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The rhythm of the night: How music can help insomnia
Insomnia is the product of mental or emotional pressure.
Lying awake at night, I have sometimes found myself turning this idea over in my head. Like millions of slumberless souls, I have suffered with regular bouts of insomnia, which, in my case, were triggered by overworking, psychological pressure, and obsessive thoughts. Insomniac sleep deprivation provoked in me a profound anxiety, shades of paranoia, and the promise of depression. However, during one tempestuous summer a few years ago, I found an aural way to silence it.
Beleaguered in the stifling intensity of two interim jobs, I worked too much, too hard and too long; stress-ridden and marooned in the city, I fell over the edge into a nightly insomnia. Like quicksand, the more I tried to sleep and ignore the freneticism of my racing thoughts, the harder it became to drift off – I couldn't say how I partook in Miłosz's becoming. I tried everything, from books on balmy midnight sleepwalks to friendly lectures on temperance. Nothing worked. A sleeping pill prescription was complicated by side-effect trepidation spawned by my state of nervous distress; my mental health suffered and I feared a repeat of depressive episodes. In the past, I had used music to modulate my emotions, so I trialled a kind of self-directed musical hypnosis. Finally, here was something that hit a chord.
After weeks of wakeful anxiety, in the soft strains of music I found a medium that regulated my mood, toned down the stress and tuned into my sleep patterns. Not a total cure for my affliction, but certainly a vital accompaniment. After the temporary projects eventually flourished to a crescendo, music had become the requiem to my insomnia.
This should not have come as a surprise to me considering the scale to which I delved into psychiatric research on the topic at the time. "One of the features which makes music a low-cost alternative to sleep medication is the distracting function of music," explains Helle Nystrup Lund, a Danish PhD researcher and music therapist at the Unit for Psychiatric Research at Aalborg University Hospital, whose current research is focused on whether music can improve sleep quality for patients suffering from depression and insomnia. "Stress and depression are likely to be followed by worries and thoughts," she tells me. "Thoughts and restlessness are preventing sleep initiation. Music may distract from feelings and thoughts and help the individual to fall asleep. Calm music supports relaxation and this is also helpful to improve sleep."
Sleeping in uncertain times
For me and millions of others, insomnia is the product of mental or emotional pressure, which can increase stress levels and engender a tortuously vicious cycle. The recent outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it its own collateral miasma of stressfulness and sleeplessness, a factor reinforced by a scientific paper in the Journal of Sleep Research detailing the quarantine's inimical effects on stress-inflected insomnia and emotional regulation.
While it may seem negligible compared to the widespread devastation of the coronavirus, issues ranging from epidemiological fears of infection to the economic worries of personal finance are preventing proper sleep. As a 2012 research paper from Korea University suggests, such worries can aggravate the triggers of insomnia, inducing the body to secrete excessive amounts of the hormone cortisol and leading to the hyper-alertness that breeds insomniac states. Quality sleep is not a panacea and cannot resolve all the acute nightmares of the pandemic; however, as subjective experience can attest to, music can be a practical leitmotif for a healthy regimen of rest.
Jimi Tormey, a musician who has also suffered with insomnia, tells me of his own sonic self-medication: "I find that repetition is one of the key musical elements that helps me sleep, but dynamic percussive sounds somehow feel 'closer' to me, which can be disruptive when trying to get to sleep," he affirms. "To silence sleep-preventing thoughts, I listen to minimalist composers and albums that have an overall sense of regularity and calmness to prevent spikes in tempo or timbre." His account seems to be pitched in unison with scientists at the University of Fribourg's Division of Cognitive Biopsychology and Methods, who have empirically proven that relaxing music can aid sleep. According to their investigations, soundscapes, classical music and ambient noise can all help to dissolve stress by inducing mental relaxation and muscle sedation.
But what is music? The definition is infamously elusive. We might say that music involves expression and auditory texture, sonic experiences and tone colour – conventionally, we could call it the art of successive and ordered sounds. For the purposes of this discussion, the term 'music' will be in the key of sleep: from ambient beats and dreamy soundscapes to a piano's delicate strains or the cadences of a sitar.
