A cultural sleep

Jessica Gamble describes new techniques and technologies whose inventors would radically reduce or eliminate the human need for sleep:

Transcranial direct-current stimulation (tDCS) is a promising technology in the field of sleep efficiency and cognitive enhancement. Alternating current administered to the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex through the thinnest part of the skull has beneficial effects almost as mysterious as electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), its amnesia-inducing ancestor. Also known as ‘shock therapy’, ECT earned a bad name through overuse, epitomised in Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962) and its 1975 film adaptation, but it is surprisingly effective in alleviating severe depression. We don’t really understand why this works, and even in today’s milder and more targeted ECT, side effects make it a last resort for cases that don’t respond to drug treatment. In contrast to ECT, tDCS uses a very mild charge, not enough directly to cause neurons to fire, but just enough to slightly change their polarisation, lowering the threshold at which they do so.

Using a slightly different technique — transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), which directly causes neurons to fire — neuroscientists at Duke University have been able to induce slow-wave oscillations, the once-per-second ripples of brain activity that we see in deep sleep. Targeting a central region at the top of the scalp, slow-frequency pulses reach the neural area where slow-wave sleep is generated, after which it propagates to the rest of the brain. Whereas the Somneo mask is designed to send its wearers into a light sleep faster, TMS devices might be able to launch us straight into deep sleep at the flip of a switch. Full control of our sleep cycles could maximise time spent in slow-wave sleep and REM, ensuring full physical and mental benefits while cutting sleep time in half. Your four hours of sleep could feel like someone else’s eight. Imagine being able to read an extra book every week — the time adds up quickly.

The benefits are so obvious that Gamble doesn’t actually argue in favor of all this technological wonder and post-evolutionary glory; instead, she insists that no present-day person can logically argue against it:

The question is whether the strangeness of the idea will keep us from accepting it. If society rejects sleep curtailment, it won’t be a biological issue; rather, the resistance will be cultural…. Such attempts are likely to meet with powerful resistance from a culture that assumes that ‘natural’ is ‘optimal’. Perceptions of what is within normal range dictate what sort of human performance enhancement is medically acceptable, above which ethics review boards get cagey. Never mind that these bell curves have shifted radically throughout history. Never mind that if we are to speak of maintaining natural sleep patterns, that ship sailed as soon as artificial light turned every indoor environment into a perpetual mid-afternoon in May.

Setting aside, for the moment, the matter of sleep, there’s an interesting assumption lurking beneath that paragraph, and I think it’s worth ferreting out, because the opponents Gamble imagines share it. Continue reading “A cultural sleep”

Area man still not eating his veggies

Despite pleading and prodding from the feds, kids still won’t eat their veggies. A New York school district has decided to forgo federal funding for school lunches because of complaints about mandated smaller portion sizes and because new rules requiring kids to be served fruits and vegetables was resulting in massive waste:

The school district has decided to not participate in the National School Lunch program, saying recent changes requiring more fruits and vegetables on each tray has resulted in kids throwing the lunches away….

As part of the federal Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, school lunches now must meet strict federal guidelines to address the epidemic of childhood obesity. Some of the rules include: serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables, offering dark green and deep orange vegetables and legumes every week, using whole grains in half the grains served and reducing salt by 10 percent….

[Superintendent Kay] Salvaggio said in her letter that “our school meals will continue to be nutritious and well-rounded” and that while kids can take a fruit and a vegetable, they won’t be required to do so. Portion sizes will also increase, a reaction to the reduced amount of food allowed under the new federal guidelines.

This would be news, I guess, except that the USDA has been telling Americans to eat their veggies for ninety-six years, and we haven’t listened yet. Did we really think putting them on kids’ trays unasked would work? (Especially if they look like the vegetables the school cafeteria served when I was a kid?)

The thing is, the USDA knows, or at least claims to know, what makes a successful nutrition education program, and they’ve known since the Second World War. Here’s what the Food and Nutrition Service says such a program must do: Continue reading “Area man still not eating his veggies”