Coded gray.

Saturday 18 November 2000

Small barn on meadow

Pic of the day: Not exactly the fast lane. Out in the countryside, life often takes on a more sensible speed. There won't be any hazardous driving across this meadow to reach the barn in time, I think... (Archive photo from my west coast trip. Yes, I used to play here when I was a small boy. Don't get me started.)

Living slow or fast

Originally we are a diurnal species, though you may not guess from observing me. The light of day suits well our superior eyesight and our elevation above ground, and lets us scout far and wide. But in the night, our mediocre hearing and our poor sense of smell give us no benefit. Only after fire was at our command could we conquer the night.

With all this forced inactivity, providence has kindly set aside that time for other useful functions. In the first part of our sleep, the body's construction crew comes out in force. Growth hormone is released, for those to whom it applies. The immune system is boosted. The various organs have their chemical balance adjusted, included the brain. Later in the night, the brain spends more and more time on some pretty hard work, known as dreaming. In this part of sleep, new memories are refreshed and integrated with old ones. When the light of day once again floods our planet, we have already done a lot of work.

Scientists these days generally agree that we do not sleep as much as we were designed for. Electric light and various communication technologies conspire to push the day further into the night. (Some of us have other reasons, too.) The result is that neither body nor mind operate at peak efficiency. Lack of sleep makes the mind dull and the body sick. We seem to win time each night, but we lose it in the end, as the body breaks down before time or is damaged in stupid mistakes.


In Scientific American's theme issue about aging, I found a quite interesting claim. When a sedentary adult takes up physical activity, life is prolonged. But only by approximately as much time as is spent on the physical training. Heh. And people say there is no God ...

But this all made me think, of course, as I walked to the shop today, MP3 playing on one ear. I thought: If you get the same time anyway, would you like to live it as fast as possible, or would you prefer to space it out?


It would seem this is to some degree a real choice. We can squeeze more time out of each day, but at the price of our health. Or we can sleep a lot and live longer (all other things being equal). On the other hand, we can choose to sit still and cultivate our sedentary hobbies, or we can run around prolonging our lives in attractive jogging gear. If we start early with one or the other practice, the net result could be years of lifespan. But the longer the lifespan, the less time each day for our real interests. (Unless sleeping and sports are your real interests, in which case I pity you.)

Now I reason that we probably live in the best of times that our world has ever seen. Well, most of us do, we who live in western Europe and North America, and several other places too. Should we live as much as we can while the good times last? Or should we try to space it out, hoping that it might get even better in the future? Perhaps we are curious as to what history has in store for us, and would like to know.

To illustrate the point, let me indulge in a tiny science fiction. Let us say that research on hibernation gave us a drug that let us sleep away half a year each winter (or summer, for the snow freaks among us). By taking the drug, our life span would increase from on average 75 years to 150 - but at the price of losing half the time each year. What would you do?

I think by myself that I would probably take the drug. I am curious about the future, and would like to be there. Even at such a price. Or that is what I tell myself. But that is not how I live. I skimp on sleep and cheat on physical exertion. I live in many ways as if there was no tomorrow, and if I continue that way, there will eventually not be.

"What a man truly believes can not be ascertained from his creed but from the assumptions on which he habitually acts."

I wonder if knowing it will make a difference? It usually doesn't, with humans. Then again, humans usually explain away uncomfortable truths. I should know - I've been one.

(In a fit of political correctness, I use the word "providence" as a general placeholder for the various creator gods worshipped by my fellow theists, as well as Evolution and Random Blind Luck honored by atheists. I definitely have my suspicion as to who providence is, but today it does not concern you, I suppose.)

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