(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘sleep

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub”*…

I’m not the first person to note that our understanding of ourselves and our society is heavily influenced by technological change – think of how we analogized biological and social functions to clockwork, then steam engines, then computers.

I used to think that this was just a way of understanding how we get stuff hilariously wrong – think of Taylor’s Scientific Management, how its grounding in mechanical systems inflicted such cruelty on workers whom Taylor demanded ape those mechanisms.

But just as interesting is how our technological metaphors illuminate our understanding of ourselves and our society: because there ARE ways in which clockwork, steam power and digital computers resemble bodies and social structures.

Any lens that brings either into sharper focus opens the possibility of making our lives better, sometimes much better.

Bodies and societies are important, poorly understood and deeply mysterious.

Take sleep. Sleep is very weird.

Once a day, we fall unconscious. We are largely paralyzed, insensate, vulnerable, and we spend hours and hours having incredibly bizarre hallucinations, most of which we can’t remember upon waking. That is (objectively) super weird.

But sleep is nearly universal in the animal kingdom, and dreaming is incredibly common too. A lot of different models have been proposed to explain our nightly hallucinatory comas, and while they had some explanatory power, they also had glaring deficits.

Thankfully, we’ve got a new hot technology to provide a new metaphor for dreaming: machine learning through deep neural networks.

DNNs, of course, are a machine learning technique that comes from our theories about how animal learning works at a biological, neural level.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that DNN – based on how we think brains work – has stimulated new hypotheses on how brains work!

Erik P Hoel is a Tufts University neuroscientist. He’s a proponent of something called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis (OBH).

To understand OBH, you first have to understand how overfitting works in machine learning: “overfitting” is what happens when a statistical model overgeneralizes.

For example, if Tinder photos of queer men are highly correlated with a certain camera angle, then a researcher might claim to have trained a “gaydar model” that “can predict sexual orientation from faces.”

That’s overfitting (and researchers who do this are assholes).

Overfitting is a big problem in ML: if all the training pics of Republicans come from rallies in Phoenix, the model might decide that suntans are correlated with Republican politics – and then make bad guesses about the politics of subjects in photos from LA or Miami.

To combat overfitting, ML researchers sometimes inject noise into the training data, as an effort to break up these spurious correlations.

And that’s what Hoel thinks are brains are doing while we sleep: injecting noisy “training data” into our conceptions of the universe so we aren’t led astray by overgeneralization.

Overfitting is a real problem for people (another word for “overfitting” is “prejudice”)…

Sleeping, dreaming, and the importance of a nightly dose of irrationality– Corey Doctorow (@doctorow) explains: “Dreaming and overfitting,” from his ever-illuminating newsletter, Pluralistic. Eminently worthy of reading in full.

(Image above: Gontzal García del CañoCC BY-NC-SA, modified)

* Shakespeare, Hamlet

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As we nod off, we might send fully-oxygenated birthday greetings to Corneille Jean François Heymans; he was born on this date in 1892. A physiologist, he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1938 for showing how blood pressure and the oxygen content of the blood are measured by the body and transmitted to the brain via the nerves and not by the blood itself, as had previously been believed.

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“I’m envious of people who can sleep as long as they want. I have the circadian rhythm of a farmer.”*…

After World War II, scientists began studying the internal clocks of animals in earnest. They discovered that mammals and other creatures are ruled by their own, internal body clock, what is commonly referred to today as a biological clock. The German physician and biologist Jürgen Aschoff wondered if this might also be true of humans. In the early 1960s, as head of a new department for biological timing at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology, Aschoff and his research partner Rütger Wever designed an experiment to find out.

To study the inner workings of human biological clocks, Aschoff built a soundproof underground bunker in the foothills of a mountain deep in the Bavarian countryside, just up the road from the well-known beer-brewing monastery Kloster Andechs. Through a series of investigations that included 200 subjects and spanned two decades, Aschoff’s bunker experiments would become a pioneering study in the field of chronobiology, changing the way we think about time today…

What Is Chronobiology? Does it explain why we’re having so much trouble sleeping? Find out here.

* Moby

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As we hit the hay, we might spare a thought for Urbain Le Verrier; he died on this date in 1877. An astronomer and mathematician who specialized in celestial mechanics, he’s best remembered for predicting the existence and position of the planet Neptune using only mathematics. Le Verrier sent the coordinates to Johann Gottfried Galle at the New Berlin Observatory, asking him to verify. Galle found Neptune in the same night he received Le Verrier’s letter– this date in 1846. The planet was within 1° of the predicted position.

Urbain Le Verrier

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 23, 2020 at 1:01 am

“To sleep, perchance to dream”*…

 

sleep

 

On a typical workday morning, if you’re like most people, you don’t wake up naturally. Instead, the ring of an alarm clock probably jerks you out of sleep. Depending on when you went to bed, what day of the week it is, and how deeply you were sleeping, you may not understand where you are, or why there’s an infernal chiming sound. Then you throw out your arm and hit the snooze button, silencing the noise for at least a few moments. Just another couple of minutes, you think. Then maybe a few minutes more.

