How Sleep Can Become Your “Superpower:” Scientist Matt Walker Explains Why Sleep Helps You Learn More and Live Longer

"I'll sleep when I'm dead": those words have been a mantra to hard-living types everywhere since Warren Zevon first sang them back in 1976, but as Berkeley sleep scientist and Why We Sleep author Matt Walker sees it, taking them to heart is a "mortally unwise" choice. The example of Zevon himself, who died at the age of 53, would seem to validate that judgement, but it also comes backed by serious research. In the TED Talk "Sleep Is Your Superpower" above, Walker builds on what we all know — that we need to sleep, regularly and without interruption — by explaining "the wonderfully good things that happen when you get sleep, but the alarmingly bad things that happen when you don’t get enough, both for your brain and for your body."

Not only, for example, do "you need sleep after learning to essentially hit the save button on those new memories so that you don’t forget," you also "need sleep before learning to actually prepare your brain, almost like a dry sponge ready to initially soak up new information."




As anyone who has tried to pull an all-nighter before a big test has felt, sleep deprivation shuts down your "your memory inbox," and any incoming files just get "bounced" without being retained. But deep-sleep brainwaves, as Walker puts it, act as a "file-transfer mechanism at night, shifting memories from a short-term vulnerable reservoir to a more permanent long-term storage site within the brain, and therefore protecting them, making them safe."

Improper sleep threatens not just learning but life itself: compromised sleep means a compromised immune system, hence the "significant links between short sleep duration and your risk for the development of numerous forms of cancer" now being discovered. "The shorter your sleep, the shorter your life," as Walker starkly puts it. As far as how to improve your sleep and, with luck, elongate your life, he has two main pieces of advice: "Go to bed at the same time, wake up at the same time, no matter whether it’s the weekday or the weekend," and "aim for a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees, or about 18 degrees Celsius," slightly cooler than may feel normal. We'd also do well to remember the importance of breaking the habit of staying on the internet late into the night — or more specifically, having stayed up well past midnight writing this very post, I'd do well to remember it.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hundreds of other seaside cities, island towns, and entire islands, historic Venice, the floating city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea levels continue their rapid rise. The city is slowly tilting to the East and has seen historic floods inundate over 70 percent of its palazzo- and basilica-lined streets. But should such tragic losses come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a digital version of it, at least—one that aggregates 1,000 years of art, architecture, and "mundane paperwork about shops and businesses" to create a virtual time machine. An “ambitious project to digitize 10 centuries of the Venetian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the latest in “deep learning” technology for historical reconstructions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calamity. It also sets machines to a task no living human has yet to undertake. Most of the huge collection at the State Archives “has never been read by modern historians,” points out the narrator of the Nature video at the top.




This endeavor stands apart from other digital humanities projects, Alison Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambitious scale and the new technologies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scanners that could even read unopened books, to adaptable algorithms that will turn handwritten documents into digital, searchable text.”

In addition to posterity, the beneficiaries of this effort include historians, economists, and epidemiologists, “eager to access the written records left by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.” Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin describes the anticipation scholars feel in particularly vivid terms: “We are in a state of electrified excitement about the possibilities,” she says, “I am practically salivating.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Professor of Digital Humanities at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), compares the archival collection to “’dark matter’—documents that hardly anyone has studied before.”

Using big data and AI to reconstruct the history of Venice in virtual form will not only make the study of that history a far less hermetic affair; it might also “reshape scholars’ understanding of the past,” Abbott points out, by democratizing narratives and enabling “historians to reconstruct the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people—artisans and shopkeepers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this development as a “social network of the middle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a common resource for the future.” The comparison might be unfortunate in some respects. Social networks, like cable networks, and like most historical narratives, have become dominated by famous names.

By contrast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-created virtual Amsterdam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-level view, and one, moreover, that can engage the public in ways sealed and cloistered artifacts cannot. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” says Daston. “The future may be different.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncertain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriving new life. See previews of the Time Machine in the videos further up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “information time machine” in his TED talk above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

40,000-Year-Old Symbols Found in Caves Worldwide May Be the Earliest Written Language

We may take it for granted that the earliest writing systems developed with the Sumerians around 3400 B.C.E. The archaeological evidence so far supports the theory. But it may also be possible that the earliest writing systems predate 5000-year-old cuneiform tablets by several thousand years. And what’s more, it may be possible, suggests paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger, that those prehistoric forms of writing, which include the earliest known hashtag marks, consisted of symbols nearly as universal as emoji.

