You'll Never Have Full Control
Two of the most fundamental human drives are:
While these may seem different, they’re connected at the most basic level. By learning more about the world around us, we can figure out how to predict what will happen within it. The more knowledge we accrue, the better our predictions become, and the better we’re able to prepare for what were previously unforeseen curveballs. A life of proper prediction and diligent preparation allows us to feel stable and secure. Of course, our predictions are less than perfect, and we’re often wrong with disastrous consequences (as the works of Nassim Taleb and Daniel Kahneman illustrate). But most of our life actions, and much of the technology that we produce, have the sole aim of increasing our feeling of control.
Uber is a great example of this. Traditionally, finding a taxi has been a bit of a crapshoot. While you may be lucky from time to time, and flag down a taxi within a minute of stepping up to the curb, it’s not uncommon (especially in San Francisco) to have to spend 15 hand-flapping minutes at the corner of a busy thoroughfare before successfully ensnaring a cab. With Uber, however, you are practically guaranteed a ride each and every time you open the app. You can see who your driver is, what model of car they’re driving, and where they are on a map in relation to you. Location is accurate up to the second. This is a prime example of a human-made system with the sole purpose of giving common people more control over their circumstances. Stated differently, it’s a great example of a human-made system with the purpose of reducing uncertainty.
As I’ve written about before, if you look at the technologies we’ve produced since the beginning of history, all of them have taken what was once a scary, indeterminate part of life and made it mundane and determinate. Farming took the hunt out of hunting and gathering. Medicine, vaccines in particular, took the fear out of common sicknesses and ailments. Communication technologies gave people instant feedback of whether their communication was received (and successful). Each new successful innovation will do the same thing, and wring a little bit more uncertainty out of a part of life.
Medical innovations will continue to make the probability of death, at any given age, closer and closer to zero. Transportation technologies will continue to make the probability of getting transported safely and quickly higher and higher. And dating applications will continue to get better and better at making the possibility of meeting up with a “dud” closer and closer to zilch. Our locus of control will continue to increase throughout the 21st century, extending out our human powers beyond our wildest dreams. Unfortunately, as our locus expands beyond our skin, and begins to encapsulate the world, we’ll come to find ourselves simultaneously in control of everything and controlled by everyone else. We’ll be back where we started. Even if we squeeze the uncertainty out of life, there will always be messy, chaotic people to foil our plans. After all, there is no app for making old, painful memories fade away, or for quelling the heartache of a love lost. At that point, all we can do is learn and move on, and let wisdom reduce uncertainty within when there’s nothing more to do without.
Young people could even end up less anxiety-ridden, thanks to newfound confidence
- The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
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Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts.
New research establishes an unexpected connection.
- 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.)
Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think
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."
We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.
- A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
- Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
- The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.