Polar explorer Erling Kagge: Why risk makes life meaningful

Playing it safe and always taking the easy road can be obstacles to happiness, says professional adventurer Erling Kagge.

ERLING KAGGE: Life is very much about taking risks. To walk to the North Pole, walk to the South Pole, climb Everest—it's all about taking huge risks. But sometimes, it's even more risky doing nothing. If you lay on the sofa for too long, you risk getting some heart diseases. And, of course, most accidents in life are actually going on in the kitchen, if not a car hits you first.

One of the greatest climbers in history, one of my big heroes, Tenzing Norgay, didn't die from falling down the mountain. He died from lung cancer because he was smoking all the time. And this happens again and again. So I think, first of all, you need to take risks. That's part of life. But having said that, to me, the most important of that is to be well prepared. I have always been extremely well prepared in my expeditions. So for me, it hasn't been as dangerous as it would have been for other people.

But if it hadn't been dangerous walking to the North Pole or climbing Mount Everest, I would never have done it. It's part of life. It's part of what gives it meaning. And all this kind of little dimension of fear or danger makes you feel that you're very much present in your life. You don't really care about anything but what's happening there and then. And of course, that's a feeling you can't have too often in life, but once in a while, it's a beautiful feeling.

I think in life, you need some uncertainty. Like, you know, it's quite often I hear people and they don't want to have any uncertainty in life at all. And I think that's a big mistake, because you need variation in your life. You need to be surprised. You need novelty. Because if you don't have it, time narrows in. Like, it feels like everything moves on really fast, quickly.
And also, the universe around us, or the space around us, somewhat narrows in if you know what's going to happen in the next minute or the next day. The way to feel that you're alive, the way to feel present in your life, is to take risks and feel that not everything is certain, that it can be some rough oceans ahead. That's just the way to live rich life. To hold this idea of a risk-less society is a huge misunderstanding. It's nice that the government tried to help us in a number of different ways, but we need to be able to risk something.

I think every morning you wake up, you make all the choices throughout the day. There is the easy option, and the more difficult option. And of course, it's very tempting always to choose the easiest option in life. The problematic side of that is that then you're not any longer a free human being because it's predestined what are you're going to do throughout the whole day because you always choose the easiest option. So to live a free life, you actually have to go for the most difficult options quite often in your life. So that's kind of a huge misunderstanding, that the way to make your life beautiful, the way to have a happy life, is to go for the easiest options.

  • There's a huge misunderstanding that the way to make your life beautiful, and the way to be happy, is to choose the path of least resistance, says polar explorer Erling Kagge.
  • Risk makes life meaningful; a small dimension of challenge and danger, combined with well-preparedness, is a way to be present in your life. Novel experiences stop your life from narrowing in around you and going by too fast.
  • Remember that Tenzing Norgay didn't die falling off a mountain. He died of lung cancer after a lifetime of smoking. Most accidents happen on the road or in the kitchen, says Kagge. Sometimes it's riskier to do nothing.


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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

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Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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