It may seem like you’re giving yourself a few extra minutes to collect your thoughts. But what you’re actually doing is making the wake-up process more difficult and drawn out…

Journalist (and professional poker player) Maria Konnikova on why “Snoozers are, in fact, losers.”

* Shakespeare, Hamlet

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As we ruminate on rest, we might spare a thought for a man who seems barely to have slept at all, Francois-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire; he died on this date in 1778.  The Father of the Age of Reason, he produced works in almost every literary form: plays, poems, novels, essays, and historical and scientific works– more than 2,000 books and pamphlets (and more than 20,000 letters).  He popularized Isaac Newton’s work in France by arranging a translation of Principia Mathematica to which he added his own commentary.

A social reformer, Voltaire used satire to criticize the intolerance, religious dogma, and oligopolistic privilege of his day, perhaps nowhere more sardonically than in Candide.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”*…

 

As recently as a few decades ago in the Western world, stars dazzled humans with their brightness and the Milky Way could be seen spanning the far reaches of the heavens as night deepened into an unspeakable darkness. In the 21st century, such a scene is becoming a rarity across many parts of the globe as we light up the night like never before.

Today our experience of the night differs significantly from that of our ancestors. Before they mastered fire, early humans lived roughly half their lives in the dark. The only night light they had came from the moon when skies were clear. Then, when humans began to gain some control over fire use (probably around 400,000 years ago), everything changed. From that point on, most people have had access to some form of “artificial” light, at least occasionally. Thus began our persistent efforts to light up the night. Even people who lived relatively recently—those with candles, oil lamps, and early electricity—were far more familiar with darkness than we are today. Their nocturnal world simply wasn’t as bright as ours.

But what have we gained by illuminating the night? Has anything been lost in our efforts to banish darkness? Were people, and the world, better off when it was darker?…

Dive into the diurnal at: “A history of what we do in the dark.”

* Mary Oliver

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As we go dark, we might recall this item from John Stow‘s Survey of London (original spelling: A Survay of London), published in 1598:

William Foxley slept in the tower 14 days & more without waking.

In the yeare 1546. the 27 of April, being Tuesday in Easter weeke, William Foxley, Potmaker for the Mint in the tower of London, fell asleepe, and so continued sleeping, and could not be wakened, with pricking, cramping, or otherwise burning* whatsoeuer, till the first day of the tearme, which was full xiiii. dayes, and xv. nights, or more, for that Easter tearme beginneth not afore xvii. dayes after Easter. The cause of his thus sleeping could not be knowne, though the same were diligently searched after by the kings Phisitians, and other learned men: yea the king himselfe examining the said William Foxley, who was in all poynts found at his wakening to be as if hee had slept but one night. And he lived more then fortie yeares after in the sayde Tower, to wit, vntil the yeare of Christ, 1587, and then deceased on Wednesday in Easterweeke.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 27, 2018 at 1:01 am

“Ignorance is the softest pillow on which a man can rest his head”*…

 

Chinese porcelain pillow, Song Dynasty (960–1279)

So far as we know, the earliest pillows date back over 9,000 years to Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq. Formed from stone, the top was carved in a half-moon shape to support the neck. The idea obviously wasn’t comfort, at least not immediate comfort. The basic function of the pillow was to keep the head off the ground and prevent insects from crawling into mouths, noses, and ears. Ancient Egyptians and Chinese also used similar pillows, though each culture had its own reasons for them…

Learn how the pillow evolved in function–and happily, in form– at “Pillows Throughout The Ages.”

* Michel de Montaigne

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As we lay down our heads, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the extraordinary Jules Verne, imaginative writer non pareil (c.f., e.g., here);  he was born in Nantes on this date in 1828.

Best known for his novels A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1869–1870), Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) and The Mysterious Island (1875), Verne is the second most translated (individual) author of all time, behind Agatha Christie.  He is considered, with H.G. Wells, the founder of science fiction.

Verne was startlingly prescient: Paris in the 20th Century, for example, describes air conditioning, automobiles, the Internet, television, even electricity, and other modern conveniences very similar to their real world counterparts, developed years– in many cases, decades– later.   From the Earth to the Moon, apart from using a space gun instead of a rocket, is uncannily similar to the real Apollo Program: three astronauts are launched from the Florida peninsula– from “Tampa Town” (only 130 miles from NASA’s Cape Canaveral)– and recovered through a splash landing.  And in other works, he predicted helicopters, submarines, projectors, jukeboxes, and the existence of underwater hydrothermal vents that were not invented/discovered until long after he wrote about them.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 8, 2017 at 1:01 am

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