Big Think Interview with Shelby Harris
Shelby Harris, Psy.D., C.BSM is Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center and Assistant Professor of Neurology as well as Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. A graduate of Brown University, Dr. Harris received her doctorate in clinical psychology from Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, Yeshiva University.
As a licensed psychologist, Dr. Harris specializes in behavioral sleep medicine and CBT for anxiety and depression. She has published and presented research on the neuropsychological effects of insomnia in older adults as well as behavioral treatments for insomnia, parasomnias, narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness. Dr. Harris is also a consultant for the New York Times "Consults Blog."
Shelby Harris: I’m Shelby Harris; I am the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center Sleep-Wake Disorders Center.
Question: What happens in our brains while we sleep?
Shelby Harris: So when you go to sleep at night, if you’re someone who hasn’t had any sleep deprivation, you have a very normal sleep pattern, what we tend to see is that, in adults, they go to bed and they start off by going into the deeper stages sleep. So the deeper stages of sleep are really those times of quiescence, you’re really restoring your body and we have a few different stages of sleep. So you have Sleep Stage One, Two, and then Three/Four. One is a little bit lighter stage of the quiet, non-REM sleep and then Three/Four is really deep, deep sleep. And what you want is, you actually want a number of – you want to go through all of these stages throughout the night. So people only focus on getting the really deep sleep, but in reality, we spend almost 60% of the night in the stage two sleep.
So we go through in the beginning of the night, we go into the really deep stages of sleep and we actually cycle through. So, when you go down to the deep stage, then you go back up and you actually come into something called REM sleep, which is after about 90 minutes. So when you’re in REM sleep, your brain is very active, our body is quiet, but your brain is really processing a lot of things, a lot of emotions; we dream the most in REM sleep. And then you go back down in the deep stages, and so on and so forth. And you cycle throughout so that you do about five to six cycles throughout the night. And we spend more time in REM later on in the night than we do earlier on.
That’s why people tend to remember their dreams in the morning a little bit better and if earlier in the night, when you’re in a lot of deep sleep, if someone wakes you, or the phone rings or something, you’re really confused. Really if it’s an hour or two after you’ve fallen asleep because you’re in such a deep sleep at that point.
Question: Why do we need to sleep?
Shelby Harris: Well sleep tends – we actually don’t know the function of sleep all that well yet, but sleep is a time of quiescence in the brain. When you’re in the more deeper stages of sleep – REM sleep, your body is quiet, but your mind is actually very active. So it’s a time when your body and your brain is restoring itself. It’s repairing any cell damage that happened during the day, it’s really repairing, like I said, repairing your body, but also helps with digestion, helps with memory. It has a lot of things that it’s doing while you are asleep.
Question: What happens to the brain when it doesn’t get sleep?
Shelby Harris: So, sleep deprivation, and sometimes an insomnia, which is a little bit of a different form, but just getting a lack of sleep, can lead to a number of different decrements. So, decrements in attention and concentration, being able to learn more efficiently, that’s just not as good. Also, there are motor vehicle accidents, workplace accidents, we see that a lot. Workplace accidents with people who are sleep deprived or people who work shifts and they don’t get the right amount of sleep during the day or at night.
And also, there’s a new line of research showing that people who don’t get enough sleep, they’re body doesn’t metabolize as well. And so they actually – it leads to weight gain. So if you’re not getting enough sleep, you might have difficulty losing weight.
Question: Why can’t people with insomnia get to sleep despite having large sleep debts?
Shelby Harris: Well, the actual function of the brain, not so sure yet. There’s a lot of different theories about it, but when you talk about psychologically in your brain, a lot of people with insomnia, though not all, report that they can’t turn their minds off. So, it’s not every patient that I see, but I’d say a good 70% to 80% of the patients when they go to bed it’s like a stereo is playing at an 11 or 12 and they can’t turn it down, at all. So it makes it very hard for their body to down regulate to be able to go to bed at night. And in those patients they tend to then be more awake at nights, they’ll toss and turn, they’ll think more, they get frustrated. And when that starts to happen, you really don’t sleep even more because you’re making your body tense and your mind is getting more and more active.
And you said, “sleep debt” so, in general, there are patients with insomnia who – many patients with insomnia will actually over report the lack of sleep that they are getting. They are still having insomnia, but it’s seems worse to them than actually it is. So, if they say they’re sleep deprived, they haven’t slept at all in three days; if we actually take them into a lab, most of the time we actually do see they’re sleeping on and off here and there. There might be little episodes of micro-sleeps or naps during the day, but they’re actually getting a little bit of sleep.
