of argument that he needed to finally explicate his theory of natural selection as the primary creative force which accounts for the complete and magnificent array, the panoply, of all life on earth. The essence of Darwin’s argument for the origin of species by natural selection can be summarized as four key points²,⁴ : (1) All organisms produce more offspring than can possibly survive in the economy of nature – the insight from Malthus. (2) All organisms within a species vary in particular qualities (traits), with each individual being different from every other in their anatomical, physiological, psychological and behavioral (including instinctive) traits. (3) Some of these traits are heritable, and are so passed on to offspring. (4) Those organisms with traits best suited to their environment and the economy of nature have more chance of survival and therefore of subsequent reproductive success.

The logical consequence of Point 1 is that all organisms overtly and covertly struggle for existence. In the last paragraph of the Origin of Species, Darwin asks his reader to envisage "an entangled bank, clothed with plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth⁵; a rather idyllic scene to a modern human imagination. Yet, all the while in all places on the earth there is a dreadful but quiet war of organic beings, going on in the peaceful woods and smiling fields⁶. Individual success in this struggle for existence depends on adaptive form and behavior for the procurement of nutrients, avoiding being killed for somebody else’s nutrition and in successfully seeking reproductive opportunities. This reasoning applies to all organisms, from bacteria to fungi to plants and to animals. The logical consequence of variation and heritability (points 2 and 3) is the principle of natural selection (point 4), or as Darwin also put it in the long title of his most famous book the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life".

The struggle for existence is most often viewed in the Darwinian sense of organisms competing to find food, avoiding predation and reproducing, with this drama taking place in interconnected webs of ecological space. In this sense, perhaps, modern humans have stepped off this eternal treadmill of life, the struggle for existence in the savage garden of nature? To understand the basis for this notion, the next time you take a long leisurely walk in the woods take a moment to look around. The animals that you may see are almost never in a state of similar tranquility. The jackrabbit darts across the clearing in an unpredictable route, instinctively avoiding the worst-case scenario in its routine business of the day. Likewise the chipmunk darts here and there gathering food in an apparently nervous, hurried and watchful state, at least to human eyes. The birds are forever busy, looking for and gathering food while being watchful and fidgety, instinctively mindful that their own safety is itself precarious and could change at any instant. Most vulnerable animals you will not see as they likely have already fled after hearing your clumsy approach, or are hidden from view, camouflaged, or bedded down and resting, away from potential predators and awaiting the anticipated blanket of darkness before they themselves attempt to find food and mates and stay alive another day and for another season. In this sense, surely, humans who have no natural predators - we have long since killed them off or mostly manage them in reserves - are no longer partners in the same tense drama of survival as our animal cousins? Culture rather than genetic inheritance is now probably the major deciding factor as to whether we live or die⁷,⁸; behavior, medicine and technology can foil natural selection in many instances. We kill bothersome animals, we can keep people alive to a reproductive age despite them having an otherwise lethal medical condition if left untreated, we can identify an emerging pathogen and determine its structure and genomic sequence in days to initiate the mass production of vaccines, we can prevent large numbers of childhood deaths in many regions of the world, and manufacture tools to prevent the spread of common diseases like mosquito nets for malaria. Humans also typically choose when to eat, sleep, socialize, work, and have sex for reasons other than reproduction. To all intents and purposes we appear to be in control, but has the struggle for existence taken a back seat?

Make no mistake, the struggle for existence is real and apparent for humans in the modern age. However, this struggle has taken a different twist, a more economic and time-pressing struggle, a situation that Darwin would have understood well. Darwin’s ‘Malthusian’ insight came to him not by chance, but because he understood well the economic conditions and politics of his day, and he read around the subject widely². He was familiar, for example, with the work of Adam Smith (1723-1790), author of The Wealth of Nations and acknowledged by many as the father of modern economics. Smith’s influence on economics still resonates today, with the Bank of England, for example, issuing new £20 notes in 2007 featuring his portrait. This honor was also noteworthy because it was the first time a Scotsman appeared on a Bank of England note! His portrait on the banknote is accompanied by some text which identifies one of his more famous insights; the text reads: "The division of labour in pin manufacturing: (and the great increase in quantity of work that results). The insight gained from his analysis of pin manufacturing not only resonates in the economic marketplace, it also has major impact on the mechanisms operating in the biological marketplace, mechanisms that shape life’s processes as Darwin well recognized and which will be discussed later in this Chapter. For now, however, it is enough to introduce that Smith also conceptualized the so-called "invisible hand", the self-regulating nature of the marketplace, with this metaphorical hand guided by the interplay between the forces of self-interest, competition, supply and demand; the ‘laissez-faire’ viewpoint of economics. The concepts of competition, self-interest and struggle in economic life were very apparent to Charles Darwin, who was himself an independently wealthy but liberal social thinker. Darwin was thus in an intellectual position to readily understand and apply the ideas of Adam Smith to the field of biology, as he recognized that the roles of form and function, adaptation, efficiency, competition, survival and extinction apply as much in business as they do in nature.

