Introduction to neurobiology of sleep

I had to do a presentation for the Understanding the Brain Mooc on Coursera I’ve been taking in the past 6 weeks. It’s been a fascinating experience doing the course and the associated research on Sleep (which I’ve been interested for a while). Here it is.

If it looks roughshod then it is probably is. I have  had to read a ton of papers and articles on Sleep before I could start to work on the presentation, and I was running out of time for submission.

There is also complementary material to that presentation here, that forms the outline of the presentation.(If the presentation does not make sense, read the outline)

Some of the  papers I’ve referred to for the presentation are checked into the repository (Probably will take it down soon, unsure about the copyright issues).

Sleep and my attempts at hacking it

A few quick notes from a whole bunch of sleep related books I’ve been reading, and some of my sleep/wake experiments I’ve been running on my own. It may be relevant for most people but more so for programmers like me.

You don’t need 8 hrs of continuous sleep, most current research seems to suggest that for every 2 hrs of wake you need 1 hour of sleep. Sleepiness increases as the wakeful hours build up. This means that catching naps is quite effective in being alert. One of the biggest thing to look out for is a full sleep cycle, in which you pass from light sleep to deep sleep and then REM sleep. REM sleep is the last stage of each cycle and possibly the most important (studies have shown that ability to learn goes drops dramatically when deprived of REM sleep).  It is also the easiest to awake at the end of the sleep cycle (depth of sleep gets lower as you approach REM sleep), typically this period is about 90 minutes to 110 minutes long. You feel freshest waking up at the edge of your sleep cycles, and disoriented when woken in the middle of deep sleep. The trick is to sleep in a quite room and wake up naturally (as against using alarm).

Color of light during the day and evening before sleep is very important, lots of us use Flux which changes the color of your computer monitor to brownish/reddish during the evening. It helps because blue light from monitors/iPads/TV’s/fluorescent lamps etc. delay the onset of sleep. It’s important not only important to change the monitor color but also switch over to incandescent bulb during the evening for the same reason. On the other hand wakefulness in the day is enhanced by bright of light, so having bright (blue light or natural light) is great to maintain alertness during the day.

Most humans have a period of day called the ‘wake maintenance zone’, this is the time around dusk when despite sleep build up we resist sleep, supposedly this was the period in the day when humans were under highest threat from animals during our stint on the savannah. We’ve evolved to be more watchful and alert around this period. This about a couple of hours around 6-8 PM . I’ve personally found this period to be the most productive (via RescueTime stats). This is also the time we fritter away either drinking in pubs or stuck in traffic instead of hacking productively at work.

Figuring out your chronotype is extremely important and plan your day around it, instead of around set schedules of  work at 9AM and home at 6PM. This is because your body clock controls when you are alert/hungry/sleepy rather than the time of the day. But it is really hard to manage different social times with internal time, this is where entrainment comes into play. Light is a really powerful zeitgeber for entrainment. For later chronotypes like me (most programmers?) it is useful to get enough sunlight in the day, so that it’s easier to sleep early. A quick heuristic: 2 hrs of sunlight in the day pulls back your normal sleep time by about 1 hr. Couple hours of cycling to work seems to do the business for me.

Temperature of the body plays a important role in sleep and we sleep faster (or better?). Body temperature drops as we sleep and a drop in temperature induces sleep. So it is harder to sleep after a vigorous run or walk, or a hot shower, because both increase your body temperature. I’ve personally found cold water shower to induce sleep. Also during the REM stage of sleep your body loses its ability to regulate body temperature (along with most muscles) and will follow the ambient temperature and hence it is important to sleep in a place which is not too cold or warm.

Sources:

Internal Time : An excellent book on Chronotypes by a sleep researcher.

Dreamland:  On sleep/dreams etc. good fast read.

Flux Sleep research Page

Entrainment of human clock

Sleep wake rythms and cognition

Wake Maintenance

A course on sleep

A Conservative Driver’s Rules on the Road

City commutes are getting harder by the day, the number of cars bikes and buses getting on the road is in an upswing, while the Road infrastructure has been in a steady decline. This is one of the reasons for the dramatic rise in number of Road accidents, incidents of road rage and general loss of joy of driving especially in the city

There are standard set of Rules of the road, stuff that we need to pass the driving tests but something we forget immediately afterwards. Stuff like

  1. Not breaking Red lights.
  2. Following speed limits
  3. Staying on the left side of the road. (People take those shortcuts)
  4. Not Using Full Beam.
  5. No Mobile phones while driving.

If we all followed these the next set of rules are pretty redundant, but most don’t. But there are some of us, who don’t need to drive fast to get to office a couple of minutes early or afford to have accidents on the road or lose their cool on the street or have girl friends to impress with wheelies. We just want to get from one place to the other Safely.

The rule Zero for me is You are responsible for your safety, You have to become more conservative to account for others’ aggression. It’s easy to blame others for  your accident but you still screwed. You are also responsible for covering for other people’s mistakes. This means that you need to be aware of what’s happening on the road, being mindful of what’s ahead of you and when can it can stop,  what’s behind of you and how big or fast is it coming, who’s driving erratically and where the potholes and bumps are.