And we’ve looked at sleep diaries of patients with insomnia, and they’ll say that they don’t sleep for one or two days. And the body actually has a natural function, after about the third day to start catching up and you get a little bit more sleep the third night. And that’s usually what I tell my patients. When they start worrying about not sleeping, I’ll say, “Say the mantra to myself; if I don’t sleep tonight, I’ll likely sleep tomorrow, and if not tomorrow then definitely the third” because our body has a way of naturally catching up.
Question: How can we treat insomnia?
Shelby Harris: So there’s a few different ways that we treat insomnia. The first thing that we always do is we look at the cause. So, more times than not, but not every time, it can be linked to a medical problem, such as menopause, cancer, chronic pain, it can be linked to anxiety and depression. Those are the more common causes. There are some patients who just have insomnia and they’ve had it since they were a kid and we don’t quite know why. So when we look at the cause, we definitely want to treat whatever else is going on, but insomnia often because it becomes its own diagnosis and that requires its own treatment. So if somebody has chronic pain, we want to manage the pain, but we still want to treat the insomnia separately. So what we’ll tend to do in our sleep lab is we’ll do a thorough evaluation and we usually have myself, who is a Psychologist and a Sleep Behavioral Sleep Specialist, I treat the patients first. So we try not using medications initially, and we use something called **** behavioral therapy for insomnia. This changes behaviors people do in bed, none of the tossing and turning. I’ll work on patient’s thoughts about sleep, “So I must get eight hours of sleep tonight or I won’t sleep tomorrow.” That sometimes – or “I won’t function tomorrow.” That sometimes makes it very difficult for you to sleep at night. We’ll work on relaxation strategies and also changing the times you go to bed will actually make them sleep a little bit less for a few nights so their body’s natural sleep drive starts to kick in. That is very effective in about 60% to 70% of patients who do it, four to eight sessions, not even every week; it works for 60% to 70% of patients. The rates are just a good as all the medication that are out there, and the rates are actually better in the long term.
The other option we have are medication treatments. So you’ll have the treatments such as Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, and we’ll also have Rozerem and for some patients we use Benzodiazopine/Clonazepam. Things like that to help with anxiety. Those are another option that we’ll use. Sometimes we’ll use them in combination with behavioral, sometimes alone. It really depends upon the patient.
Question: How do circadian rhythms affect our sleep patterns?
Shelby Harris: So when it comes to circadian rhythms, it’s a clock that’s basically programmed in our body. So if you think back to times when people lived on farms and we didn’t have electricity. People went to bed when the sun went down and they woke up when the sun came up. That’s what our bodies are naturally programmed to do. However, with all the new stresses in life with electricity, with technology, we tend to override that system and we’ll stay up later and we’ll get up earlier or later, and we use alarm clocks, we use the light. We haven’t really – it’s harder for us to set those rhythms. So it’s really important to keep a steady bedtime and wake time to really lock in those rhythms.
Now circadian rhythms become very interesting and problematic for patients because when you become a teenager, your rhythms actually tend to naturally shift. So someone who is a child usually goes to bed about 8:00 or 9:00 at night, but then when they have a circadian rhythm shift, it shifts later. And this is natural. And they start to go to bed at 11:00, 12:00, 1:00 and they want to sleep later. So we see this a lot in teens. And there’s a problem for them when they have to get up and go to school in the morning, they’re very sleepy, yet on the weekends, they’ll sleep 12 hours, they’ll sleep late and then go to bed late and wake up late. And on vacations, it’s not a problem.
So we don’t really treat it unless it’s actually a real problem for them in school. And then some patients actually find that this problem continues into adulthood. We’re not really sure why it continues, but when they become adults, we usually have to treat it because many people need to get up early to go to work and they can’t be sleeping until 11:00 or 12:00. So we use treatments like bright light therapy, melatonin, things like that that are very effective.
And then we have other opposite problems with circadian rhythms that can happen when you – a lot of times with older adults. They start to go to bed at 6:00, 7:00 at night and they wake up at 2:00 in the morning. And they’re rhythms actually shift earlier, but sometime it can just kind of miss the mark and shift too much earlier and that’s when we need to treat it with bright light.
And circadian rhythms come into play with shift work. So a lot of people who work rotating shifts and they work at night, their bodies are set to want to be awake during the day and sleep at night. So there are some people who have a lot of trouble adjusting their rhythms and they have trouble working the night shift, they’re sleepy, they’re drowsy driving home. And that’s when we need to look at as well and really treat it if it’s becoming a problem.
Question: Is it possible to live nocturnally and get enough sleep?
Shelby Harris: Yeah, there’s some people who just naturally do it better. It’s uncommon, but there are some people who just have a delayed circadian rhythm and they just – they sleep better during the day then they do at night. So they’ve – a lot of those people with delayed sleep phase disorder they start to work in bars, they work some of the late night shifts, they sort of adjust to doing it more and more as time goes on.
