Sunday, March 12, 2017

Ode to melatonin

 Certain subjects fill me with a wild and passionate interest, even if I have no specialist insight into them. One is laterality – the literature of the left/right dichotomy is, to my mind, full of the kind of insight that one could spend a lifetime meditating upon. A genuine classic in this field, Chris McManus’s Right Hand, Left Hand, is the modern equivalent of the Anatomy of Melancholy – it starts off, unashamedly, galloping in all directions, and yet by the end, you have a strong sense of the wierdness of Left and Right in nature and culture. The other subject which always interests me is sleep. The anti-sleep bias that arose in the Enlightenment – the curtailment of our freedom to sleep, which parallels the development of industrial society, the curious yoking together of knowledge and waking – makes sleep a troubled locus in our badman times. In my opinion, Freudian theory is resisted as much because of its emphasis on sleep as for its emphasis on sex. Anti-Freudians commonly dismiss dreams as junk, without ever pondering the fact that scientists might be biased against a human situation that rules out science. The dreaming scientist, while he or she dreams, is no scientist, but, like the rest of us, an argonaut, traveling under strange compulsions. Hence the pretence that sleep is a sort of annex or footnote to humanity. Jonathan Cray’s recent book about the current “war” aganst sleep, 24/7, contains some alarming information about the US Military’s effort to create a force of soldiers who never sleep. DARPA, the agency that was involved in studying forest fire scenarios in Vietnam – burn down the jungle and win the war! – is studying the chemical processes in the brains of certain migrating birds that let these birds go for days without sleeping. Isn’t that precious?
Which brings us to the best long read in this weekend’s NYT, Richard Freedman’s exploration of sleep, depression, mania, melatonin and the reason traveling East from, say, California to France exposes the traveler to mania, while traveling from France to California makes you more vulnerable to depression. In between, Freedman plays variations on the theme of Jet Lag, and why it is important to exercise more when you have a midlife crisis. 
In my opinion, the circadian rhythm produces a basic unconscious effect that comes through more clearly in Magic Mountain than in The Interpretation of Dreams – although the latter conditions the former, obviously. All those patients laying out on their balconies, sun-curing, and all the time slipping away. I am one of those people who somehow let massive blocks of time get away from me. For instance, I can’t believe that we will soon be returning to live in France from Santa Monica. We have been here almost four years, and I can believe it when I look at Adam – but otherwise, everything seems so recent to me. I have a Jet Lag soul, perhaps. I do nothing very quickly, and that is why I am so poor on tasks like driving the getaway car for revolutionary bank robbers and such (kidding, mr. FBI man! You know I love ya!). I’m not a quick draw.
And I love melatonin. It has to be in my top five bodily secretions. If that is what it is.

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