Who are you?

Question: Who are you?

Rob Riemen: Rob Riemen. Well I was born in the Netherlands. My father comes from a poor labor family. He had to go to work when he was 14; a self-made man; became a union leader. My mother grew up in Indonesia – which was then a Dutch colony – and spent the years of the war in prison . . . a Japanese camp. She survived, and I was her first born. And so I grew up basically in a poor, liberal, Catholic family in the Netherlands.

Question: Who influenced you as a child?

Rob Riemen: When I was young I think it was definitely my mother. Yes. Look. I mean she knew about life, right? So I grew up in a family in which, you know, there were some rules or some ideas. The first one was life in general is _________. Be aware of that. Secondly, accept the fact that you have to take responsibilities. Three, life __________. But when you accept your responsibilities, don’t give up. Don’t compromise. Do what you think you have to do. And so we have those things. And then for my parents, who were uneducated, that the children could get an education, could go to university was their dream. It was their dream. So when I finally, after a very difficult high school period which took me eight years – normally it’s six years, but it took me eight because I really hated it – I finally managed to go to university. I spent 10 years studying, and I still regret ________ 10 years. It could have been endless. And it was, for me . . . You know it was just 10 years of reading books – books, books, books, books, books. And my old friend once told me that a reader – in some ways I consider myself a reader – you always start with one book and then you read back. For me that book was “The Magic Mountain” of Thomas Mann. And so I started to read everything of Thomas Mann. And through Thomas Mann I was channeled to Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Goethe; you know trying to become familiar with this whole world and this whole mindset, which is now known as the world of European unionism. And the work I am doing is basically trying to . . . to continue that tradition of trying to transmit the ideas of that world. . But in the so called formative years I think, you know, I was questioning myself would I become a secret agent – probably influenced by James Bond? A journalist, you know, investigating the truth? And then finally I did something which might look completely different, but it’s not exactly the case I think. I started to study theology. By training I’m a theologian, which I studied for 10 years. But even I’m not a real theologian, because my whole work was basically focused on again, you know, Thomas Mann and that whole world. But I . . . Two things. (A) I grew up in this family of six children without money. So my mother to deal with everything, she learned me to read when I was three. So essentially I have to feel that the only thing I can do, and I could do my whole life was reading books. So I realized okay, secret agent I’m missing some skills; probably a journalist; then my father told to me, he said “Look, you can always become a journalist. But start with the huge background.” And then I became so fascinated with that world that I continued that study. You know I’m now publishing a journal, so that whole sense of communication is still with me.

 

Recorded on: 10/3/07

 

 

 

Rob Riemen explains the formative influence of Thomas Mann.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
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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
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  • 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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Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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