Question: What’s the best way to deal with jet lag?
Shelby Harris: All right, so jet lag depends on which direction you’re going and it can be a little complicated, but there are a few different treatments. So one would be if you’re going somewhere – sorry it’s hard to think about it. If you’re going somewhere East from here, generally what you want to do is you want to try to have your bed time earlier and earlier so what we’ll do is I’ll have someone adjust for a week or two by going to be 15 minutes earlier and getting up 15 minutes earlier every night. So that can be a really simple thing. Honestly, what we use a lot is melatonin. So we use lower dosages of melatonin, taking it at different times, depending upon where we are traveling and that can really help adjust the body’s rhythm to wherever you are going.
Question: How has our understanding of the function of dreams changed over the years?
Shelby Harris: Okay. So the older models, when you look at Freudian, when you look at Jungian thought, and there’s still people who really – who really use the Jungian thought of dream analysis, is really that you would analyze the dreams. The dreams are there for a purpose. For some people they say, it’s about wish fulfillment, it’s about the things you are never able to do in your day you are actually fulfilling at night. There are other people who will say that it’s actually telling you something. If there’s a lot of fear that’s going on, if there’s a lot of anxiety, it’s manifesting itself in your nocturnal world so that analyzing it can help open up basically thoughts about what you need to do during the day. So a lot of people who subscribe to the psychoanalysis, the Jungian thought will really focus a lot on dreams, the meaning, and how it can be used to help you during the day.
Now if you go to more modern thought, there are different – it’s actually quite a controversial area. There are some people who believe that dreams really are just kind of a throwaway thing. They are just a way of your brain processing what’s happening during the day, but there’s really no meaning to them; a lot of imagery of just flashes of what happened. There are other people that think that dreams actually do serve a purpose. But what that purpose is, we’re not really sure. So some people believe that it actually does have some psychological representation of what’s going on in the day, but there’s no need to sit and really analyze it. There are other people who think, like myself, that dreams are almost – they’re a reenactment of what happened during the day, but it’s a way of your figuring out and your brain processing, to figure out what does it need to hold onto and remember and what can it just throw away. So it’s like your brain has a large filing cabinet and it’s opening up each drawer and it’s taking in various images and memories from the day, consolidating what it needs to and puts in whatever file. And then if there’s something that doesn’t fit in any of the files and doesn’t really belong, you’ll forget about it. So it’s a way of really getting a succinct way of storing things in your brain.
Question: How are nightmares different than regular dreams?
Shelby Harris: So nightmares are distinctly different from dreams in the way that people feel them and experience them. So a lot of people think that a nightmare is something where something is chasing them and you have to wake up screaming. Yes, that’s one of the more common nightmares that we see is the person chasing someone or they’re being chased. But really, a nightmare just really has to evoke some sort of, we call it, dysphoric emotion or something uncomfortable. You could be sad, you could be unhappy; you could be scared, anxious. But traditionally, the definition is you have to awaken from this nightmare. So you have it, you awaken from it and you can recall, in detail, what just happened, that’s a nightmare. So it’s very different from a dream where you generally don’t wake up from it and you don’t have this dysphoric emotion.
There’s some debate as to whether you need to awaken from them because there are some patients who are actually starting to say, “I had these horrible nightmares, but I never woke up from them.” But they can still recall them when they get up in the morning. So there’s still some debate in the field.
When it comes to the reason why we have nightmares, we’re still debating that. It’s a new area of research, nightmares. And the way I like to think about it is, our brain – we have stress during the day and our brain needs to learn to process this stress. So there are people who have repetitive nightmares. And what happens is their brain is trying to process the stress and help their brain actually deal with what happens if this stress happens again, so their brain’s preparing them to deal with it in case the stress happens again, but it’s so scary that they awaken from it. So they’re never actually able to finish the file and put it away, it just keep happening because they awaken from it.
Question: How does IRT help one overcome nightmares?
Shelby Harris: So Image Rehearsal Therapy, or IRT, we’ll call it for now, it’s a very, very simple treatment that was developed by Barry Krakow in the late 90’s, early turn of the decade to really help change the imagery that you’re having at night. So we think of it as imagery during the day, seeing things, picturing things in your head, painting a picture is very similar to imagery at night. That’s what dreams are, nightmares; imagery in the night. So what we do is we take these very simple techniques by basically telling someone if they have a nightmare – so take someone who has a recurrent nightmare of being chased by someone. We’ll have them come in and we’ll say to them, “Okay, not take that nightmare, tell me what it is, but now I don’t want you to think about it anymore. Just take it almost like it’s on at piece of paper and throw it out. Change that nightmare anyway you want. You change a tiny bit of it; you can change the whole thing. It doesn’t matter.” And I’m not the one to tell them how to change it. It’s their dream that they’re making. “so change it anyway you want to make it – just it could be neutral, it can be positive, whatever.” So the person chasing them could be a very scary experience.