Take, for instance, the melodic framework of the raga from the Indian musical tradition. Derived from the Sanskrit word for the act of dyeing or colouring, the term also signifies the imbuing of positive emotional states. Psychological research led by the National Brain Research Centre in India shows that ragas use different combinations of musical intervals, scales, tonality and tempo to inject rhythmic colour and elicit emotions in the listener. "Neelambari" – an ancient and ubiquitous raga – has long been thought of as a sleep-inducing lullaby, particularly in the context of the southern, Carnatic musical system. Despite some internal disputes about its soporific effects, the hypnotic pulses and cadences of the piece certainly connote a general sense of sleepiness.
"We don't choose to hear or not in the same way that we can choose to close our eyes," explains Chris Waller, a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, whose work focuses on music in carceral contexts. "Therefore, as Michel Serres suggests, to make our sonic environment feel stable and secure involves 'ear work,' which means determining what is meaningful sound and what is noise, and what the meanings behind those sounds are," he informs me. "Given that music has such a rich internal logic, often very consistent and symmetrical, it can be a useful resource for the mind to grab onto and construct a predictable sonic environment out of."
Some findings support the notion that classical music has a positive effect on sleep due to its impact on the parasympathetic nervous system – the network responsible for the body's 'rest and digest' responses. That listening to music can be evocatively somnolent is, of course, far from a novel phenomenon. For centuries, classical composers have honed the ability to convey feeling and emotion in their listenership. In the Western canon, the invocation of sleep-inducing emotion plays out in a slightly different key. Often called the 'poet of the piano,' Frédéric Chopin's poignant intensity and romantic finesse single him out as a composer of particular emotional refinement and therefore the perfect amplifier for insomniacs. A fellow insomniac, Chopin ironically complained that, "meanwhile, my manuscripts sleep and I can't sleep" in a letter he wrote in 1838 from his winter sojourn in Mallorca.
His famous "Nocturnes" – so named for an evocation of the night – follow in the formal tradition of languidly melodic compositions and are often cited as practical preludes to sleep. In my own times of manic wakefulness, I have often depended on his 21 emotive solo piano pieces for a source of equanimity, with their soothing refrains, serenade-like lyricism and dreamlike legato. "The nocturne is oneiric," echoes Matthew del Novo in The Metaphysics of Night. "The start of No. 6 in G minor is particularly sleepy as if the notes are shaking drowsiness from them…the notes themselves going off – but not very far – to look for melody, like a mind that wanders into a fantasy by which it is carried away," he writes. "The slowing pace allows one to drift and Chopin's talent for ending without ending, in the way one never registers the moment one falls asleep is evident here." His undulating analysis here describes almost exactly the way I have experienced them – each Nocturne like a peregrination of the mind.
It is not just Chopin's pianissimo that can exorcize the spirits of sleeplessness. There are reams of popular classical sedatives – from the languorous tempi of Erik Satie's "Gymnopédies" and Claude Debussy's "Rêverie" and "Clair de Lune", to J.S. Bach's measured violin concertos. Indeed, according to psychological research conducted in the Department of Music at the University of Sheffield, classical music is overwhelmingly the most prevalent genre of music used for sleep. While it is the prevailing prescription, this is because much of it is gently ordered and immersive. Indeed, any slow music of around 60 to 80 beats per minute (BPM) can help us sleep.
As well as euphonic musical structures, ambient soundscapes and the recorded sounds of nature can also be a welcome tonic for those suffering with insomnia and other somnipathies. One example is the sonorous trend of ASMR (autonomous sensory meridian response) videos, which use sonic triggers to induce low-level euphoria and purportedly help with sleep – as is the case with Maya Lane, a postgraduate student in medical anthropology. "I have anxiety that gets worse at night and causes my insomnia. It really heightens all my senses – things like someone talking, a door closing or the pipes in the house can make me feel completely on edge.
"I've realized I need something to completely distract my brain away from concentrating on these sounds and help me sleep," she tells me. "I either listen to the Sleep Whispers podcast – someone telling stories in a whisper ASMR style – or the Headspace [a popular mindfulness app – ed. note] eight-hour soundscapes, which are things like rainforest noises, rain and storm noises. I'm not sure if they cause euphoria, but they definitely help relax me and take my mind off trying to sleep."
