Embracing our creatureliness

Technology is the attempt to overcome the limitations of our creatureliness. Technologies like the telephone, the car, and the internet attempt to transcend distance. Other technologies attempt to overcome time. There’s much good that has come from the technological developments on the last one hundred years. I’m not, after all, particularly eager to take my laundry to a stream to wash it. Nor do I get particularly excited about hand-washing each day’s dishes (and worse, sippy cups).

It turns out, however, that in our attempt to overcome our creatureliness we are continually running into our limitations in surprising places. Take this article in the New York Times. Here’s the gist.

During one week, for five hours every night, the volunteers sat before an old-style fluorescent monitor emitting light composed of several colors from the visible spectrum, though very little blue. Another week, the men sat at screens backlighted by light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. This screen was twice as blue.

“To our surprise, we saw huge differences,” said Christian Cajochen, who heads the Center for Chronobiology at the University of Basel. Melatonin levels in volunteers watching the LED screens took longer to rise at night, compared with when the participants were watching the fluorescent screens, and the deficit persisted throughout the evening.

Melatonin is the drug that our body uses to induce and maintain sleep. In other words, you fall asleep and stay asleep because your body develops a circadian rhythm which involves producing this chemical. The rub? Light sources with blue in them are particularly effective at repressing this chemical response, basically telling your body that it’s not time for sleep. It takes longer to fall asleep and is difficult to maintain sleep for the whole night.

It’s ironic, don’t you think, that in our desire to overcome our limitations we’re running smack into them? After all, what good is it to be able to check facebook on your ipad or watch Poirot on your laptop, but forfeit sleep?

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