What they would do is for example, I had a patient yesterday who changed his nightmare from him being chased to actually having his two younger brothers chasing him around in his old apartment and they were playing. So just by still having the chasing element, but making it a fun, playful chase with two people he knew, made it a much different dream than the nightmare he was having.
So then what I had him do was to close his eyes and I had him picture the story of his brothers came in they started chasing him, his mom yelled at them to stop, then they stopped for a minute and then they kept running after each other. He pictured that whole story in his head into the picture and he could see what everyone was wearing, the smells he could tell, he could see the carpet, every detail. And once he took himself through that picture for about five minutes, practiced it morning and night, if you keep doing that it actually helps reduced the nightmare frequency because you’re getting control over your nightmare.
Question: Does the patient then have this new dream while they’re asleep?
Shelby Harris: For some patients, they’ll have that new dream, for others it just reduces the nightmare frequency. We don’t know why yet. But it’s such a simple technique because it gives you control over it, over the nightmare that it works – there have been studies that showed for upwards of 90% of patients who actually do this treatment actually report it getting better, the nightmare frequency.
Question: Are night terrors different from nightmares?
Shelby Harris: Night terrors are very different from nightmares. A lot of people will think they’re the same, but they’re really not. Night terrors – you want to look at the time of night when you’re having the problem. Night Terrors happen in deep sleep. Nightmares tend to happen in a lighter REM sleep. So, night terrors are in deep sleep, and they’re more common in kids, as are nightmares, but what happens in a night terror is like a flash – we think a flash of some image or something happens in the brain. We don’t really quite know what. And it usually ends up with the child screaming almost like screaming bloody murder. It’s very scary for the parents or whoever else is around. But it happens very fast and the child has no recollection of it. They tend to stare off into space when they’re screaming. You can’t really engage them at all. And the child will go right back to sleep afterwards and have no recollection of it in the morning, or very little recollection. Usually there’s no recollection. It’s more scary for the parents.
So in kids, what we think is happening in the brain, the way I like to think about it is, it’s almost like, you’re brain is going through all these stages of sleep and it’s developing in children so fast that it’s almost like you’re shifting gears in a car. And at some point, you actually stall out a little bit, and that’s kind of what happens during a night terror. They’re brain is shifting so fast that it stalls out, they have this episode, but then they go back to sleep and everything regulates itself.
Very common in kids, like I said, it tends to get better as you get older. Now there’s some night terrors that happen in adults. And if it starts as an adult and you’ve never had them before, then there might be other things that are happening; it might be anxiety, depression, stress. And that’s when you might have more of a thorough psychological evaluation. In kids we don’t generally attribute it to any psychological basis.
Question: What is sleep paralysis?
Shelby Harris: Sleep paralysis is something that is actually very common. Many people have it, I’ve had it myself. And what happens is, when you’re in that REM stage of sleep, your brain is very active. You’re dreaming your most during that stage, you’re mind, your eyes are moving, there’s a lot going on. It’s like fireworks going on in your brain. Now, what happens in the rest of your body, and this is an evolutionary function, is that your body has muscle atonia, meaning your muscles are basically turned off. You can’t work. So, you’re brain is active, your muscles can’t work.
Now for what happens in sleep paralysis is that some patients, and we’ll notice this earlier in the morning because you’re having more REM sleep then, will wake up in the middle of REM sleep. So, I know myself, I woke up once in the middle of REM sleep and I couldn’t move my muscles. And it was very scary. And it’s scary for anyone who has it because you’re mind is very active, your eyes are active, but nothing else is moving. So you have to give yourself a little while. You’ll come out of the REM sleep and you’re muscle will awaken and it’s find. It’s a totally normal thing to have.
Now, it can be indicative sometimes of other sleep disorders, so we’ll see that a lot in narcolepsies. Some patients will report that they have sleep paralysis. If we see sleep paralysis alone and nothing else, we don’t really think all that much of it, but if we see other symptoms, then it might be a red flag for something else that’s going on.
Question: What happens if our muscles aren’t paralyzed during REM sleep?