  1. No Honking at all It has the negative effect on people, It’s noise pollution and It’s an admission that you have made a driving mistake. If you can’t see at a turn then slow down so that you don’t have to worry about somebody coming the other side. If you are on a narrow street with slow vehicles in front pass the vehicle when you get the chance there is no reason to be push him off the road because you are in a hurry. It is no good to honk when there is red light at the signal everybody is trying to get to the destination early, just wait for your turn to move. It is worst in the night and most of us do not realize what a menace it is.
  2. Always Overtake from the Right Use left only if there is enough space, where enough space means you still have space even if the other vehicle shifts a whole lane.  If you do not have the space to over take just stay in the back biding your time.
  3. Keep the distance  Once you realize that hitting another vehicle is ALWAYS your mistake and not the others, When excuse of the other guy braked suddenly is no longer available, you will maintain the distance. There are all sort of rules around how far should you be given the speed of the vehicles, In general the Western (3 second) rules of distance are not much good in India, my thumb rule is to keep double length of the vehicle distance from cars, Trucks, Buses. More for Taxis and Call center cabs. About a vehicle length from bikes and cycles in normal traffic suffices.
  4. Stay to left  much as possible Right side of the road is where the speeds are the highest. That’s also side of the road which attracts most aggressive and faster drivers.
  5. Avoid driving when you don’t have to Walking is safe, and public transport is pretty good. There’s a local saying, “The only place you are safe on the road is inside a Bus”

To follow these you need loads of Patience You will be stuck behind a slow-moving Biker talking on the Mobile Phone, waiting at the Red Signal with no traffic at all late in the night  and a form of chalta hai attitude aka ‘Be prepared for assholes’. Though it’s NOT OK for others to break rules, you can’t do much (Some times when I am irritated I give them feedback with the middle finger),  you will see people overtaking from left, cutting lanes, pushing you off the road, bumping into you from the back, and incessantly honking at you and it’d be easy to do the same, but resist that temptation. I repeatedly use  “This is water” to remind myself it’s probably OK.

Drafting in life

As a Cyclist, I have been aware of drafting for a long time and I’ve talked about it previously here

The idea of drafting is to reduce the effort needed to cycle by working in groups. Research has shown that cyclists can cut their effort by up to 40% if they are behind a leader in the group. In a drafting group, people shift into and out of lead all the time, there are etiquette and protocols on when to fall behind in the group and when to lead the group.

The headwinds of Life and the best way to make it draft them with your friends and family.

In Cycling, drafting needs a lot of trust in your mates and following the rules, if you don’t trust the people you are drafting, you end up not being in the slipstream and missing the “pull” and if you start to get too comfortable with a new group too early, a quick change in direction can bring you down to the asphalt level (as I have painfully found out on a recent Brevet).

The other thing you notice, is you hardly ever draft with people with different skill levels, most times I’ve noticed the guys that form a echelon are the ones with similar styles and rhythms, literally need to synchronize the pedal motion, those who can’t synchronize get dropped without other cyclists noticing it almost unapologetically.

I suspect both these things play out in life pretty similarly.

Thanks to all the people I have drafted( you know who you are)  for letting me draft them.

Travels in the Spiti Valley

That was the year people of Lahaul & Spiti and Kinnaur remember for two things. The visit of Dalai Lama, and the flash floods that disconnected them from the world. There probably was a connection, most locals belived that Chinese on the other side of the border had intentionally relesed lot more water from their dams to jeopardize Dalai Lama’s visit. Whatever may be the reason, I also visited Lahaul Spiti the same year.

The plan was to go from Manali to Shimla via Kinnaur and Spiti. Spiti, I had known was the land of perpetually snow capped peaks north of Dalhousie, where I grew up as a kid.

There is a old Buddhist curse that is paraphrased something like “May you be born in the land of high peaks and deep ravines”. Spiti was exactly what the originator was thinking about.

The plan was to all the way from Manali to Shimla via Spiti and Kinnaur.  Just as we entered the Spiti valley, the axle of the bus we were traveling in broke, and with no habitation close we walked off to the next town that was about 4 hours of walk away, We were lucky to be picked up by some Army trucks that were seeking the site of a helicopter crash. In between that and  a late night entry into Kaza, the dusty administrative center of Spiti, I remember only throwing up every 30 minutes, Lying in  the back of an open truck with a mad man driving across the valley and the massive headaches because of Altitude sickness.

In the next few days in the radius of about 100km were some of the most idyllic and beautiful monasteries(Gompas) I had seen. These are well off the touristy Buddhist Gompa circuits of Ladakh and Sikkim( and probably arunachal). These are the monasteries that get very few visitors, and let tourists live in the monastery along with the monks, share the Tsampa at prayers with the few people that turn up. I have not seen this in any of the Ladakhi monasteries.

This was also the first time I was seeing the fortress style Monasteries, and It was really impressive to see the Ki and the Dankar (which is about 7-10 km from the road) Monasteries.

