Archive for September 2018

A woman sleeping

Hacking your internal clock

I used to say that sleep is one of my favorite hobbies. I mean, I love to sleep, and before I had kids, I indulged my sleep habit freely. If it were up to me, I’d still do that. Unfortunately, I have a child with serious sleep problems, and when he’s awake, I’m awake. I don’t have the option to sleep when I want, or for as long as I want. I’m pretty much always tired, despite drinking ridiculous amounts of coffee. It’s…unpleasant.

Meanwhile, regardless of how much or how little sleep I get, I always have projects stacked up months deep and never seem to have enough time to finish everything on my day’s schedule. So I was intrigued to read about a concept called polyphasic sleep, in which you sleep for several short periods of time each day, rather than one long period as you would in ordinary, or monophasic, sleep. (By the way, if you sleep for a long stretch at night and then take an afternoon nap, you’re practicing a form of biphasic sleep—a schedule I used to enjoy.) Proponents of polyphasic sleep claim that it reduces your overall need for sleep to as little as two hours per day, while keeping you just as alert and healthy as you’d otherwise be. Critics say it’s a dangerous practice that can shorten your lifespan and lead to physical, psychological, and social problems. But lots of people have tried it, and I’ve found it intriguing to read about their experiences.

Nothing But Nap

Although polyphasic sleep could take many forms, the one most frequently mentioned, sometimes by the name Uberman’s sleep, is a schedule in which a person sleeps for approximately 20 minutes every 4 hours. For example, one might take naps at 2:00, 6:00, and 10:00 (A.M. and P.M.). If the naps each last 20 minutes, you get 2 hours of sleep per day; if they last 30 minutes, you get 3 hours of sleep. Other variants include fewer, but longer, sleep cycles or a single stretch of 3–5 hours of sleep at night along with two or more brief naps during the day. I’ve read numerous accounts of people who successfully adapted to one or another of these schedules for periods ranging from weeks to months, though I’m not aware of anyone who has made the change permanent. Most reports indicate that the initial several days are the most difficult, as the body struggles against the new schedule, after which it finally accepts the alternative sleep pattern.

What’s it like to live with polyphasic sleep? I can’t speak from personal experience, but from what I’ve read, polyphasic sleepers invariably enjoy having 6 or more extra hours per day to get stuff done; some of them also report increased alertness, more vivid dreams, and even weight loss. But many of them say they have to cheat (or “reboot”) every so often, when their bodies simply tell them they’re too tired and they have to sleep for a longer period of time. When folks trying out this alternative schedule go back to monophasic sleep, as they inevitably do, they cite various reasons, but a recurring theme is that it’s just too difficult to keep a different schedule from everyone else in the world.

Selling Sleep Short

Among people who say polyphasic sleep is a good idea, there’s an oft-repeated meme that once you get used to this sort of schedule, you can achieve deep, REM sleep almost immediately; the presumption is that as long as you get enough REM sleep each day, your brain and body get all the benefits of a single long stretch of sleep. Although solid clinical evidence about what happens during polyphasic sleep is almost nonexistent, some research suggests that this hypothesis is mistaken, and that a prolonged course of polyphasic sleep amounts to a form of sleep deprivation. Similarly, polyphasic proponents often mention a long list of famous scientists, inventors, and artists who allegedly followed such minimalist sleep schedules, but in most cases there’s little or no documentation to back up these claims. On the contrary, it may be that although one can indeed be awake and alert for 22 hours per day, creativity and mental agility suffer as a result.

However, almost everyone who’s written about polyphasic sleep agrees that the technique has its place—for limited periods of time—when people are faced with a serious situation that demands the maximum possible number of waking hours per day. Frequently cited examples are long solo yacht races, space missions, military operations, and civil or medical crises. My work and family obligations make polyphasic sleep a nonstarter at this point in my life. But even if I could sleep 2 hours a day and spend every waking moment productively crossing things off my to do list, I’m not sure I’d want to. I enjoy sleep a lot more than I enjoy work, and trading (even more of) the former for the latter somehow doesn’t seem like a very good deal.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 30, 2007.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Podcast icon

I have a curious relationship with podcasts. I used to have a podcast (of sorts) of my own—it consisted entirely of me reading Interesting Thing of the Day articles. (I know a lot of you loved it, too, and I’m very sorry that circumstances make it impossible for me to continue offering those recordings at this time.) I’ve also been interviewed more than 100 times on other people’s podcasts. But I never listen to podcasts. That is partly because I don’t commute, partly because when I’m walking or driving I’d rather be alone with my thoughts (or talking to whoever is with me), and partly because I generally prefer to read than to listen. So I guess I’m a weirdo. But if you are not a weirdo, or if you’re differently weird, perhaps you’d like to seek out some interesting new podcasts to listen to today—September 30 is International Podcast Day.