The study of symbols carved into cave walls all over the world—including penniforms (feather shapes), claviforms (key shapes), and hand stencils—could eventually push us to “abandon the powerful narrative,” writes Frank Jacobs at Big Think, “of history as total darkness until the Sumerians flip the switch.” Though the symbols may never be truly decipherable, their purposes obscured by thousands of years of separation in time, they clearly show humans “undimming the light many millennia earlier.”




While burrowing deep underground to make cave paintings of animals, early humans as far back as 40,000 years ago also developed a system of signs that is remarkably consistent across and between continents. Von Petzinger spent years cataloguing these symbols in Europe, visiting “52 caves,” reports New Scientist’s Alison George, “in France, Span, Italy and Portugal. The symbols she found ranged from dots, lines, triangles, squares and zigzags to more complex forms like ladder shapes, hand stencils, something called a tectiform that looks a bit like a post with a roof, and feather shapes called penniforms.”

She discovered 32 signs found all over the continent, carved and painted over a very long period of time. “For tens of thousands of years,” Jacobs points out, “our ancestors seem to have been curiously consistent with the symbols they used.” Von Petzinger sees this system as a carryover from modern humans’ migration into Europe from Africa. “This does not look like the start-up phase of a brand-new invention,” she writes in her book The First Signs: Unlocking the mysteries of the world’s oldest symbols.

In her TED Talk at the top, von Petzinger describes this early system of communication through abstract signs as a precursor to the “global network of information exchange” in the modern world. “We’ve been building on the mental achievements of those who came before us for so long,” she says, “that it’s easy to forget that certain abilities haven’t already existed,” long before the formal written records we recognize. These symbols traveled: they aren’t only found in caves, but also etched into deer teeth strung together in an ancient necklace.

Von Petzinger believes, writes George, that “the simple shapes represent a fundamental shift in our ancestor’s mental skills,” toward using abstract symbols to communicate. Not everyone agrees with her. As the Bradshaw Foundation notes, when it comes to the European symbols, eminent prehistorian Jean Clottes argues “the signs in the caves are always (or nearly always) associated with animal figures and thus cannot be said to be the first steps toward symbolism.”

Of course, it’s also possible that both the signs and the animals were meant to convey ideas just as a written language does. So argues MIT linguist Cora Lesure and her co-authors in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology last year. Cave art might show early humans “converting acoustic sounds into drawings,” notes Sarah Gibbens at National Geographic. Lesure says her research “suggests that the cognitive mechanisms necessary for the development of cave and rock art are likely to be analogous to those employed in the expression of the symbolic thinking required for language.”

In other words, under her theory, “cave and rock [art] would represent a modality of linguistic expression.” And the symbols surrounding that art might represent an elaboration on the theme. The very first system of writing, shared by early humans all over the world for tens of thousands of years.

via Big Think

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Psilocybin Could Soon Be a Legal Treatment for Depression: Johns Hopkins Professor, Roland Griffiths, Explains How Psilocybin Can Relieve Suffering

Much of the recent scientific research into psychedelics has picked up where researchers left off in the mid-20th century, before LSD, psilocybin, and other psychoactive drugs became countercultural means of consciousness expansion, and then banned, illegal substances the government sought to control. Scientists from several fields studied psychedelics as treatments for addiction, depression, and anxiety, and end-of-life care. These applications were conceived and tested several decades ago.

Now, thanks to some serious investment from high-profile institutions like Johns Hopkins University, and thanks to changing government attitudes toward psychoactive drugs, it may be possible for psilocybin, the active ingredient in “magic mushrooms,” to get legal approval for therapy in a clinical setting by 2021. “For the first time in U.S. history,” Shelby Hartman reports at Rolling Stone, “a psychedelic drug is on the fast track to getting approved for treating depression by the federal government.”

As Michael Pollan has detailed in his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, the possibilities for psilocybin and other such drugs are vast. “But before the Food and Drug Administration can be petitioned to reclassify it,” Brittany Shoot notes at Fortune, the drug “first has to clear phase III clinical trials. The entire process is expected to take about five years.” In the TEDMED video above, you can see Roland R. Griffiths, Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Johns Hopkins, discuss the ways in which psilocybin, “under supported conditions, can occasion mystical-type experiences associated with enduring positive changes in attitudes and behavior.”

The implications of this research span the fields of ethics and medicine, psychology and religion, and it’s fitting that Dr. Griffiths leads off with a statement about the compatibility of spirituality and science, supported by a quote from Einstein, who said “the most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It’s the source of all true science.” But the work Griffiths and others have been engaged in is primarily practical in nature—though it does not at all exclude the mystical—like finding effective means to treat depression in cancer patients, for example.