Tabo Monastery despite it simplicity was magical. The Gompa being on flat land,  may be as spectacular as Dankar and Ki, But inside the temple are these almost real life statues of Monks projecting from the walls. How they could make it 1000 years ago I cannot really fathom? Dalai Lama himself expressed his desire to retire here.

We had to return back to Kaza from Kinnaur as we figured the bridge would take a lot more time to be build, but not before we tasted the divine Apricot Whiskey that Kinnauris are proud of. It’s probably a mistake to compare it to the French Cointraeu as Apricots taste  way better than Oranges. It was disappointing because we wanted to go to the Kailash peak, but then we set ourselves up for the gruelling 14 day travel up to Ladakh, that started at Kibber, that dubs itself the highest continously inhabited town in the world. But the story of 2 1/2 men and 2 donkeys I will leave for another day.

Still unencumbered by loads of tourists, Spiti is what Ladakh could have been. Beautiful yet Quaint.

The fallacy of “worst member of the band”

Lots of people talk about being in a group where people are smarter better than themselves. This probably is better, because you are assumed to be learning from these “smart” people all the time. Besides being too simplistic, it seems to me a fertile fallacy.

Do you remember all the members from Jimi Hendrix experience? which was dominated by Hendrix’s supreme mastery of the electric guitar. Or Cream, which was dominated by Clapton’s genius. But you probably remember all members of the Beatles, which was a much more balanced band. I posit that being the worst or even better member of the band is not good enough.

I am not saying seek out places where there are better people to work with, but that being the sole criteria is unfair for all the people involved and you take more from the “Circle of life” than you are giving back. This will never be sustainable.

Learning for me happens in 2 modes,

Working with people and picking up their tricks, opinions, ideas.

Working privately and following my own thought processes and experiences.

It may vary for different people, for me working privately, deliberately has been the main source of learning. This, I think because I can make mistakes and learn from them and figure out why and never repeat it again or figure out the situations to repeat it again leading to a deeper understanding. Rather than “best member of band” telling you to do certain things in the way he’s figured it. This leads to rapid learning but a much shallower understanding. (think Pair programming vs. Deliberate practice)

I say this with some experience, In the company where I work (Activesphere, for people not in the know), I went from worst member of the band to among the better ones and back to the bottom of the pile. ( I’d like to think not because I was going backwards, but because other people were making faster progress) This transition has taught me amazing lessons that might be subject for another post. The biggest one of course is that you need to be “best in the band” sometimes to figure out how to apply things you’ve learned. And eventually how to get back to the bottom by helping others get better than you. (If that makes any sense)

Bottomline, it seems to is to not worry in terms of worst/best member of the band but seek out what you want to do and what will help you get to learn better, rather than the rather mundane application of “Worst member of the band”

On Travelling Solo

I like traveling solo. Though I have traveled with various groups of varied sizes and shapes to many different places,  traveling alone has by far been most fun, and I have ended up with lot more friends for life.

A lot of people find it hard to travel solo, because of uncertainties associated with it and it feels boring to sit alone at lunch and read a book and watch other people. It does not have to be that way (though you have to be prepared to do it), Lot of my solo travel tends to start and end alone but interspersed with people I meet on the way travel a bit of distance together, and then split up and go our own ways.

One reason I travel solo is that I dislike organizing and coordinating trips for other people with me. Traveling is a very personal choice, some people like traveling in comfort, some people want to see every single place in the guidebook. Some people want to just sit in the hotel and relax. Some people need to have a solid and well researched plan. To get people who match your style is hard and if you do know some people having them coordinate the travel time is still harder, something or the other will always come up. This is how I started my first solo trip to Death Valley, my friend just failed to turn up.

I think I needed that experience to get hooked on to the solo travel experience. Once I did, fear and loathing of traveling alone was gone.

I am very idiosyncratic traveler, Think of people that get up early and go exploring a place, eating all sorts of food and going to places on gut feel rather than rating on the guidebook, staying in cheap hotels, and traveling public transport. A backpacker you may say, but I have no hesitation to just sleep off couple of days in an expensive hotel when I am tired.  Traveling alone gives me the flexibility to do that sort of thing. I like a place, I just stay there longer, I don’t like a place I just move to the next place, I don’t have to convince anybody else.

Over time I have found that traveling solo gives me much richer traveling experiences, When traveling with friends, I don’t look to make new acquaintances, just being in part of group is enough, somebody in the group will make the decisions and I just follow. Traveling solo I am constantly looking for information from people and passing information to people about where to go and where not to go, If they wish to share a taxi ride room or breakfasts together. It always seems to give me much more interesting conversations and better understanding of people and the places.

There are problems as well. I find it embarrassing/strange going  solo to beaches and Party places alone. I skipped some of the awesome Istanbul Nightlife and beautiful Hainan Beaches.

You have to be extra prepared if you are traveling Solo on tough hikes and tough areas, like I just ran out of money on our Spiti to Leh hike with no ATM anywhere close, luckily another traveler loaned me some money to reach Leh and return his money.

Try it You may like it as well.