By harmonizing with slow tempos and languid rhythms, both hypnotic sounds and music can lower blood pressure, slow down breathing and encourage the deceleration of heart rate – a synchronization that mimics some of the body's 'falling asleep' processes. As myself and others have discovered, a bedtime routine with a regular relaxing soundtrack sends clear signals to the body to initialize sleep mode and synchronize biological clocks with environmental cues (so-called zeitgebers) such as light. However, the therapeutic or soporific aspect of music is mostly effective in improving sleep indirectly via relaxation. This may help with anxiety and stress-related insomnia, but other bio-physiological sleep disorders such as sleep paralysis and more physical breathing-related issues including sleep apnoea will be unresponsive or less likely to respond directly.
Considering that we spend one third of our lives sleeping (or attempting to do so) the importance of sleep for supporting physical and emotional well-being rings clear as a bell. The echo of an echo: "Even asleep we partake in the becoming of the world." After sleeplessly hearing his words, I finally understood the true import of Miłosz's maxim. His reminder that we contribute to the world in ways that might forever be unknown to us is like a somniloquy, a sleep-talking motto about self-awareness. How ironic, then, that my secret of sleep was the opposite: to be blissfully drowned in sound, to be unaware of oneself.
But to be awake, to be besieged by insomnia, does not always correlate to an increased perception of the self. Even as modernity seems to be characterized by the condition of insomnia, it is vital that we listen to our own biological rhythms, to our aural textures of music, and that we keep time with the physiological acoustics of sleep – the rhythm of the night.
Reprinted with permission of Przekrój. Read the original article.
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Scientists used CT scanning and 3D-printing technology to re-create the voice of Nesyamun, an ancient Egyptian priest.
- Scientists printed a 3D replica of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, an Egyptian priest whose mummified corpse has been on display in the UK for two centuries.
- With the help of an electronic device, the reproduced voice is able to "speak" a vowel noise.
- The team behind the "Voices of the Past" project suggest reproducing ancient voices could make museum experiences more dynamic.
Scientists have reproduced the voice of an ancient Egyptian priest by creating a 3D-printed replica of his mummified vocal tract.
An international and interdisciplinary team, led by David Howard, a professor of electronic engineering at Royal Holloway, used computed tomography (CT) scanning technology to measure the dimensions of the vocal tract of Nesyamun, a mummy that's spent about two centuries on display at Leeds City Museum in the United Kingdom.
The team then used those measurements to 3D-print an artificial vocal tract, through which they produced sounds using a peculiar electronic device called the Vocal Tract Organ. (You can check it out here.)
"The Vocal Tract Organ, a first in its own right, provided the inspiration for doing this," Howard told CNET.
Nesyamun, whose priestly duties included chanting and singing the daily liturgy, can once again "speak" — at least, in the form of a vowel noise that sounds something like a cross between the English pronunciation of the vowels in "bed" and "bad."
Of course, the new "voice" of Nesyamun is an approximation, and given the lack of actual recordings of his voice, and the degeneration of his body over millennia, it's impossible to know just how accurate it is. But the researchers suggested that their "Voice from the Past" project offers a chance for people to "engage with the past in completely new and innovative ways."
Howard et al.
"While this approach has wide implications for heritage management/museum display, its relevance conforms exactly to the ancient Egyptians' fundamental belief that 'to speak the name of the dead is to make them live again'," they wrote in a paper published in Nature Scientific Reports. "Given Nesyamun's stated desire to have his voice heard in the afterlife in order to live forever, the fulfilment of his beliefs through the synthesis of his vocal function allows us to make direct contact with ancient Egypt by listening to a sound from a vocal tract that has not been heard for over 3000 years, preserved through mummification and now restored through this new technique."
Connecting modern people with history
It's not the first time scientists have "re-created" an ancient human's voice. In 2016, for example, Italian researchers used software to reconstruct the voice of Ötzi, an iceman who was discovered in 1991 and is thought to have died more than 5,000 years ago. But the "Voices of the Past" project is different, the researchers note, because Nesyamun's mummified corpse is especially well preserved.
