Get In Tune With Chronobiology: Part One

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Human Cycles Foot Machine

Like most science, Biology is still struggling to free itself of the dark ages.  We live our lives in a continuum, yet most biology textbooks are still content to take a single snapshot of a human being and pretend that they’re actually discussing reality when they break that snapshot into component parts and study them.  Humans are not objects, though—we’re ongoing processes, moving around on a planet that’s teeming with organic life and orbiting around an unthinkably huge star. 

For this precise reason, I’ve been getting heavy into “Chronobiology” lately—it’s currently considered a sub-discipline but in the decades to come I believe it will take it’s place as the most accurate and useful approach to biology that we have.  There has been a lot of secular back-slapping in recent years about how totally great and amazing science is, compared to relgion—an endless stream of atheist-pundits pointing out that unlike the rigid dogmas of Faith, sceince is constantly revising itself and changing.  And yeah—when you compare scientific progress to something that doesn’t progress at all...things look pretty good.  However, the sad fact is the wheels of science turn slower than the average lifespan of a human being. 

Because of this, the notion that human organisms exist in time and are subject to cyclical changes is still considered a novelty, instead of the only sane approach. So here’s your chance to get a few decades ahead of the game—your introduction to Chronobiology.  It’s going to take us from the outer limits of the galaxy to the smallest particles in your body, and if you don’t think the ride was informative, fascinating and downright badass, you’ll get a full refund.

Biorhythms vs. Chronobiology

grumpyface skepticsAlthough the simple fact blows my mind out against a concrete wall, the concept of biorhythms has a lot of skeptics.  Biorhythms—the notion that living organisms function on regular cycles, right?  You’d think any human being on Earth who was aware of the “menstruation” phenomenon would know better, but LO AND BEHOLD, the Skeptic’s Dictionary steps up to the plate:

The theory of biorhythms is a pseudoscientific theory that claims our daily lives are significantly affected by rhythmic cycles overlooked by scientists who study biological rhythms. Biochronometry is the scientific study of rhythmicity and biological cycles or “clocks,” such as the circadian (from the Latin circa and dia; literally, “about a day"). Circadian rhythms are based upon such things as our sensitivity to light and darkness, which is related to our sleep/wakefulness patterns. Biorhythms is not based upon the scientific study of biological organisms. The cycles of biorhythm theory did not originate in scientific study, nor have they been supported by anything resembling a scientific study.

So what’s going on here?

What happened is this: back in 1897, Wilhelm Fleiss claimed that human beings have three cycles that dictate their entire lives:

1) A 23-day cycle affecting “physical strength, edurance, energy and confidence”

2) A 28-day cycle affecting “feelings, love, and irritability”

3) A 33-day “intellectual cycle”

Wilhelm Fleiss BiorhythmsAs if this wasn’t enough, Fleiss further claimed that all of these cycles begin on your date of birth and continue unchanged for the rest of your life.  As you no doubt already remarked to yourself, this can be politely termed as “bullshit.” The notion that an organism’s internal rhythms are not affected by the surrounding environment defies my favorite law of physics—Entrainment, which we will return to momentarily.

So the problem is, Fleiss proposed his system way back in 1897 and more or less got “dibs” on the term “biorhythms.” Like every other theory of the past two centuries that has no support in reality, it’s still alive and well today and there’s a small industry of people who are happy to sell you “biorhythm meters.” In fact, there’s even programs for your computer that will track your biological rhythms with no feedback from your body whatsoever. You just plug in your birthday and the program figures it all out from there.

Because of this, the the actual science has been going on under the moniker of “Chronobiology” for decades now.

Entrainment & Chronobiology

Mind EntrainmentEntrainment, as I am fond of remarking, is the weird uncle of the physics family.  Although it’s a fairly well-known concept, it has very disturbing implications for human beings and for human cultures.  The two most classic examples of Entrainment are Christiaan Huygen’s original experiment with clocks, and women who live together gradually synchronizing their menstrual cycles.  Any reader with a reasonable sense of awareness has already noticed that, in conversation, humans tend to “mirror” one another’s posture and gestures.  More exacting experiments have determined that we also synchronize our language patterns and even our breathing and pulse rates when we interact with other humans.

Another key difference between “Biorhythms” and Chronobiology is that biorhythms are constant, perfect cycles, whereas Chronobiology recognizes that human beings are chaotic and irregular systems.  The human “biological clock” can wander quite a bit, but it’s also being pulled back into sync by much larger forces—such as the Earth itself, the moon, and of course the cycles of light and darkness.  There’s going to be a couple supercool graphs and illustrations in this article, but my personal favorite is this next one.  You can actually watch newborn infants gradually entrain to the cycles of their Home Planet Earth during the first 26 weeks of their life—order from chaos:

Newborn Human Entrainment Circadian Rhythm

I probably don’t have to point this out, but this graph alone completely refutes the Wilhelm Fliess theory.  Of course, Fleiss died long before this information was known—the real jackasses are the people who still try to make money off his work today, when this information is just a few clicks away.