Perhaps one day I will again have a podcast. It’s been on my list of things to think about for years, so you never know. If that happens, then I’ll spend September 30 every year trying to convince people to listen to my own podcast! For now, though, you’re on your own.

Image credit: By Yagraph [GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

An Asian palm civet

The world’s strangest and most expensive coffee

My fondness for good coffee, and the lengths to which I’m willing to go to indulge it, are well known. As someone who loves coffee and craves interesting things, it is only natural that I should be intrigued by stories of a rare, exotic, and obscenely expensive type of coffee bean. I was once fortunate enough to sample this coffee, but most of the people I’ve told about the experience—even confirmed coffee snobs—grimace, then raise their eyebrows in that “you’ve got to be kidding me” look. The story you’re about to read is, I assure you, true, though I myself became convinced only after extensive research and personal experience.

The Fruits of Labor

First, some background. Most coffee beans sold in North America come from plantations in tropical Central or South America. Colombia and Costa Rica, in particular, are well known for their excellent coffees. Coffee grows on plants that are commonly called “trees” (because that’s what they look like), even though they’re really a type of shrub. Coffee trees produce a sweet fruit known as a “cherry,” so called because of its red color when it ripens. Inside each cherry are two seeds, which are the coffee beans, encased in a thin covering called parchment.

Cherries are usually picked by hand, then processed by machine to extract the beans from the fruit and remove their mucilaginous coating. The beans are rinsed and dried, then fed into another machine to remove the parchment. After sorting the raw (or “green”) beans into different grades (and, sometimes, blending different types of beans together), they are roasted to varying degrees of darkness and then packaged for shipment. The final step in preparing the beans before brewing is to grind them to your desired level of coarseness.

All in all, preparing coffee beans is quite a labor-intensive process. It is only natural, I suppose, that someone might try to find a simpler method to get the desired end result—a way to get the coffee beans without all that tedious harvesting and processing. It was presumably this line of reasoning that led to the invention, or discovery, or whatever you might call it, of Kopi Luwak.

Has Beans

On a handful of islands in Indonesia and in several nearby countries lives a small catlike animal called the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus, if you care), also known as a “musang” or “toddy cat”—or, in Indonesian, a “luak.” The palm civet is not a marsupial, though many websites about Kopi Luwak describe it as such—caveat lector. It’s a nocturnal mammal that spends its life in the trees and eats a balanced diet of insects, rodents, and fruit. One fruit it’s especially fond of is the coffee cherry, and it’s very picky about which cherries it eats, too—only perfectly ripe ones will suffice.

The palm civet’s digestive system processes the skin, pulp, and mucilage of the coffee cherries quite nicely, but can’t break down the seeds. So they appear—sometimes in rather large quantities—in the animal’s droppings. Other than being slightly fermented, the seeds are intact, and enterprising locals, eager to bypass several of the most onerous tasks of bean preparation, collect these specially processed beans and sell them to coffee distributors. The beans are washed, dried, and roasted just like other beans, but because of their relative rarity and unique processing, are sold at a premium to distributors who ship them all over the world. Paradoxically, the savings in human labor provided by the paradoxurus is reflected inversely in the price.

Black Gold

Just how much of a premium will you pay? Well, back in 1999 I paid about US$100 for a half pound (about 225g), and in a quick web search just now, I found prices both much higher and much lower than that. But as a ballpark figure, you can think of Kopi Luwak as running about 10 times the cost of Illy, the famous Italian gourmet coffee, and about 50 times the cost of Folger’s. If you’re lucky enough to find a local coffee shop that sells it by the cup, though, you might pay a mere $5, which is about the cost of a Starbucks specialty coffee.