"It was particularly suited, given its age and preservation [of its soft tissues], which is unusual," Howard told Live Science.
As to whether Nesyamun's reconstructed voice will ever be able to speak complete sentences, Howard told The Associated Press, that it's "something that is being worked on, so it will be possible one day."
John Schofield, an archaeologist at the University of York, said that reproducing voices from history can make museum experiences "more multidimensional."
"There is nothing more personal than someone's voice," he told The Associated Press. "So we think that hearing a voice from so long ago will be an unforgettable experience, making heritage places like Karnak, Nesyamun's temple, come alive."
Ancient corridors below the French capital have served as its ossuary, playground, brewery, and perhaps soon, air conditioning.
- People have been digging up limestone and gypsum from below Paris since Roman times.
- They left behind a vast network of corridors and galleries, since reused for many purposes — most famously, the Catacombs.
- Soon, the ancient labyrinth may find a new lease of life, providing a sustainable form of air conditioning.
Ancient mining areas below Paris for limestone (red) and gypsum (green).Credit: Émile Gérards (1859–1920) / Public domain
"If you're brave enough to try, you might be able to catch a train from UnLondon to Parisn't, or No York, or Helsunki, or Lost Angeles, or Sans Francisco, or Hong Gone, or Romeless."
China Miéville's fantasy novel Un Lun Dun is set in an eerie mirror version of London. In it, he hints that other cities have similar doubles. On the list that he offhandedly rattles off, Paris stands out. Because the City of Light really does have a twisted sister. Below Paris Overground is Paris Underground, the City of Darkness.
Most people will have heard of the Catacombs of Paris: subterranean charnel houses for the bones of around six million dead Parisians. They are one of the French capital's most famous tourist attractions – and undoubtedly its grisliest.
But they constitute only a small fragment of what the locals themselves call les carrières de Paris ("the mines of Paris"), a collection of tunnels and galleries up to 300 km (185 miles) long, most of which are off-limits to the public, yet eagerly explored by so-called cataphiles.
The Grand Réseau Sud ("Great Southern Network") takes up around 200 km beneath the 5th, 6th, 14th, and 15th arrondissements (administrative districts), all south of the river Seine. Smaller networks run beneath the 12th, 13th, and 16th arrondissements. How did they get there?
Paris stone and plaster of Paris
It all starts with geology. Sediments left behind by ancient seas created large deposits of limestone in the south of the city, mostly south of the Seine; and gypsum in the north, particularly in the hills of Montmartre and Ménilmontant. Highly sought after as building materials, both have been mined since Roman times.
The limestone is also known as Lutetian limestone (Lutetia is the Latin name for ancient Paris) or simply "Paris stone." It has been used for many famous Paris landmarks, including the Louvre and the grand buildings erected during Georges-Eugène Haussmann's large-scale remodelling of the city in the mid-19th century. The stone's warm, yellowish color provides visual unity and a bright elegance to the city.
The fine-powdered gypsum of northern Paris, used for making quick-setting plaster, was so famed for its quality that "plaster of Paris" is still used as a term of distinction. However, as gypsum is very soluble in water, the underground cavities left by its extraction were extremely vulnerable to collapse.
Like living on top of a rotting tooth: subsidence starts far below the surface, but it can destroy your house.Credit : Delavanne Avocats
In previous centuries, a road would occasionally open up to swallow a chariot, or even a whole house would disappear down a sinkhole. In 1778, a catastrophic subsidence in Ménilmontant killed seven. That's why the Montmartre gypsum quarries were dynamited rather than just left as they were. The remaining gypsum caves were to be filled up with concrete.
The official body governing Paris down below is the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC), founded in the late 1770s by King Louis XVI. The IGC was tasked with mapping and, where needed, propping up the current and ancient (and sometimes forgotten) mining corridors and galleries hiding beneath Paris.
A delightful hiding place
Also around that time, the dead of Paris were getting in the way of the living. At the end of the 18th century, their final destination consisted of about 200 small cemeteries, scattered throughout the city — all bursting at the seams, so to speak. There was no room to bury the newly dead, and the previously departed were fouling up both the water and air around their respective churchyards.