“Sixteen million Americans suffer from depression and approximately one-third of them are treatment resistant,” Hartman writes. “Depression is also an epidemic worldwide, affecting 300 million people around the world.” Psychotropic drugs like psilocybin, LSD, and MDMA (which is not classified as a psychedelic), have been shown for a long time to work for many people suffering from severe mental illness and addictions.

Although such drugs present some potential for abuse, they are not highly addictive, especially relative to the flood of opioids on the legal market that are currently devastating whole communities as people use them to self-medicate. It seems that what has most prevented psychedelics from being researched and prescribed has as much or more to do with long-standing prejudice and fear as it does with a genuine concern for public health. (And that’s not even to mention the financial interests who exert tremendous pressure on drug policy.)

But now, Hartman writes, “it appears [researchers] have come too far to go back—and the federal government is finally recognizing it, too.” Find out why this research matters in Dr. Griffiths' talk, Pollan’s book, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, and some of the posts we’ve linked to below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Read Waiting For Godot?: An Animated Case for Samuel Beckett’s Classic Absurdist Play

Iseult Gillespie’s latest literature themed TED-Ed lesson—Why should you read Waiting For Godot?—poses a question that’s not too difficult to answer these days.

The meaning of this surprisingly sturdy Absurdist play is famously open for debate.

Author Samuel Beckett told Roger Blin, who directed and acted in its first production at the Théâtre de Babylon in 1953, that all he knew for certain was that the two main characters, Vladimir and Estragon, wore bowler hats.




(Another thing he felt sure of was that they were male, and should only be brought to life by those in possession of a prostate gland, a specification that rankles female theater artists eager to take a crack at characters who now seem as universal as any in Shakespeare. The Beckett estate’s vigorous enforcement of the late playwright’s wishes is itself the subject of a play, The Underpants Godot by Duncan Pflaster.)

A “tragicomedy in two acts,” according to Beckett, Waiting for Godot emerged during a vibrant moment for experimental theater, as playwrights turned their backs on convention to address the devastation of WWII.

Comedy got darker. Boredom, religious dread, and existential despair were major themes.

Perhaps we are on the brink of such a period ourselves?

Critics, scholars, and directors have found Godot a meaningful lens through which to consider the Cold War, the French resistance, England’s colonization of Ireland, and various forms of apocalyptic near-future.

Perhaps THAT is why we should read (and/or watch) Waiting for Godot.

Vladimir:

Was I sleeping, while the others suffered? Am I sleeping now? Tomorrow, when I wake, or think I do, what shall I say of today? That with Estragon my friend, at this place, until the fall of night, I waited for Godot? That Pozzo passed, with his carrier, and that he spoke to us? Probably. But in all that what truth will there be? (Estragon, having struggled with his boots in vain, is dozing off again. Vladimir looks at him.) He'll know nothing. He'll tell me about the blows he received and I'll give him a carrot. (Pause.) Astride of a grave and a difficult birth. Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. (He listens.) But habit is a great deadener. (He looks again at Estragon.) At me too someone is looking, of me too someone is saying, He is sleeping, he knows nothing, let him sleep on. (Pause.) I can't go on! (Pause.) What have I said?

Gillespie’s lesson, animated by Tomás Pichardo-Espaillat, above, includes a supplemental trove of resources and a quiz that educators can customize online.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her play Zamboni Godot premiered in New York City in 2017. Join her in NYC on Monday, October 15 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

This Is Your Kids’ Brains on Internet Algorithms: A Chilling Case Study Shows What’s Wrong with the Internet Today

Multimedia artist and writer James Bridle has a new book out, and it’s terrifying—appropriately so, I would say—in its analysis of “the dangers of trusting computers to explain (and, increasingly, run) the world,” as Adi Robertson writes at The Verge. Summing up one of his arguments in his New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future, Bridle writes, “We know more and more about the world, while being less and less able to do anything about it.” As Bridle tells Robertson in a short interview, he doesn’t see the problems as irremediable, provided we gain “some kind of agency within these systems.” But he insists that we must face head-on certain facts about our dystopian, sci-fi-like reality.

In the brief TED talk above, you can see Bridle do just that, beginning with an analysis of the millions of proliferating videos for children, with billions of views, on YouTube, a case study that quickly goes to some disturbing places. Videos showing a pair of hands unwrapping chocolate eggs to reveal a toy within “are like crack for little kids,” says Bridle, who watch them over and over. Autoplay ferries them on to weirder and weirder iterations, which eventually end up with dancing Hitlers and their favorite cartoon characters performing lewd and violent acts. Some of the videos seem to be made by professional animators and "wholesome kid's entertainers," some seem assembled by software, some by “people who clearly shouldn’t be around children at all.”