Shelby Harris: So REM Behavior Disorder, RBD. It’s newer diagnosis, I’d say probably about the past 10 or 15 years, we’re really recognizing it more and more. Patients will come to our practice and they’ll say, “I’m waking up in the morning and ****, I have bruising on my arms. My fists are bloody” or they’ll say, “My house was a mess. I found things all over the place.” Generally that could be sleep walking, but sleep walking tends to not be as violent. And that’s earlier in the night when you are in the deep stages of sleep. In RBD, it tends to be a bit more violent, a bit more aggressive. So when you are in REM sleep, you’re muscles are supposed to have atonia, and no function for them, but for some patients their muscles don’t turn off. So if they’re having nightmare or a very vivid dream, they’ll actually act out – essentially their dream in their sleep during REM sleep. So that’s why we’ll start to see patients come in with bruises, their bed’s a mess, they might fall out of bed, things like that. So it can be, for some patients, a very violent problem that we actually need to treat them aggressively.
Question: Have there been court cases in which RBD has been blamed?
Shelby Harris: Yeah. There are some that are – REM Behavior Disorder, we’ll see some court documented cases. And they really need to have a thorough evaluation with a sleep specialist. You can’t just say, “Oh, it was while I was sleeping.” There’s confusional arousals, there are states in deeper sleep that can happen where people will go and they’ll disappear and they’ll take on some other persona. They’ll commit some crime, but it’s all when they are in a very deep stage of sleep. So you really need to have a very thorough evaluation. But yes, there is a line of work of people who work with people who have been charged with crimes and we’ll actually do a sleep disorder analyses with them.
Question: What is narcolepsy?
Shelby Harris: So, narcolepsy is a disorder that affects many different areas of life. So in typical patients with narcolepsy, they have something called “excessive daytime sleepiness.” So, they’re very sleepy during the day. Yet, at night, they’re still sleepy, but their sleep is very broken. So we’ll see patients with narcolepsy, you’ll see the classic narcolepsy with cataplexy, as we call it. When patients will have – they’ll just fall asleep, right away. So, if there’s a loud noise, a strong emotion, happiness, anger, fear, can actually make their bodies shut down and have muscle weakness that they fall asleep. Other patients it’s not that severe. They’ll have a lot of muscle weakness.
I have one patient who used to hear a loud noise when she was at work and her right side of her face used to become numb and weak. So there are a lot of symptoms that happen with narcolepsy. We’re not fully – we’re starting to learn what’s causing it. There’s something in our bodies in our brain called hypocretin, and they’re seeing that people who have cataplexy, so that muscle weakness, those patients tend to have a lack of hypocretin and it decreases even more as they age. So we don’t really know why it’s happening, but that’s one theory as to what may be what’s going on.
Other things that happen in narcolepsy is they tend to have very vivid dreams. So when they do fall asleep, when they take those really brief naps that are very refreshing, so even a five minute nap is completely refreshing for these patients, but the minute they go into sleep, they dream and they have very vivid dreams during the day and night. More so then most patients do.
Now narcolepsy is really hard though because they’re very tired during the day, they’re sleepy during the day and it’s managed mostly with medications. So we use medications to help them sleep better at night and to stay away during the day. But there are behavioral things you can do also by changing diet, exercise, having an actual nap schedule. But it can be difficult because patients want to work. They want to have functional lives and to have a discussion with an employer about being able to take a quick nap, it’s refreshing for them to be more energetic during the day, it’s actually a real problem so sometimes we’ll have to work with employers to help them see that narcolepsy is a real diagnosis.
Families will often call patients lazy, so it’s really a disorder that affects not only the patient, but marriages, families, workplaces, it can really affect a lot of people.
Question: Did you see “Inception”?
Shelby Harris: I haven’t. I have a five-and-a-half month old at home, so I’ve barely seen any movies recently. But I’ve heard a lot about it, yeah.
Question: What have your colleagues thought about the movie?
Shelby Harris: It’s interesting. I haven’t heard a lot of colleagues who have seen it yet. But the few people I have, they – it’s an interesting movie. I think anything about sleep is interesting. It’s just what I do for a living, but there’s the notion that you can change your dreams, you can invade people’s dreams. I think it’s much more of a sci-fi futuristic way of thinking about it. But it does touch upon things that we can do nowadays. So if you really want to dream about something at night, if you think about it a lot and you have – you think about it right before you go to bed, you’re going to increase your chances of dreaming about it. So there are – it’s interesting in that it takes what we do and what we know to a much more extreme measure. And that’s what I kind of like about the theory behind it, about the movie.
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For some reason, the bodies of deceased monks stay "fresh" for a long time.
It's definitely happening, and it's definitely weird. After the apparent death of some monks, their bodies remain in a meditating position without decaying for an extraordinary length of time, often as long as two or three weeks.
Tibetan Buddhists, who view death as a process rather than an event, might assert that the spirit has not yet finished with the physical body. For them, thukdam begins with a "clear light" meditation that allows the mind to gradually unspool, eventually dissipating into a state of universal consciousness no longer attached to the body. Only at that time is the body free to die.