The “Garden Clock” of Carolus Linnaeus

Carolus LinnaeusAside from using economic measures and chemical additives in the food supply to control entire nations and keep them too stressed out and worn down to network and revolt against their Technofascist controllers, the coolest application of all this is the “Garden Clock.” The following summary and picture are both from an educational lesson plan from the Science Museum of Virgina:

In 1751, a Swedish botanist/naturalist named Carolus Linnaeus designed a flower garden clock using certain diurnal flowers. By arranging selected species of flowering plants in a circular garden, he was able to devise a clock that indicated the time of day by observing which flowers were open and which ones were closed. The diagram below is inspired by the clock that Linnaus designed. The flowers in the diagram, however, are more commonly found in the United States.

Carolus Linnaeus Garden Clock

The Superhuman Balls of Maurizio Montalbini

Maurizio Montalbini in the caveBack when Brainsturbator was just getting started—and man, I had no idea how big and weird things would get—we did an article about Maurizio Montalbini, who moved into a cave on October 11th, 2006.  He brought food pills, honey, nuts, chocolate and 85 books.  He’s still there, and he’s going to be there until 2009. Montalbini is sacrificing his time, and perhaps his sanity, to further reasearch in Chronobiology.  Strange things happen when humans are cut off from the light/dark feedback cycle, but none stranger than how radically it affects our perception of time:

“When I remained 366 days underground, I had the impression of only spending 219 days,” he said. “This is the last experiment I’m going to do, I’m getting too old for this,” Mr Montalbini added.

He’s already 54, and this experiment is a radically pioneering effort in dangerous territory:

When another Italian hermit, a 27-year-old interior decorator, Stefania Follini, lived by herself in a sealed cave for 130 days in 1989, she tended to stay awake for 20-25 hours at a time and sleep for about 10 hours. Her menstrual cycle stopped.

Similar experiments elsewhere have led to psychological complications and, in one extreme case, a suicide.

--from The Guardian UK

As you can see, this is a large vista—how much are our internal processes regulated by the sun and moon? We will be exploring the cellular mechanisms behind circadian rhythms in the next installment of this series.  Meanwhile, I’m going to close this with a large dose of brainfood...

One Picture, Several Thousand Words

click to enlarge yo

Futher Reading for Curious Primates

Cross-spectrally coherent ~10.5- and 21-year biological and physical cycles, magnetic storms and myocardial infarctions.  A dense but fascinating subject, exploring what the fundamental “pulse” of life on Earth is.  This paper is also the source of the image above. 

The Brain, Circadian Rhytms, and Clock Genes—a very accessable and complete summation of current knowledge.  At only 5 readable, info-packed pages, this is one of the more perfect white papers I’ve found in recent months.

In Search of a Deep Psychobiology of Hypnosis—applying circadian rhythms to the discipline of hypnosis—quite an fascinating overview of both topics is provided over the course of this paper.

The Journal of Circadian Rhythms—chock full of interesting papers and information.

Sleep Management for Canadian Pilots—an excellent and straightforward article on how all of this applies to human beings at work.  Even if you’re not a Canadian pilot, this is still an illuminating read.


5 responses to "Get In Tune With Chronobiology: Part One"

  • avatar

    Aug 12, 2007 at 1:07 AM

    Excellent article.  I consider myself to be a scientist, and yet I cannot deny that what you say about science is true: as RAW pointed out, it takes at least a generation for anything new to sink in.  I’m always looking for anything related to my chosen field (biotechnology).  Good work.

  • avatar

    Aug 15, 2007 at 3:29 AM
    Alcoholic 007

    I did a “study” of my own patterns back in 1999 and though I can not find them written any where, I remember that my days were about an hour longer than usual for about 2 weeks of the time, giving the effect of an almost 25 hour day.

    Wondering why it might be longer, I talked to some people I knew in an attempt to find some ideas.. though no one yielded answer, I decided the length of a day may be relative on an other planet and looked up the planets.

    Earth has an average day length of 23 Hrs, 56 Mins [according to NASA].
    Mars has an average day length of 24 Hrs, 37 Mins [according to NASA].

    It is not that exciting, but it certainly makes my character, of that time in which I did the study, a good candidate for living on Mars.

    Thanks for the good read. grin

  • avatar

    Aug 15, 2007 at 6:33 PM

    ^^That’s a very prescient comment!  I will be headed there in the next installment.

  • avatar

    Aug 16, 2007 at 1:48 PM
    Jon Storvick

    For some reason the link to that first pdf file doesn’t work…

  • avatar

    Aug 16, 2007 at 4:09 PM

    And I guess that’s why I back up everything myself in the first place....I’ll fix that up, thank you very much for the heads-up.

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