Something radical had to happen. And it did. From 1785 until 1814, the smaller cemeteries were emptied of their bones, which were transported with full funerary pomp to their final resting place in the ancient limestone quarries at Tombe-Issoire. Three large and modern cemeteries were opened to receive the remains of subsequent generations of Parisians: Montparnasse, Père-Lachaise, and Passy.
The six million dead Parisians in the Catacombs, from all corners of the capital and across many centuries, together form the world's largest necropolis — their now anonymized skulls and bones methodically stacked, occasionally into whimsical patterns. The Catacombs are fashioned into a memorial to the brevity of life. The message above the entrance reads: Arrête! C'est ici l'empire de la Mort. ("Halt! This is the empire of Death.")
That has not stopped the Catacombs, accessible via a side door to a classicist building on the Avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy, making just about every Top 20 list of things to see in Paris.
An underground economy
However, while the Catacombs certainly are the most famous part of the centuries-old network beneath Paris, and in non-pandemic times draw thousands of tourists each day, they constitute just 1.7 km (1 mile) of the 300-km (185-mile) tunneling total.
Subterranean Paris wasn't just used for mining and storing dead people. In the 17th century, Carthusian monks converted the ancient quarries under their monastery into distilleries for the green or yellow liqueur that still carries their name, chartreuse.
Because the mines generally keep a constant cool temperature of around 15° C (60° F), they were also ideal for brewing beer, as happened on a large scale from the end of the 17th century until well into the 20th century. Several caves were dug especially for establishing breweries, and not just because of the ambient temperature: going underground allowed brewers to remain close to their customers without having to pay a premium for real estate up top.
Overview of the Paris Catacombs.Credit: Inspection Générale des Carrières, 1857 / Public domain.
At the end of the 19th century, the underground breweries of the 14th arrondissement alone produced more than a million hectoliters (22 million gallons) per year. One of the most famous of Paris' underground breweries, Dumesnil, stayed in operation until the late 1960s.
In that decade, the network of corridors and galleries south of the Seine, long since abandoned by miners, became the unofficial playground for the young people of Paris. They explored the fantastical world beneath their feet, in some cases via entry points located in their very schools. Fascinated, these cataphiles ("catacomb lovers") read up on old books, explored the subterranean labyrinth, and drew up schematics that were passed around among fellow initiates as reverently as treasure maps.
As Robert Macfarlane writes in Underland, Paris-beneath-their-feet became "a place where people might slip into different identities, assume new ways of being and relating, become fluid and wild in ways that are constrained on the surface."
Some larger caves turned into notorious party zones: a 7-meter-tall gallery below the Val-de-Grâce hospital is widely known as "Salle Z." Over the last few decades, various other locations in subterranean Paris have hosted jazz and rock concerts and rave parties — like no other city, Paris really has an "underground music scene."
Hokusai's Great Wave as the backdrop to the "beach" under Paris.Credit: Reddit
Cataphiles vs. cataphobes
With popularity came increased reports of nuisance and crime — the tunnels provided easy access to telephone cables, which were stolen for the resale value of their copper.
The general public's "discovery" of the underground network led the city of Paris to officially interdict all access by non-authorized persons. That decree dates back to 1955, but the "underground police" have an understanding with seasoned cataphiles. Their main targets are so-called tourists, who by their lack of knowledge expose themselves to risk of injuries or worse, and degrade their surroundings, often leaving loads of litter in their wake.
The understanding does not extend to the IGC. Unlike in the 19th century, when weak cavities were shored up by purpose-built pillars, the policy now is to inject concrete to fill up endangered spaces — thus progressively blocking off parts of the network. That procedure has also been used to separate the Catacombs to prevent "infiltration" of the site by cataphiles.
Many subterranean streets have their own names, signs and all. This is the Rue des Bourguignons (Street of the Burgundians) below the Champs des Capucins (Capuchin Field), neither of which exists on the surface.Credit: Jean-François Gornet via Wikimedia and licensed under
The cataphiles, however, are fighting back. In a game of cat and mouse with the authorities, they are reopening blocked passages and creating chatières ("cat flaps") through which they can squeeze into chambers no longer accessible via other underground corridors.