The algorithms that drive the bizarre universe of these videos are used to “hack the brains of very small children in return for advertising revenue,” says Bridle. “At least that what I hope they’re doing it for.” Bridle soon bridges the machinery of kids’ YouTube with the adult version. “It’s impossible to know,” he says, who’s posting these millions of videos, “or what their motives might be…. Really it’s exactly the same mechanism that’s happening across most of our digital services, where it’s impossible to know where this information is coming from.” The children’s videos are “basically fake news for kids. We’re training them from birth to click on the very first link that comes along, regardless of what the source is.”

High school and college teachers already deal with the problem of students who cannot judge good information from bad—and who cannot really be blamed for it, since millions of adults seem unable to do so as well. In surveying YouTube children’s videos, Bridle finds himself asking the same questions that arise in response to so much online content: “Is this a bot? Is this a person? Is this a troll? What does it mean that we can’t tell the difference between these things anymore?” The language of online content is a hash of popular tags meant to be read by machine algorithms, not humans. But real people performing in an “algorithmically optimized system” seem forced to “act out these increasingly bizarre combinations of words.”

Within this culture, he says, “even if you’re human, you have to end up behaving like a machine just to survive.” What makes the scenario even darker is that machines replicate the worst aspects of human behavior, not because they’re evil but because that’s what they’re taught to do. To think that technology is neutral is a dangerously naïve view, Bridle argues. Humans encode their historical biases into the data, then entrust to A.I. such critical functions as not only children’s entertainment, but also predictive policing and recommending criminal sentences. As Bridle notes in the short video above, A.I. inherits the racism of its creators, rather than acting as a “leveling force."

As we’ve seen the CEOs of tech companies taken to task for the use of their platforms for propaganda, disinformation, hate speech, and wild conspiracy theories, we’ve also seen them respond to the problem by promising to solve it with more automated machine learning algorithms. In other words, to address the issues with the same technology that created them—technology that no one really seems to understand. Letting “unaccountable systems” driven almost solely by ads control global networks with ever-increasing influence over world affairs seems wildly irresponsible, and has already created a situation, Bridle argues in his book, in which imperialism has “moved up to infrastructure level” and conspiracy theories are the most “powerful narratives of our time,” as he says below.

Bridle’s claims might themselves sound like alarmist conspiracies if they weren’t so alarmingly obvious to most anyone paying attention. In an essay on Medium he writes a much more in-depth analysis of YouTube kids’ content, developing one of the arguments in his book. Bridle is one of many writers and researchers covering this terrain. Some other good popular books on the subject come from scholars and technologists like Tim Wu and Jaron Lanier. They are well worth reading and paying attention to, even if we might disagree with some of their arguments and prescriptions.

As Bridle himself argues in his interview at The Verge, the best approach to dealing with what seems like a nightmarish situation is to develop a “systemic literacy,” learning “to think clearly about subjects that seem difficult and complex,” but which nonetheless, as we can clearly see, have tremendous impact on our everyday lives and the society our kids will inherit.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Does Language Shape the Way We Think? Cognitive Scientist Lera Boroditsky Explains

Imagine a jellyfish waltzing in a library while thinking about quantum mechanics. "If everything has gone relatively well in your life so far," cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky says in the TED Talk above, "you probably haven't had that thought before." But now you have, all thanks to language, the remarkable ability by which "we humans are able to transmit our ideas across vast reaches of space and time" and "knowledge across minds."

Though we occasionally hear about startling rates of language extinction — Boroditsky quotes some estimates as predicting half the world's languages gone in the next century — a great variety still thrive. Does that mean we have an equal variety of essentially different ways of thinking? In both this talk and an essay for Edge.org, Boroditsky presents intriguing pieces of evidence that what language we speak does affect the way we conceive of the world and our ideas about it. These include an Aboriginal tribe in Australia who always and everywhere use cardinal directions to describe space ("Oh, there's an ant on your southwest leg") and the differences in how languages label the color spectrum.




"Russian speakers have to differentiate between light blue, goluboy, and dark blue, siniy," says the Belarus-born, American-raised Boroditsky. "When we test people's ability to perceptually discriminate these colors, what we find is that Russian speakers are faster across this linguistic boundary. They're faster to be able to tell the difference between a light and dark blue." Hardly a yawning cognitive gap, you might think, but just imagine how many such differences exist between languages, and how the habits of mind they shape potentially add up.

"You don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery," writes Boroditsky in her Edge essay. "How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language." More Germans paint death as a man, and more Russians paint it as a woman. Personally, I'd like to see all the various ways artists speaking all the world's languages paint that waltzing jellyfish thinking about quantum mechanics in the library. We'd better hurry commissioning them, though, before too many more of those languages vanish.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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