By now you’re probably wondering two things. First, is it safe to drink? The answer is yes, according to serious scientists who have studied it in detail. Second, how does it taste? Describing the flavor of a fine coffee is a bit like describing the flavor of wine—it’s more of an art than a science, and no two people will agree on exactly the same terminology. I’ve seen Kopi Luwak described as “nutty,” “spicy,” “chocolaty,” and “gamy,” for example, but I don’t know that I’d use any of those terms myself. It tasted very, very good—let’s start there. In addition to the sort of rich aroma I’d expect from any good coffee, it had a complex intensity of flavor that I have not tasted elsewhere. Unlike the taste of, say, a chicory-laced café au lait or a mocha, the “extra” flavor did not give me the impression of an additive, but rather of intrinsic depth. In other words, it tasted more thoroughly coffeelike than ordinary coffee, if you can imagine that.

I don’t think it would be unfair to say that my first cup of Kopi Luwak was the best cup of coffee I had ever tasted. Was it 10 times better than Illy—enough to justify its cost? Certainly not; it was better, but not that much better. On the other hand, it was well worth the money just to have the experience, and indeed it would have been worth the money even if the taste had been unpleasant. The novelty of the experience was worth every drop (or, as some purveyors of Kopi Luwak would say, dropping).

The Bottom Line

The name Kopi Luwak simply means “luak coffee,” though as you can imagine, it also goes by a number of more colorful names (I’ve heard “cat poop coffee” quite a bit). In some cases, the unique processing method is used as a marketing gimmick; in other cases, it’s the punch line of “what-has-our-culture-come-to-now” editorials. To be sure, it is slightly unsettling to imagine being the person to have originated this idea, or worse—the first person to try it. But the end result (sorry) makes it all seem worthwhile.

Nevertheless, it is hard not to have some lingering doubts about the authenticity of the coffee. My research has satisfied me that Kopi Luwak is in fact a legitimate product, produced and collected in the manner described. However, the increasing popularity of Kopi Luwak in recent years has led to a number of disturbing trends, including animals being caged and force-fed coffee beans. So now you really have to do your homework before selecting a supplier—and yes, “free-range” Kopi Luwak is a thing.

Regardless of where you obtain the beans, though, they don’t look or smell significantly different from other coffee beans (at least, not to my untrained senses). How am I to know that the company that sold me the coffee didn’t substitute a cheaper brand? And how are they to know that their supplier, and every link in the supply chain before that, was delivering the genuine article? Quality control and certification of production is, as you might guess, a bit problematic.

When all is said and done, it’s a matter of faith. I would like to believe that the sheer weirdness of the product makes it more likely than not that what I got was what I thought I was getting. And if not, well, it was still a damn fine cup of coffee.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 22, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on February 28, 2005.

Image credit: By Praveenp [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A cup of black coffee

I wouldn’t say I’m addicted to coffee. I would simply say that I need very much of it every day or I’m completely nonfunctional. In that respect, coffee is just like air or water, but with more caffeine. So, for me, every day is coffee day, but today—at least in most countries—is National Coffee Day. (A handful of countries celebrate it on other dates.) There is also International Coffee Day, coming up on October 1, and though I will certainly drink coffee then too, I think we’ll highlight another celebration on that day.

In any case, lots of coffee purveyors (except that one big one from Seattle) are offering promotions today—free or discounted coffee, free donuts, and other goodies. So give yourself a present.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Woman with eyes closed

Waking up to the reality of dreaming

I dream that I am standing in a very unfamiliar building. Something about the strangeness of my surroundings leads me to wonder if I might not be dreaming. I decide to perform a little experiment to determine whether it really is a dream or not. There is a short flight of stairs ahead of me going down to a lower level. I know that if I jump off the top step and find I can fly, it must be a dream, whereas if land normally, it isn’t. So I jump, and sure enough, I float down to the next level. “Cool!” I think, “I am dreaming—that must mean I can do anything I want!” But I can’t decide what to do next. I try walking through some people but that doesn’t work, and after a few minutes I slip back into the unconscious world of regular dreams. Nevertheless, the experience is fascinating and exhilarating. Being able to consciously influence the course of my dream is a wonderfully novel sensation.

