Resetting Your Sleep Cycle in Five Nights

Giorgione - Sleeping Venus
Giorgione – Sleeping Venus

Our current tendency to be staring at screens and living in our unnatural always-lit environment is really messing up our internal circadian clocks. In a natural world, the human circadian cycle adapts to seasonal changes in the light-dark cycle. But staring at screens (TV, computer, phone), especially in the hours prior to trying to sleep, is harmful to our internal clock’s synchronization and the way our brain prepares for sleep. And sleeping in for an extra hour doesn’t really help.

You had a tough week spent in artificial light and you barely made it outside. You walked to your car or the mass transit in early morning darkness. You left work and it was already getting dark. At home, you are bathed in a brightly lit home. You watch your big screen TV and have your tablet on your lap.

You know your clock is off be because your sleep is off. Is it possible to reset our internal clock by avoiding artificial lights at night for a few days and turning off those screens? That is tough to do in most modern settings. No screens and no artificial lighting? You can’t even do that on most vacations.

Some people try using meditation or other techniques to control stress ot to “defrag” your brain. Scientists have known for quite a while now that light is the most powerful cue for shifting the phase or resetting the circadian cycle “clock.” In a study published in Current Biology, the authors describe a series of experiments where people were sent out camping to reset their biological clocks. They tested campers who spent a week and some who spent a weekend in a tech-free and only natural lighting setting. This study compared them with a control group that stayed at home to live their normal life. The scientists tracked sleep and circadian rhythms by measuring their levels of the hormone melatonin, which regulates wakefulness and sleep.

Melatonin levels are key. We know that melatonin is present at low levels during the day, begins being released a few hours before bedtime, and peaks in the middle of the night. Those levels fall and then we wake up. Unfortunately, in our current living environment, melatonin levels don’t fall back down for a few hours after we wake up. To your brain, you should still be sleeping for several more hours. It’s like jet lag.

The week-long camping trip seemed to have reset the participants’ internal clock.

I try year round to get out to at least my backyard as soon as I make my morning coffee to get at least 15 minutes of sunlight. Of course, sometimes there is not much sunlight and in winter here it’s not as pleasant to step out in your pajamas when it’s 20 degrees and there’s snow on the deck. Natural light, particularly morning sunshine, which is enriched with blue light, has a very powerful influence on setting internal clocks to daytime and waking up.

Of course, a week of real camping (not a spa week or vacation at a resort) is not possible or even desirable to everyone. Can you create a natural light-dark cycle for a weekend? It means turning off the screens and turning off all of the artificial lights.

The study found that over 60% of the shift can happen over a Friday, Saturday and Sunday night weekend. That’s a 20% recovery per night. Add 2 more nights to get 100% recovery. Five nights to reset your clock.

Of course, we’d like an easier path than three nights in the woods. One alternate path reminds me of other “detox cures” that are quite popular. For example, I read an article on how to reverse some liver damage. In brief, it suggests that you avoid alcohol and processed foods, exercise more, lose 10% of your weight, take some milk thistle and maybe some Vitamin E. That sounds like good general health advice, but other than taking some supplements, it also sounds like a tough regimen for most of us to follow. Id rather do three nights camping.

I have been taking melatonin supplements. It’s easy, and it sounds logical. You lack the melatonin to induce sleep, so you add some artificially. I tried resrtting my circadian rhythms using melatonin about a year ago. I read about what the levels are supposed to be. I made a schedule of when I would take the melatonin and when I would go to sleep. I adhered to the schedule – for two weeks.

The experiment did seem to work. I felt like I was falling asleep faster and staying asleep better. I didn’t do anything with light. I suspect that part of the improvement came from sticking to a regular sleep schedule. I was going to bed at 10 pm and waking up at 7 am but I just couldn’t keep to the schedule. I continued taking the melatonin until the bottle was empty, but I was going to bed at different times – 1 or 2 am some nights – and waking up at different times too. That’s not how to do it.

People also try using artificial lights that mimic the spectrum and the intensity of natural light, but that can be costly. It is one of the therapies for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) that hits people as the “winter blues.”

You also have to remember that a reset doesn’t last forever. I didn’t find any research to back this up but i assume that if you can reset in 5 days, you can also fall back to the bad cycle in 5 days.

Maybe the new month will be an opportune time for a reset.


A Research Three-Pack

I follow way too many other bloggers and there’s no way I can read all the posts or even use a small percentage of articles that interest me as inspiration for my own posts here.

So, here are a few things that piqued my interest this week from just one site –

Image by analogicus from Pixabay

Roman numerals aren’t very useful. It’s a clunky system and by the sixth century A.D. the Hindu-Arabic number system was developed in India and it was better. It uses only 10 numerals – 1-9 and the wonderful 0.

And yet, Europeans still used them until the 13th century. Roman numerals were very limited for math, science, trade, and commerce.

The movie industry began using Roman numerals a long time ago as the way to show the copyright/release date of a film. Why? Since people can’t figure out the numerals quickly a film released the previous year wouldn’t be seen as “old.” Quick – what number is MCMLIII?

