Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

21 AUGUST, 2012

What Actually Happens While You Sleep and How It Affects Your Every Waking Moment

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“We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive.”

The Ancient Greeks believed that one fell asleep when the brain filled with blood and awakened once it drained back out. Nineteenth-century philosophers contended that sleep happened when the brain was emptied of ambitions and stimulating thoughts. “If sleep doesn’t serve an absolutely vital function, it is the greatest mistake evolution ever made,” biologist Allan Rechtschaffen once remarked. Even today, sleep remains one of the most poorly understood human biological functions, despite some recent strides in understanding the “social jetlag” of our internal clocks and the relationship between dreaming and depression. In Dreamland: Adventures in the Strange Science of Sleep (public library), journalist David K. Randall — who stumbled upon the idea after crashing violently into a wall while sleepwalking — explores “the largest overlooked part of your life and how it affects you even if you don’t have a sleep problem.” From gender differences to how come some people snore and others don’t to why we dream, he dives deep into this mysterious third of human existence to illuminate what happens when night falls and how it impacts every aspect of our days.

Most of us will spend a full third of our lives asleep, and yet we don’t have the faintest idea of what it does for our bodies and our brains. Research labs offer surprisingly few answers. Sleep is one of the dirty little secrets of science. My neurologist wasn’t kidding when he said there was a lot that we don’t know about sleep, starting with the most obvious question of all — why we, and every other animal, need to sleep in the first place.

But before we get too anthropocentrically arrogant in our assumptions, it turns out the quantitative requirement of sleep isn’t correlated with how high up the evolutionary chain an organism is:

Lions and gerbils sleep about thirteen hours a day. Tigers and squirrels nod off for about fifteen hours. At the other end of the spectrum, elephants typically sleep three and a half hours at a time, which seems lavish compared to the hour and a half of shut-eye that the average giraffe gets each night.

[…]

Humans need roughly one hour of sleep for every two hours they are awake, and the body innately knows when this ratio becomes out of whack. Each hour of missed sleep one night will result in deeper sleep the next, until the body’s sleep debt is wiped clean.

What, then, happens as we doze off, exactly? Like all science, our understanding of sleep seems to be a constant “revision in progress”:

Despite taking up so much of life, sleep is one of the youngest fields of science. Until the middle of the twentieth century, scientists thought that sleep was an unchanging condition during which time the brain was quiet. The discovery of rapid eye movements in the 1950s upended that. Researchers then realized that sleep is made up of five distinct stages that the body cycles through over roughly ninety-minute periods. The first is so light that if you wake up from it, you might not realize that you have been sleeping. The second is marked by the appearance of sleep-specific brain waves that last only a few seconds at a time. If you reach this point in the cycle, you will know you have been sleeping when you wake up. This stage marks the last drop before your brain takes a long ride away from consciousness. Stages three and four are considered deep sleep. In three, the brain sends out long, rhythmic bursts called delta waves. Stage four is known as slow-wave sleep for the speed of its accompanying brain waves. The deepest form of sleep, this is the farthest that your brain travels from conscious thought. If you are woken up while in stage four, you will be disoriented, unable to answer basic questions, and want nothing more than to go back to sleep, a condition that researchers call sleep drunkenness. The final stage is REM sleep, so named because of the rapid movements of your eyes dancing against your eyelids. In this stage of sleep, the brain is as active as it is when it is awake. This is when most dreams occur.

(Recall the role of REM sleep in regulating negative emotions.)

Randall’s most urgent point, however, echoes what we’ve already heard from German chronobiologist Till Roenneberg, who studies internal time — in our blind lust for the “luxuries” of modern life, with all its 24-hour news cycles, artificial lighting on demand, and expectations of round-the-clock telecommunications availability, we’ve thrown ourselves into a kind of circadian schizophrenia:

We are living in an age when sleep is more comfortable than ever and yet more elusive. Even the worst dorm-room mattress in America is luxurious compared to sleeping arrangements that were common not long ago. During the Victorian era, for instance, laborers living in workhouses slept sitting on benches, with their arms dangling over a taut rope in front of them. They paid for this privilege, implying that it was better than the alternatives. Families up to the time of the Industrial Revolution engaged in the nightly ritual of checking for rats and mites burrowing in the one shared bedroom. Modernity brought about a drastic improvement in living standards, but with it came electric lights, television, and other kinds of entertainment that have thrown our sleep patterns into chaos.

Work has morphed into a twenty-four-hour fact of life, bringing its own set of standards and expectations when it comes to sleep … Sleep is ingrained in our cultural ethos as something that can be put off, dosed with coffee, or ignored. And yet maintaining a healthy sleep schedule is now thought of as one of the best forms of preventative medicine.

Reflecting on his findings, Randall marvels:

As I spent more time investigating the science of sleep, I began to understand that these strange hours of the night underpin nearly every moment of our lives.