Whether you believe this or not, it is a fascinating phenomenon: the fact remains that their bodies don't decompose like other bodies. (There have been a handful of other unexplained instances of delayed decomposition elsewhere in the world.)
The scientific inquiry into just what is going on with thukdam has attracted the attention and support of the Dalai Lama, the highest monk in Tibetan Buddhism. He has reportedly been looking for scientists to solve the riddle for about 20 years. He is a supporter of science, writing, "Buddhism and science are not conflicting perspectives on the world, but rather differing approaches to the same end: seeking the truth."
The most serious study of the phenomenon so far is being undertaken by The Thukdam Project of the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Healthy Minds. Neuroscientist Richard Davidson is one of the founders of the center and has published hundreds of articles about mindfulness.
Davidson first encountered thukdam after his Tibetan monk friend Geshe Lhundub Sopa died, officially on August 28, 2014. Davidson last saw him five days later: "There was absolutely no change. It was really quite remarkable."
The science so far
Credit: GrafiStart / Adobe Stock
The Thukdam Project published its first annual report this winter. It discussed a recent study in which electroencephalograms failed to detect any brain activity in 13 monks who had practiced thukdam and had been dead for at least 26 hours. Davidson was senior author of the study.
While some might be inclined to say, well, that's that, Davidson sees the research as just a first step on a longer road. Philosopher Evan Thompson, who is not involved in The Thukdam Project, tells Tricycle, "If the thinking was that thukdam is something we can measure in the brain, this study suggests that's not the right place to look."
In any event, the question remains: why are these apparently deceased monks so slow to begin decomposition? While environmental factors can slow or speed up the process a bit, usually decomposition begins about four minutes after death and becomes quite obvious over the course of the next day or so.
As the Dalai Lama said:
"What science finds to be nonexistent we should all accept as nonexistent, but what science merely does not find is a completely different matter. An example is consciousness itself. Although sentient beings, including humans, have experienced consciousness for centuries, we still do not know what consciousness actually is: its complete nature and how it functions."
As thukdam researchers continue to seek a signal of post-mortem consciousness of some sort, it's fair to ask what — and where — consciousness is in the first place. It is a question with which Big Think readers are familiar. We write about new theories all the time: consciousness happens on a quantum level; consciousness is everywhere.
So far, though, says Tibetan medical doctor Tawni Tidwell, also a Thukdam Project member, searches beyond the brain for signs of consciousness have gone nowhere. She is encouraged, however, that a number of Tibetan monks have come to the U.S. for medical knowledge that they can take home. When they arrive back in Tibet, she says, "It's not the Westerners who are doing the measuring and poking and prodding. It's the monastics who trained at Emory."
When Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess, they are using the same principles of physics that gave birth to stars and planets.
- Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the physics principle called the conservation of angular momentum.
- Conservation of angular momentum tells us that when a spinning object changes how its matter is distributed, it changes its rate of spin.
- Conservation of angular momentum links the formation of planets in star-forming clouds to the beauty of a gymnast's spinning dismount from the uneven bars.
It is that time again when we watch in awe as Olympic athletes perform dazzling feats of athletic prowess. But as we stare in rapt attention at the speed, grace, and strength they exhibit, it is also a good time to pay attention to how they embody, literally, fundamental principles that shape the entire universe. Yes, I'm talking about physics. On our screens, these athletes are giving us lessons in the principles that giants like Isaac Newton struggled mightily to articulate.
Naturally, there are many Olympic events from which we could learn some basic principles of physics. Swimming shows us hydrodynamic drag. Boxing teaches us about force and impulse. (Ouch!) But today, we will focus on gymnastics and the cosmic importance of the conservation of angular momentum.
The conservation of angular momentum
Much of the beauty of gymnastics comes from the spins and flips athletes perform as they launch themselves into the air from the vault or uneven bars. These are all examples of rotations — and so much of the structure and history of the universe, from planets to galaxies, comes down to the physics of rotating objects. And so much of the physics of rotating objects comes down to the conservation of angular momentum.
Let's start with the conservation of regular or "linear" momentum. Momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Way back in the age of Galileo and Newton, physicists came to understand that in the interactions between bodies, the sum of their momentums had to be conserved (which really means "does not change"). This is a familiar idea to anyone who has played billiards: when a moving pool ball strikes a stationary one, the first ball stops while the second scoots away. The total momentum of the system (the mass times velocity of both balls taken together) is conserved, leaving the originally moving ball unmoving and the originally stationary ball carrying all the system's momentum.
Credit: Sergey Nivens and Victoria VIAR PRO via Adobe Stock
Rotating objects also obey a conservation law, but now it is not just the mass of an object that matters. The distribution of mass — that is, where the mass is located relative to the center of the rotation — is also a factor. Conservation of angular momentum tells us that if a spinning object is not subject to any forces, then any changes in how its matter is distributed must lead to a change in its rate of spin. Comparing the conservation of angular momentum to the conservation of linear momentum, the "distribution of mass" is analogous to mass, and the "rate of spin" is analogous to velocity.