Catacomb climate control
Alone against the unstoppable tide of concrete, the amateurs of Underground Paris would be helpless. But the fight against climate change may turn the subterranean labyrinths from a liability into an asset — and the City of Paris into an ally.
The UN's 2015 Climate Plan — concluded in Paris, by the way — requires the world to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent by 2050. And Paris itself wants to be Europe's greenest city by 2030. More sustainable climate control of our living spaces would be a great help toward both targets. A lot of energy is spent heating houses in winter and cooling them in summer.
This is where the constant temperature of the Parisian tunnels comes in. It's not just good for brewing beer; it's a source of geothermal energy, says Fieldwork, an architectural firm based in Paris. It can be used to temper temperatures, helping to cool houses in summer and warming them in winter.
One catch for the cataphiles: it also works when the underground cavities are filled up with concrete. So perhaps one day, Paris Underground, fully filled up with concrete, will completely fall off the map, reducing the city's formerly real doppelgänger into an air conditioning unit.
Cool in summer, warm in winter: Paris Underground could become Paris A/C.Credit: Fieldwork
Strange Maps #1083
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Meconium contains a wealth of information.
- A new study finds that the contents of an infants' first stool, known as meconium, can predict if they'll develop allergies with a high degree of accuracy.
- A metabolically diverse meconium, which indicates the initial food source for the gut microbiota, is associated with fewer allergies.
- The research hints at possible early interventions to prevent or treat allergies just after birth.
The prevalence of allergies arising in childhood has increased over the last 50 years, with 30 percent of the human population now having some kind of atopic disease such as eczema, food allergies, or asthma. The cause of this increase is still subject to debate, though it has been associated with a number of factors, including changes to the gut microbiomes of infants.
A new study by Canadian researchers published in Cell Reports Medicine may shed further light on how these allergies develop in children by examining the contents of their first diaper.
The things you do for science
The research team examined the first stool of 100 infants from the CHILD Cohort Study. The first stool of an infant is a thick, green, horrid-looking substance called meconium. It consists of various things that the infant ingests during the second half of gestation. Additionally, it provides not only a snapshot of what the infant was exposed to during that time, but it also reveals what the food sources will be for the initial gut bacteria that colonize the baby's digestive tract.
The content of the meconium was examined and found to contain such varied elements as amino acids, lipids, carbohydrates, and myriad other substances.
A graph of the comparative, summed abundance of different elements in a metabolic pathway after scaling to median abundance of each metabolite. The blue figures are those children without atopy, the yellow ones show the data for those with an atopic condition. Petersen et al.
The authors fed this information into an algorithm that used this data, along with the identities of the bacteria present as well as the baby's overall health, to predict which infants would go on to develop allergies within one year. The algorithm got it right 76 percent of the time.
A way to prevent childhood allergies?
Infants whose meconium had a less diverse metabolic niche the initial microbes to settle in the gut were at the highest risk of developing allergies a year later. Many of these elements were associated with the presence or absence of different bacterial groups in the digestive system of the child, which play an increasingly appreciated role in our overall health and development. The findings were summarized by senior co-author Dr. Brett Finlay:
"Our analysis revealed that newborns who developed allergic sensitization by one year of age had significantly less 'rich' meconium at birth, compared to those who didn't develop allergic sensitization."
The findings could be used to help understand how allergies form and even how to prevent them. Co-author Dr. Stuart Turvey commented on this possibility:
"We know that children with allergies are at the highest risk of also developing asthma. Now we have an opportunity to identify at-risk infants who could benefit from early interventions before they even begin to show signs and symptoms of allergies or asthma later in life."
A model for early childhood allergies
Petersen et al.
As shown above, the authors constructed a model of how they believe metabolites and bacterial diversity help prevent allergies. Increased diversity of metabolic products in the meconium encourage the development of "healthy" families of bacteria, like Peptostreptococcaceae, which in turn promote the development of a healthy and diverse gut microbiome. Ultimately, such diversity decreases the likelihood that a child will develop allergies.