2017 : WHAT SCIENTIFIC TERM OR CONCEPT OUGHT TO BE MORE WIDELY KNOWN?

Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus
Chronobiology

The time-is-money ethos of the Industrial Age and wage labor, combined with the generic quality of computerized time-keeping and digital calendars has all but disconnected us from the temporal rhythms on which biological life has oriented itself for millennia. Like all organisms, the human body has evolved to depend on the cyclical ebbs and flows of light, weather, and even the gravitational pull of the moon in order to function effectively.

But our culture and its technologies are increasingly leading us to behave as if we can defy these cycles—or simply ignore them completely. We fly ten time zones in as many hours, drink coffee and take drugs to wake ourselves, pop sedatives to sleep, and then take SSRI’s to counter the depression that results. We schedule our work and productivity oblivious to the way the lunar cycle influences our moods and alertness, as well as those of our students, customers, and workforces.

Chronobiology is the science of the biological clocks, circadian rhythms, and internal cycles that regulate our organs, hormones, and neurotransmitters. And while most of us know that it’s likely healthier to be active during the day and sleep at night, we still tend to act as if any moment were as good as any other, for anything. It’s not.

For instance, new research suggests that our dominant neurotransmitters change with each of the four weeks of a lunar cycle. The first week of a new moon brings a surge of acetylcholine; the next brings serotonin; then comes dopamine, and finally norepinephrine. During a dopamine week, people would tend to be more social and relaxed, while norepinephrine would make people more analytic. A serotonin week might be good for work, and an acetylcholine week should be full of pep.

Ancient cultures learned of these sorts of cycles through experience—trial and error. They used specific cyclical schedules for everything from planting and harvesting to rituals and conflict. But early science and its emphasis on repeatability treated all time as the same, and saw chronobiology as closer to astrology than physiology. The notion that wood taken from trees dries faster if it is cut at a particular time in the lunar cycle when its sap is at “low tide” seemed more like witchcraft than botany.

But like trees, we humans are subject to the cycles of our biological clocks, most of which use external environmental cues to set themselves. Divorced from these natural cues, we experience the dis-ease of organ systems that have no way to sync up, and an increased dependence on artificial signals for when to do what. We become more at the mercy of artificial cues—from news alerts to the cool light of our computer screens—for a sense of temporality.

If we were to become more aware of chronobiology, we wouldn’t necessarily have to obey all of our evolutionary biases. Unlike our ancestors, we do have light to read at night, heat and air-conditioning to insulate ourselves from the cycle of the seasons, and 24-7 businesses that cater to people on irregular schedules. But we would have the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the natural rhythms of our world and the grounding, orienting sensibilities that come with operating in sync or harmony with them.

A rediscovery and wider acknowledgment of chronobiology would also go a long way toward restoring the solidarity and interpersonal connection so many of us are lacking without it. As we all became more aware and respectful of our shared chronobiology, we would be more likely to sync up or even “phase lock” with one another, as well. This would allow us to recover some of the peer-to-peer solidarity and social cohesiveness that we’ve lost to a culture that treats the time like a set of flashing numbers instead of the rhythm of life.