Just this month I saw the Super Bowl logo for this year which continues to use Roman numerals. When I first glanced at the logo I thought LIV which is 54. But that center I is actually the winner’s trophy and it is Super Bowl LV or 55.

That clock shown at the top has Roman numerals as other analog clocks sometimes do. It works because we can spatially know that a hand at III is in the position of 3 o’clock.

I also like reading about research and sometimes about things that make you wonder why it is being researched and who is funding that research. I was attracted to one piece titled “What’s Worse: Binge Drinking or Imbibing a Little Bit Every Day?” My first guess? They’re both bad for you.

You can read the results for yourself but I’d advise you to binge all the seasons of Schitt’s Creek instead of vodka. Maybe have a nice cup of coffee, tea, or cocoa while you’re watching.

Sometimes the silly-sounding research isn’t so silly when you dig in. So when I saw that scientists were studying if animals can be “Right- or Left-Pawed” I classified it as the silly stuff. But many creatures do favor one side of the body over another in the same way as humans do.

Southpaw pooch?

It is not about figuring out if your dog or cat is a righty or lefty. What interests scientists is how that preference might give us insights into evolution and brain development.

Scientists thought that handedness was unique to humans, but new research shows many animals do have a preferred hand, limb, or even tentacle, and it likely starts in the brain.

I recently watched the really interesting documentary My Octopus Teacher on Netflix and another one on PBS Nature. Octopuses are really smart with brains in their arms and two in their head.

“As soon as you have two sides of the brain, they start task-dividing,” says Ruth Byrne, a biologist who’s studied handedness in octopuses.

I learned about biological chirality which is an asymmetry that can be expressed either physically (one of your feet is a little bigger than the other) or a behavioral tendency to favor the use of one side over the other.

You know, why more humans are right-handed is still not conclusively known. One theory: The left side of the human brain is the language side and maybe developing the left side of the brain for speech and language might have also led to our right-handed bias among humans.

There are also cultural biases that are pro-righties. like, scissors, doorknobs, zippers, writing in spiral notebooks and three-ring binders. It is even rougher in parts of Africa and the Middle East where there are taboos against touching communal food or shaking hands with the fingers on your left.

Let’s do more research and figure this stuff out!

I’m Not Right-Brained After All

right left brain

Neuromyths are false beliefs about the brain. Some of them have affected the ways we teach and try to learn.

An article from The Chronicle’s Teaching Newsletter pointed me to a report on “Neuromyths and Evidence-Based Practices in Higher Education.”

One of those myths is one I was a believer in a few decades ago. According to the report, it is one of the most widely believed neuromyths: that students learn best when they’re taught according to their preferred learning style. This idea emerged in the 1970s and led to articles, books, and approaches to teaching that often focused on learning styles (such as visual or auditory learners) and led to the idea that some of us are right-brained and some of us are more left-brained.

The report states that there is no evidence to support the idea that people learn best when taught in their preferred learning style.

Back when this was a popular theory, I had come to really believe that I was right-brained and that explained both my problems with math and my more creative interests and abilities. I was a visual and auditory learner for sure. Not so, says the newer research. Actually, that teaching or learning based on a learning styles approach may hurt students who then would seek only information presented in a particular way.

This debunking of the myth of learning styles is not breaking news. It has been around for about a decade itself.

Learning styles and right/left brain styles are not the only neuromyths. Another one that I have heard since I was a child is that “we use only 10 percent of our brain. ”

The report also suggests that some commercial products for the brain and learning (brain games, for example) might encourage the belief in neuromyths.

I will say though that I still enjoy and refer to my copy of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain as an interesting approach to art. Research be damned.


Read and download the full report at…

Wait. Did You Read the Book or Just Listen to It?

brain scan

I listen to a lot of podcasts and I listen to a lot of audiobooks. I’m not the reader of books on paper or screens that I once was and it’s mostly a matter of time. Audiobooks allow me to multitask, which I’m sure many people will say is not the way to experience a book.

If you don’t have time to sit and read a physical book, is listening to the audio version considered cheating? I have friends who react to my audiobook habit by saying “But you were an English teacher!” I (sadly) knew a number of English teachers who rarely read books. I might have once felt guilty about not reading the physical book, but I don’t feel any guilt now. And I do still read some books and magazines on paper or screens. I certainly tried to get ahold of the audiobook version of Stephen King’s 800+ page novel, 11/22/63, this summer. But I read it on paper. Quite slowly.

I am glad to find new evidence that suggests that, to our brains, reading and hearing a book might not be so different.

You might have overlooked the research when you were flipping through a copy of the Journal of Neuroscience at the doctor’s office because the title of the article is of that academic (yawn) variety: “The representation of semantic information across human cerebral cortex during listening versus reading is invariant to stimulus modality.”

But what the researchers did was analyze brain scans of nine participants while they read and listened to a series of episodes from “The Moth Radio Hour.”

In the summary of the research that I read (on a screen!), after analyzing how each word was processed in the the brain’s cortex, they created maps of the participants’ brains, noting the different areas helped interpret the meaning of each word. The brain scan data analysis showed that the stories stimulated the same cognitive and emotional areas, regardless of their medium.