In the late 1800s Darwin lived, as we do now, in a time of commercial capitalism and the economy was in a state of flux. Some firms were improving techniques in the face of stiffer competition, so increasing their size and wealth, whereas others were going bankrupt. In his day, some traditional crafts were also dying out as they were non-competitive in the face of new designs and innovations, improved manufacturing methods, including, importantly, the division of labor. The same overarching conditions of struggle and extinction apply today, with ever increasing competition in the face of commercial globalization and the emergence of new markets, new sources of manufacturing and lower wages in developing countries. Today’s economy is certainly benefitting many, but for the majority it has not translated to lesser work hours, higher wages or more recreational or social time. Attempts to cut costs and stay competitive means that work hours and wages need to be optimized, in some cases resulting in massive profit for a few individuals and companies, but for the majority this means a continued ‘struggle for existence’ in a difficult economic environment. In broad terms, Darwin’s concepts of the struggle for existence and natural selection were the economic arguments of his day applied to nature⁹, with a healthy degree of intellectual genius on his part to go further and identify that natural selection per se, acting on the level of the individual organism, can account for the panoply of life on earth. The principles underlying the unguided and self-regulating "invisible hand of the marketplace espoused by Adam Smith, especially self-interest and competition, are analogous with the principles underlying the unguided and impersonal process of natural selection, the blind watchmaker"¹⁰-¹² of biology. If the struggle for existence and natural selection were the economic arguments of Darwin’s day applied to nature, then it is somewhat ironic that some 150 years after the publication of the Origin of Species that there is completion of the circle, the struggle for existence for humans now largely includes an economic niche and the consequence is pressure on personal ‘down time’; large numbers of the human population live in a Time Crunch and the time for rest is being squeezed¹³. Time is as much a niche in the biological sense as is physical space and consumable resources, and so the appropriate use and budgeting of time are subject to competition, restriction and natural selection.

The struggle for existence in biology is normally associated with the savage garden of nature. Violence and death often accompany the biological marketplace as aptly evoked by Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) by his memorable phrase: "Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw"¹⁴. For modern humans, however, the struggle for existence has taken a different form; the economic struggle is now the major source of individual and group competition, rather than actively competing to find food and avoiding predation. To ‘survive’ and flourish in the modern competitive world, and to raise young with enough resources and opportunities for them to be competitive, successful and enjoy the benefits of our and their labors ultimately requires productivity and the associated reward of sufficient economic return. Individuals vary enormously in their own definition of ‘sufficient’, but whatever the benchmark, and whatever socio-economic group or region of the world an individual belongs to, acquisition of sufficient resources requires time and effort; long hours with someone else always being ready, willing, and able to take your place if your investment of time and energy is deemed insufficient. Given that there are only twenty-four hours in a day, the one victim that suffers in the face of this economic reality of the modern struggle for existence is the time available for rest, inactivity, sleep or personal development. The key question is, however, whether it is disadvantageous to health, and so ultimately disadvantageous for longer term individual competitiveness in a competitive world, if rest is relegated from a position of a biological priority to a now inconvenient buttress in the architecture of the day, with this buttress now also being moved around in time to suit the twenty-four hour technological and industrial world? After all, nature has seen fit to program into apparently almost every organism, and seemingly into almost every cell, a sense of proportion in time - the molecular machinery for a hard-wired and well-preserved rest-activity cycle. If this sense of time within the building blocks of life, and the strict appropriation of

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