There are many places in cosmic physics where this conservation of angular momentum is key. My favorite example is the formation of stars. Every star begins its life as a giant cloud of slowly spinning interstellar gas. The clouds are usually supported against their own gravitational weight by gas pressure, but sometimes a small nudge from, say, a passing supernova blast wave will force the cloud to begin gravitational collapse. As the cloud begins to shrink, the conservation of angular momentum forces the spin rate of material in the cloud to speed up. As material is falling inward, it also rotates around the cloud's center at ever higher rates. Eventually, some of that gas is going so fast that a balance between the gravity of the newly forming star and what is called centrifugal force is achieved. That stuff then stops moving inward and goes into orbit around the young star, forming a disk, some material of which eventually becomes planets. So, the conservation of angular momentum is, literally, why we have planets in the universe!
Gymnastics, a cosmic sport
How does this appear in gymnastics? When athletes hurl themselves into the air to perform a flip, the only force acting on them is gravity. But since gravity only affects their "center of mass," it cannot apply forces in a way that changes the athlete's spin. But the gymnasts can do that for themselves by using the conservation of angular momentum.
By changing how their mass is arranged, gymnasts can change how fast they spin. You can see this in the dismount phase of the uneven bar competitions. When a gymnast comes off the bars and performs a flip by tucking their legs inward, they can quickly increase their rotation rate in midair. The sudden dramatic increase in the speed of their flip is what makes us gasp in astonishment. It is both scary and a beautiful testament to the athletes' ability to intuitively control the physics of their bodies. And it is also the exact same physics that controls the birth of planets.
"As above so below," goes the old saying. You should keep that in mind as you watch the glory that is the Olympics. That is because it is not just athletes that have this intuitive understanding of physics. We all have it, and we use it every day, from walking down the stairs to swinging a hammer. So, it is no exaggeration to claim that the first place we came to understand the deepest principles of physics was not in contemplating the heavens but moving through the world in our own earthbound flesh.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
David Schmidt, a geology professor at Westminster College, had just arrived in the South Dakota Badlands in summer 2019 with a group of students for a fossil dig when he received a call from the National Forest Service. A nearby rancher had discovered a strange object poking out of the ground. They wanted Schmidt to take a look.
"One of the very first bones that we saw in the rock was this long cylindrical bone," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "The first thing that came out of our mouths was, 'That kind of looks like the horn of a triceratops.'"
After authorities gave the go-ahead, Schmidt and a small group of students returned this summer and spent nearly every day of June and July excavating the skull.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"
Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about 8.2 feet long.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a Triceratops prorsus, one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College
The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the Tyrannosaurus rex. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made headlines after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.
Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the New York Times.
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
The Badlands aren't the only spot in North America where paleontologists have found dinosaurs. In the 1870s, Colorado and Wyoming became the first sites of dinosaur discoveries in the U.S., ushering in an era of public fascination with the prehistoric creatures — and a competitive rush to unearth them.
Since, dinosaur bones have been found in 35 states. One of the most fruitful locations for paleontologists has been the Morrison formation, a sequence of Upper Jurassic sedimentary rock that stretches under the Western part of the country. Discovered here were species like Camarasaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus, and Allosaurus, to name a few.
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
As for "Shady" (the nickname of the South Dakota triceratops), Schmidt and his team have safely transported it to the Westminster campus. They hope to raise funds for restoration, and to return to South Dakota in search of more bones that once belonged to the triceratops.
Studying dinosaurs helps scientists gain a more complete understanding of our evolution, illuminating a through-line that extends from "deep time" to present day. For scientists like Schmidt, there's also the simple joy of coming to face-to-face with a lost world.
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "You don't ever think that these things will ever happen."
How the British obsession with tea triggered wars, led to bizarre espionage, and changed the world — many times.
- Today, tea is the single most popular drink worldwide, with a global market that outstrips all the nearest rivals combined.
- The British Empire went to war over tea, ultimately losing its American colonies and twice beating the Chinese in the "Opium Wars."
- The British desire to secure homegrown tea resulted in their sending botanist Robert Fortune on a Hollywood-worthy mission to secure Chinese tea plants and steal horticultural secrets.
After water, tea is the most common drink in the world. It is more popular than coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol combined. 84 percent of Brits enjoy a daily "cuppa," but this is a mere bagatelle against the Turks, who drink on average three to four cups every day. The tea industry is worth $200 billion worldwide and is set to grow by half by 2025.