The researchers published their first interactive map of a person’s brain in 2016. This colored diagram shows a brain divided into about 60,000 parts, called voxels. They analyzed the data in each voxel to determine which regions of the brain process certain kinds of words. It’s pretty amazing to think that one section responded to terms like “father,” “refused,” and “remarried” which they classified as “social words” because they describe dramatic events, people or time.

Listening and reading showed that words tend to activate the same brain regions with the same intensity. This was a result that surprised the researchers who expected (like my friends) that two different things were going on in my brain.

I have always thought, especially when I was teaching English, that people who struggle with reading either because they just don’t like to read or have dyslexia or some other real condition that makes reading really difficult can benefit from audiobooks. I wouldn’t have a problem with a student listening to the audiobook of an assigned text. It is certainly preferable to not reading it at all – and I know that happened with assigned reading.

So, listen to a book guilt-free!


A Brain Hack in a Teacup

There are many choices for you in the tea aisle. I like to ask people, “How many different tea plants do you think exist?” Most people give me a pretty big number. But all tea comes from the camellia sinensis plant.

Any drinks that don’t come from that bushy plant are a tisane or herbal “tea” such as chamomile, mint, rooibos and others. It’s not tea. But let’s not be too snobby about it. Tisanes have their own value.

I drink coffee most mornings and switch over to lower caffeine teas after midday, and then to herbals in the evening.

White, Green, Oolong, Yellow, Black and Pu-erh teas all come from the varieties and cultivars of the camellia sinensis plant. The type and style of tea and its flavor comes from where it is grown (soil, climate) and how it is processed.

Tea has a caffeine in varying amounts depending on that processing. You would think that if a cup of tea could do something to your brain, a cup of strong coffee could do more. But it’s not the caffeine.

Tea contains L-theanine which is an amino acid that promotes mental acuity. That L-theanine along with caffeine creates a sense of “mindful awareness.”

Can we get L-theanine from other sources?  It turns out there are very few: a single species of mushroom, and guayusa (a holly species that is sometimes used as a tisane).

Researchers have found that shade-grown teas like the Japanese green tea Gyokuro have higher concentrations of L-theanine because the amino acid is not converted into polyphenols as much as tea leaves that are exposed to full sun.

Monk Hands

It is no surprise that monks have been drinking tea for thousands of years. They may not have known that it promoted awareness and alertness, but they probably learned that it helped them get through long periods of meditation.

The caffeine and L-theanine combo is a brain hack that is unique to a drink of tea.

What the L-theanine amino acid does is increase alpha brain wave activity. That promotes relaxation and caffeine is a stimulant. It is an interesting combination. The effects of caffeine are moderated by L-theanine.

Studies have also shown that there are added benefits to tea: increased creativity, increased performance under stress, improved learning and concentration, decreased anxiety, improved ability to multi-task and reduced task-induced fatigue.

That is a lot to get from a cup of tea.



Everyone is interested in memory, though most of us don’t do research into it. We don’t fully understand how memory works, or why it fades, or how we can save it.

Another research question is why we have wrong memories or false memories. False memory is the psychological phenomenon in which a person recalls a memory that did not actually occur. It has been considered in many legal cases regarding childhood sexual abuse. But researchers are more concerned with how this phenomenon occurs. Current research shows that a particular area of the brain called the temporal pole is activated during false recall.

One term used  in these discussions is  “flashbulb memory.” This is when we have a highly detailed, exceptionally vivid memory of a moment. These memories are almost always centered on emotionally arousing event. But experiments have regularly shown that these memories are very likely to change over time. I still recall the day that President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. I was 10 years old and the news was given to me in school. I remember that my classmate, Alice, came back from the front office crying because she had heard the news. I recall going to my Cub Scout meeting after school and being sent home. But I don’t know how I would have told the story in 1963 or in the years that followed. I know hat now I only recall a few moments of that day and those are the ones I have repeated over the years. It is not a false memory, just a fading one – unless I was to find out that it was not Alice who told us or some other details were wrong.

You may have a similar experience with events like the Challenger explosion, the shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech or New Town or 9/11.

An interesting other kind of memory is when we have an approximate recollection of something, often referred to as a gist memory. We retain an overall concept that you store in memory, but that concept that can lead us to build a false memory.

When false memories become a prevalent part of your life that it affects your day-to-day life, it is known as false memory syndrome. Having false memories doesn’t have to be that serious though.

“Humans have a vast store of concepts, and we’re exceptionally good at using those concepts to make generalisations that allow us to come up with solutions to new situations and problems,” writes Simon J. Makin.

“Creating the gist” can be helpful for retrieving true memories. Fuzzy-trace theory is a way of trying to understand why false memories occur.

And false memories can be manufactured deliberately. It sounds like science-fiction but scientists can implant false memories in the brains of research subjects. It can be done unwittingly when police,  lawyers or reporters deal with eyewitnesses to an event.

And sometimes, your brain will call up false memories all on its own.