Does Evolution Explain Why Our Sleep Habits Change With Age?

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iStock

Laugh all you want now about Grandma's 8 p.m. bedtime; after reading this, you might just want to thank her. One team of researchers report that older adults' earlier body clocks may have evolved to ensure that at least one person was always awake to watch over a family group. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Scientists believe that many groups of social animals take turns sleeping and standing guard. This sentinel hypothesis, as it's known, is easiest to observe in a line of sleeping ducks; the last duck in a row literally sleeps with one eye open. But we didn't know whether this phenomenon extended to humans.

To find out, researchers collaborated with Hadza people of northwestern Tanzania. Many Hadza maintain a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, working and sleeping far from the noise and light pollution of the cities. The researchers recruited a group of 33 adults between the ages of 20 and 60 and gave each person an actigraphic (movement-tracking) wristband. For 20 nights, the actigraphs recorded participants' tossing and turning, their waking, and their stillness in sleep.

The big-picture results looked a lot like you might expect. Average bed- and wake-up times were around 10 p.m. and 7 a.m., respectively. But those were just the averages. Within even this small group, two familiar chronotypes emerged: the older early birds, who bedded down around 8 p.m. and woke by 6 a.m., and the younger night owls, who were up past 11 p.m. and slept until 8 a.m.

Most compellingly, the researchers say, nobody ever slept through the night. Each person woke several times per sleep period, whether to pee, go for a smoke, soothe a crying baby, or just roll over in bed. The resulting gaps in sleep time meant that someone in the group was awake at almost all times. Out of 20 nights, there were only 18 minutes in which the entire group was sound asleep.

Co-author Charlie Nunn is an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University. He says the group's early bird/night owl split, combined with the frequent mid-sleep awakenings, may be our bodies' way of keeping our families safe.

"If you're in a lighter stage of sleep, you'd be more attuned to any kind of threat in the environment," he said in a statement.

Nunn and his colleagues suggest that the staggered sleeping shifts are not an accident but an adaptation.

"A lot of older people go to doctors complaining that they wake up early and can't get back to sleep," Nunn said. "But maybe there's nothing wrong with them. Maybe some of the medical issues we have today could be explained not as disorders, but as a relic of an evolutionary past in which they were beneficial.”

Maybe. Maybe not. It's quite possible that older adults' sleep issues are just that: issues, and signs of an aging body. We'll need a lot more research on the subject before we can say for sure. In the meantime, let's cut Grandma some slack. Evolutionary advantage or no, we all just want to sleep.

Shocker: This Electric Eel Delivers More Voltage Than Any Creature on Earth

stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images
stacey_newman/iStock via Getty Images

Eels are proving to be more slippery than previously believed. A newly identified species of these skinny fish (yes, eels are really fish) delivers more electric voltage than any other creature on the planet.

All species in their taxonomic order (Gymnotiformes) are capable of producing a modest electrical field to help them navigate, a perk that compensates for their poor vision. But electric eels (in the genus Electrophorus) pack a far more potent punch. They bear three organs full of cells that can produce electricity on demand. The cells act as a defense mechanism and can effectively taser prey into submission.

In a study published in Nature Communications, researchers collected more than 100 electric eels in the Amazon region and analyzed their DNA, voltage, and habitat. To their surprise, they found that the single known species of electric eel, Electrophorus electricus, was actually three distinct species. They gave the two new ones the very heavy metal names of E. varii and E. voltai. The latter (named for Alessandro Volta, who invented the electric battery) produced the strongest shock: 860 volts, topping the previous record of 650 volts.

Why the varying strength? The researchers suggested that some eels occupy water with low salt content, and therefore reduced conductivity. A stronger charge may be needed to deliver an effective jolt.

While those numbers sound formidable, their low current means a shock wouldn’t necessarily be harmful to a human. Voltage is the measure of pressure of the flow of electrons; current, or amperage, is the volume of electrons. Eels have high voltage but low current; household power outlets have lower voltage but more current and can be deadly. Eels might startle you with a shock, but it won't be fatal.

If you should find yourself in a school of electric eels bent on subduing you, however, the shocks could result in brief incapacitation that could lead to drowning or an aggravation of an existing heart condition. The study authors hope to eventually film a coordinated eel attack on (non-human) prey.

The discovery of two new species was “quite literally shocking,” lead author Carlos David de Santana told The New York Times.

[h/t Phys.org]

Does the Full Moon Really Make People Act Crazy?

iStock.com/voraorn
iStock.com/voraorn

Along with Mercury in retrograde, the full moon is a pretty popular scapegoat for bad luck and bizarre behavior. Encounter someone acting strangely? Blame it on the lunar phases! It's said that crime rates increase and emergency rooms are much busier during the full moon (though a 2004 study debunked this claim). Plus, there's that whole werewolf thing. Why would this be? The reasoning is that the moon, which affects the ocean's tides, probably exerts a similar effect on us, because the human body is made mostly of water.

This belief that the moon influences behavior is so widely held—reportedly, even 80 percent of nurses and 64 percent of doctors think it's true, according to a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Emergency Medicine [PDF]—that in 2012 a team of researchers at Université Laval's School of Psychology in Canada decided to find out if mental illness and the phases of the moon are linked [PDF].

To test the theory, the researchers evaluated 771 patients who visited emergency rooms at two hospitals in Montreal between March 2005 and April 2008. The patients chosen complained of chest pains, which doctors could not determine a medical cause for the pains. Many of the patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts.

When the researchers compared the time of the visits to the phases of the moon, they found that there was no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases, with one exception: in the last lunar quarter, anxiety disorders were 32 percent less frequent. "This may be coincidental or due to factors we did not take into account," Dr. Geneviève Belleville, who directed the team of researchers, said. "But one thing is certain: we observed no full-moon or new-moon effect on psychological problems."

So rest easy (or maybe not): If people seem to act crazy during the full moon, their behavior is likely pretty similar during the rest of the lunar cycle as well.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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