A lucid dream is simply one in which you realize that you are dreaming. The dream I just described happened about a number of years ago—and it happened spontaneously, without any effort or intention on my part. Since then, I’ve read about and tried a variety of methods for inducing lucid dreams deliberately. Although I can’t yet dream lucidly on command, practice definitely improved my success rate. For me, this is a purely recreational activity, but for centuries lucid dreaming, in one form or another, has been practiced with great seriousness in certain religious and philosophical traditions. Tibetan Buddhism, in particular, has an ancient discipline of meditative techniques designed to encourage not just lucid dreaming, but a continuously unbroken state of consciousness, while sleeping and awake.

Lucid Reasoning

What’s so great about lucid dreaming? For one thing, it’s lots of fun. If you’re aware that you’re dreaming, you can do things that are impossible in waking life, such as flying, becoming invisible, or traveling to distant times or places. But on a more practical note, interacting with dream characters in a lucid state can help the dreamer to interpret the meanings of dreams in real time. Lucid dreams can also enable the dreamer to find creative solutions to problems, work through difficult emotional issues, and promote physical and mental healing. Many people believe lucid dreaming is a path to, or at least a necessary step toward, a form of enlightenment, and it also forms part of the training for some forms of shamanism.

A researcher named Hervey de Saint-Denys introduced the notion of lucid dreaming to the Western world in his 1867 book Dreams and How to Guide Them. But the term lucid dream itself was coined by Frederik Willems Van Eeden in his 1913 paper “A Study of Dreams.” The best-known modern figure in lucid dreaming is Stanford professor Stephen LaBerge, who founded The Lucidity Institute, coauthored the book Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming, and conducts lucid dreaming workshops. For over four decades LaBerge has been studying lucid dreaming in a laboratory setting, and he proved that subjects can be taught to dream lucidly, using a technique he calls Mnemonic Induction of Lucid Dreams (MILD).

To use this technique, you form a habit, in waking life, of asking yourself, “Am I dreaming or awake?” every time you encounter some common stimulus. Sooner or later you’ll encounter the same thing in a dream, and if you ask the question while dreaming, you’ll probably figure out that you’re really asleep. (Carlos Castaneda wrote extensively about lucid dreaming—though he didn’t use that term—in his books about his alleged training as a sorcerer under don Juan Matus. His trigger for lucid dreaming was his hands. He developed a habit of looking at his hands as often as possible so that he’d be likely to do that in a dream as well; on seeing his hands, he’d be reminded to consider whether he might be dreaming.) Other methods include exercises performed right before going to sleep to focus one’s attention on having lucid dreams, meditating on certain symbols or sounds, and listening to specially designed audio recordings while falling asleep.

Blink and You Won’t Miss It

There’s also a sophisticated, high-tech way to promote lucid dreaming. In the course of his research, LaBerge developed an electronic gadget—somewhat reminiscent of a brain machine—called the NovaDreamer. The NovaDreamer included a soft mask that you wear to sleep; sensors above the eyes detected when the wearer enters REM sleep, the state in which dreaming occurs, and then activated a flashing light or a sound. The idea is that the user would notice the light or sound inside the dream, remember what it means, and enter a lucid dreaming state. The Novadreamer is currently out of production and may or may not become commercially available again. Reportedly, the device was quite effective—as well it should be, considering its price of US$500.

Meanwhile, numerous competitors have begun offering similar products, though the approach and features vary tremendously. The REM-Dreamer sounds similar to the Novadreamer. There’s also a headband called Aurora that can use light and sound to trigger lucid dreaming. A lower-tech (and much less expensive) product called Remee is a mask with embedded lights, but instead of using a sensor to detect when you’re in REM sleep, it uses a timer that you start manually when you go to bed. (I have one of these, but so far I’ve been unable to get it to trigger a lucid dream. Your mileage may vary.)

Regardless of the details of one’s approach, anyone who tries to incubate lucid dreaming will end up wondering, on increasingly regular occasions, “Is this real? Could I be dreaming?” And this is what so many people find fascinating about the notion of lucid dreams: if dream reality is as convincing as waking reality, how do we really know that waking reality is not itself a kind of dream? Of course, we don’t: this has been one of history’s great philosophical questions from the time of Plato through The Matrix, Waking Life, and Inception. But learning to influence the course of your dreams can lead to skills that may help you to exert similar influence in waking life. Whether that turns out to be yet another dream or not, a little extra awareness and control surely can’t hurt.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on July 16, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on June 12, 2004.

Image credit: Matteo Lunardi [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day