Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

The problems with falling back

Here in the United States we've just gone from Daylight Savings Time back onto Standard Time, and like a lot of us, it's playing hell with my circadian rhythms.

I'm a morning person, which you'll know if you've ever noticed the timestamp on my Skeptophilia posts.  This means, of course, that by the evening I'm pretty wiped out.  The result is that we have to make sure any social engagements we have are over by nine o'clock, or my wife will look over and find me curled up on the floor in the corner, asleep.

Which may explain why we don't get invited to many social engagements.

Anyhow, a lot of people look forward to the "Fall Back" in November, because it gains them an hour's sleep (for one weekend, at least), and until their bodies adjust to the new schedule they don't feel like they're getting up so damned early.  I have exactly the opposite response.  The "Fall Back" is worse for morning people than for night owls, because now we're waking up even earlier (by the clock), and now it's eight o'clock, not nine o'clock, that our brains start to shut down.  The "Spring Forward" in March is actually easier on me, because it brings the clock into closer sync with my natural body rhythms, even though I do lose an hour's sleep.

But the whole thing still strikes me as a colossally silly idea.  I'm in agreement with whoever compared Daylight Savings Time to cutting the top off of a blanket and sewing the piece onto the bottom to make it longer.

[Image licensed under the Creative Commons Jamain, Sleeping man J1, CC BY-SA 3.0]

A study released this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association looks at some of the physiological and neurological repercussions of jerking around our body clocks.  In "Are Daylight Savings Time Changes Bad for the Brain?", Beth A. Malow, Olivia Veatch, and Kanika Bagai conclude that the answer is "Definitely yes" (thus breaking Betteridge's Law, that says that any headline that asks a question can be answered by the word "No.").

The whole idea of Daylight Savings Time was about saving energy, and eleven years ago a study by the Department of Transportation found that the energy savings accrued from the change is a whopping 0.02%.  On the other hand, in the days following the March "Spring Forward," Malow et al. found that:
  • a dramatic jump in the number of strokes;
  • a 5% increase in the number of myocardial infarctions;
  • a reduction in sleep duration among high school students that persisted for weeks after the transition;
  • overall lower quality sleep (as measured by the amount of deep sleep) in just about everyone for at least two weeks after the transition.
This is on top of the fact that most of us sleep like crap anyhow, and it's having terrible effects.  Another study that came out this week, this one in Nature Human Behavior, found a strong link between sleep duration and quality, and the severity of anxiety and stress.  One sleepless night, the researchers found, causes a 30% jump in anxiety -- and like the Daylight Savings Time study, the ill effects persist for days or weeks afterward.  So it's not enough just to say "I'll sleep tomorrow night;" you need adequate sleep every night.

And most of us aren't getting it.

"We have identified a new function of deep sleep, one that decreases anxiety overnight by reorganizing connections in the brain," said study senior author Matthew Walker, a University of California-Berkeley professor of neuroscience and psychology.  "Deep sleep seems to be a natural anxiolytic, so long as we get it each and every night...  Without sleep, it’s almost as if the brain is too heavy on the emotional accelerator pedal, without enough brake."

"Deep sleep... restored the brain’s prefrontal mechanism that regulates our emotions, lowering emotional and physiological reactivity and preventing the escalation of anxiety," said study lead author Eti Ben Simon, a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley's Center for Human Sleep Science.  "People with anxiety disorders routinely report having disturbed sleep, but rarely is sleep improvement considered as a clinical recommendation for lowering anxiety.  Our study not only establishes a causal connection between sleep and anxiety, but it identifies the kind of deep NREM sleep we need to calm the overanxious brain."

We need to start looking at adequate sleep (both in duration and quality) not as a luxury, but a necessity, both for physical and mental health.  Unfortunately, our society isn't structured this way.  The students I used to work with were, almost without exception, chronically sleep deprived, from the demands of school, extracurricular activities, jobs, family, and some effort to have a social life.  But any serious look at rectifying this situation is usually greeted with a shrug and a comment like, "Yeah, I remember I hardly slept when I was that age."

The subtext -- "I got through it, so you can" -- is poisonous.  As my wife puts it, "Just because we've always done it this way doesn't mean it's not a really, really stupid idea."

At least there's hope, from the time-switch perspective; the Malow et al. paper tells us that there are only four states -- Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky, and Maryland -- that aren't currently considering proposals to switch to a permanent clock.  Whether it's Daylight Savings Time or Standard Time doesn't matter; the problem is the clock change twice a year.  If those proposals are evaluated using the best available science (I know, our current government doesn't exactly have a sterling track record for making policy decisions based on science, but maybe wiser heads will prevail, this time at least), then there'll be one less thing to worry about with regards to getting adequate sleep.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is a fun book about math.

Bet that's a phrase you've hardly ever heard uttered.

Jordan Ellenberg's amazing How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking looks at how critical it is for people to have a basic understanding and appreciation for math -- and how misunderstandings can lead to profound errors in decision-making.  Ellenberg takes us on a fantastic trip through dozens of disparate realms -- baseball, crime and punishment, politics, psychology, artificial languages, and social media, to name a few -- and how in each, a comprehension of math leads you to a deeper understanding of the world.

As he puts it: math is "an atomic-powered prosthesis that you attach to your common sense, vastly multiplying its reach and strength."  Which is certainly something that is drastically needed lately.

[Note: if you purchase this book using the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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