Tea is such a huge part of many cultures, that it even has origin myths. For instance, one involves the Buddha waking up after falling asleep during his meditation. Disgusted at his lack of self-discipline, he cut off his eyelids and threw them to the ground. These lids then grew into tea plants to help future meditators stay awake.
Tea really matters to a lot of people. And, it mattered so much to the British and their empire that it directed their entire foreign policy. It also inspired one of the most incredible and ridiculous tales of 19th century espionage.
A spot of tea
When the European powers of the 16th century first traded with, then militarily colonized, various East Asian nations, it was impossible not to come across tea. Since the 9th century, the Tang Dynasty of China had already popularized tea across the region. Tea was already firmly entrenched when the Portuguese became the first Europeans to sample it (in 1557), followed by the Dutch, who first shipped a batch back to mainland Europe.
Britain was relatively late to the tea party, not arriving until well into the 17th century. In fact, in Samuel Pepys' 1660 diaries, he makes reference to "a cup of tee (a China drink) of which I had never drunk before." It was only after King Charles II's Portuguese wife popularized it at court that tea became a fashionable societal drink.
After the Brits got going, there was no stopping them. Tea became a huge business. However, since tea was monopolized by the East India Company and the government imposed a whopping 120 percent tax on it, an army of smuggler gangs opened back channels to get tea to the poorer masses. Eventually, in 1784, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger got wise to the popular cry for tea. To stamp out the black market, he slashed the tax on the leaf to just 12.5 percent. From then on, tea became the everyman's drink — marketed as medicinal, invigorating, and tasty.
A cup, a cup, my kingdom for a cup!
Tea became so important to the British that it even sparked wars across the empire.
Most famously, when the British imposed a three pennies per pound tax on all tea the East India Company exported to America, it led to the outraged destruction of an entire ship's tea cargo. The "Boston Tea Party" was the first major defiant act of the American colonies and led ultimately to ham-fisted and insensitive countermeasures from the London government. These, in turn, sparked the U.S. War of Independence.
Less well known is how Britain went to war with China over tea. Twice.
Credit: Ingo Doerrie via Unsplash
Back then, tea was only being grown and exported from China to British India and then around the empire. As such, it led to a massive trade imbalance, where the largely self-sufficient China only wanted British silver in return for their famous and delicious homegrown tea leaves. This sort of economic policy, known as mercantilism, made Britain really mad.
In retaliation, Britain grew opium and flooded China with the drug. When China (quite understandably) objected to this, Britain sent in the gunboats. The subsequent "Opium Wars" were only ever going to go one way, and when China sued for peace, they were lumped with $20 million worth of reparations — and had to cede Hong Kong to Britain (which only returned in 1997).
The tea spy: on her majesty's secret service
But even these wars did not resolve the trade deficit with China. The attempts to make tea in British India resulted in insipid rubbish, and the British needed the good stuff. So, they turned to a Scottish botanist named Robert Fortune, whose mission was simple: cross the border into China, integrate himself amongst Chinese tea farmers, and smuggle out both their expertise and preferably their tea plants.
Fortune accepted the mission, even though he could not speak a word of Chinese and had barely left his native Britain. (A forefather of 007 he was not.) But not one to let these details get in the way, he shaved his hair, plaited a pigtail that resembled those worn by the Chinese, and then set off on his adventure.
And what an adventure it was. He came under attack by bandits and brigands, his ship was bombarded by pirates, and he had to endure fever, tropical storms, and typhoons. In spite of all this, Fortune not only managed to learn Chinese and travel around the forbidden City of Suzhou and its surrounding tea-farming land, but he also integrated himself into secluded peasant communities. When the skeptical tea farmers challenged Fortune on why he was so tall, he fooled them by claiming that he was a very important state official — all of whom were tall, apparently.
An Indian speciali-tea
Amazingly, Fortune had good fortune and got away with it. Over the course of his three-year mission, he secreted out several shipments of new tea plants to Britain as well as the art of bonsai (previously, a closely held secret). Most of the smuggled tea leaves died from mold and moisture in transit, but Fortune persisted, and eventually the British began to cultivate their own tea plants using Chinese tea farming techniques in their colonial Indian soils.
It was not long until an Indian variant, almost indistinguishable from the stolen Chinese one, began to dominate the market, not least for Britain's huge and growing empire. Within 20 years of Fortune's remarkable mission, the East India Company had more than fifty contractors pumping out tea worldwide.
Today, things have reverted back. China now produces not only substantially more than India (in second place) but more than the top ten countries combined. In total, 40 percent of the world's tea comes from China. But it was British tea — and Robert Fortune's incredible and unlikely mission — which catalyzed the huge global market. Without this overly confident Scottish plant-lover, the world's love of tea might look very different.