Indeed, Dreamland goes on to explore how sleep — its mechanisms, its absence, its cultural norms — affects everyone from police officers and truck drivers to artists and entrepreneurs, permeating everything from our decision-making to our emotional intelligence.

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20 AUGUST, 2012

How Children Learn: Portraits of Classrooms Around the World

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A revealing lens on a system-phenomenon both global in reach and strikingly local in degree of diversity.

Since 2004, Julian Germain has been capturing the inner lives of schools around the world, from England to Nigeria to Qatar, in his large-scale photographs of schoolchildren in class. Classroom Portraits (public library) is part Where Children Sleep, part Bureaucratics, part What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, part something else entirely — a poignant lens on a system-phenomenon that is both global in reach and strikingly local in degree of peculiarity, revealed through more than 450 portraits of schoolchildren from 20 countries.

Jessore, Bangladesh. Year 10, English.

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Brazil, Belo Horizonte, Series 6, Mathematics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

USA, St Louis, Grade 4 & 5, Geography

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Nigeria, Kano, Ooron Dutse, Senior Islamic Secondary Level 2, Social Studies

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Taiwan, Ruei Fang Township, Kindergarten, Art

Image courtesy Julian Germain

St. Petersburg, Russia. Year 2, Russian

Image courtesy Julian Germain

The extent of concentration and mutuality required for each portrait offer a beautiful metaphor for the teaching-learning process itself. Germain writes:

I never tell the students how they should look but ensuring that everybody has a clear view of the camera requires concentration and patience. Each pupil has to be aware of their place in the picture.

In order to achieve sharp focus in both fore- and background, the exposure time is usually a quarter or half a second so the pupils have to be ready for the moment the shutter is released. I am waiting for them and they are waiting for me. The process itself generates an atmosphere and the time captured in the portrait seems significant.

England, Seaham, Reception and Year 1, Structured Play

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Tokyo, Japan, Grade 5, Classical Japanese

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Havana, Cuba. Year 2, Mathematics.

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Lagos, Nigeria. Basic 7 / Junior Secondary Level 1, Mathematics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

England, Keighley, Year 6, History

Image courtesy Julian Germain

England, Washington, Year 7 (first day), Registration

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Holland, Drouwenermond, Primary Year 5, 6, 7 & 8, History

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Qatar, Grade 8, English

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Bahrain, Saar, Grade 11, Islamic

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Peru, Cusco, Primary Grade 4, Mathematics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Cuba, Havana, Playa, Year 9, national television screening of film ‘Can Gamba’ (about Cuban participation in Angolan Revolution)

Image courtesy Julian Germain

The Netherlands, Rotterdam, Secondary Group 3, Motor Mechanics

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Yemen, Manakha, Primary Year 2, Science Revision

Image courtesy Julian Germain

Argentina, Buenos Aires, Grade 4, Natural Science

Image courtesy Julian Germain

(Is it just me, or do the kids in Natural Science class seem most mischievously engaged? Perhaps every child is a scientist.)

feature shoot

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20 AUGUST, 2012

How to Read a Poem: “Stored Magic,” Total Transformation, and the Capacity for Creative Wonder

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“True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity.”

“The only transformation that interests me is a total transformation — however minute,” wrote Susan Sontag in her diary. “I want the encounter with a person or a work of art to change everything.” For the literary idealist, the same resolute demand can be applied to encounters with the written word.

After learning how to read a book and how to talk about books you haven’t read, here’s a beautiful meditation on poetry and total transformation by way of “stored magic” from Edward Hirsch’s modern classic How to Read a Poem (public library), the first chapter of which has been made available online by Poetry Foundation:

The lyric poem seeks to mesmerize time. It crosses frontiers and outwits the temporal. It seeks to defy death, coming to disturb and console you. (‘These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand,’ John Berryman wrote in one of his last Dream Songs: ‘They are only meant to terrify & comfort.’) The poet is incited to create a work that can outdistance time and surmount distance, that can bridge the gulf — the chasm — between people otherwise unknown to each other. It can survive changes of language and in language, changes in social norms and customs, the ravages of history. Here is Robert Graves in The White Goddess:

True poetic practice implies a mind so miraculously attuned and illuminated that it can form words, by a chain of more-than coincidences, into a living entity — a poem that goes about on its own (for centuries after the author’s death, perhaps) affecting readers with its stored magic.

I believe such stored magic can author in the reader an equivalent capacity for creative wonder, creative response to a living entity. (Graves means his statement literally.) The reader completes the poem, in the process bringing to it his or her own past experiences. You are reading poetry — I mean really reading it—when you feel encountered and changed by a poem, when you feel its seismic vibrations, the sounding of your depths. ‘There is no place that does not see you,’ Rainer Maria Rilke writes at the earth-shattering conclusion of his poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: ‘You must change your life.’

How to Read a Poem is excellent and necessary in its entirety — do yourself a favor.

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