The Key of You: The Symphony of Your Biological Clocks

Western medicine prides itself on the ability to diagnose and treat a variety of maladies that a very short time ago were considered fatal. Part and parcel of the extension of treatments is the idea of specialization.

We’ve become accustomed to specialty medicine. It seems to make sense: someone gaining expertise and mastery over one specific body part, the sum of those parts equaling your aunt Betty.

But what if the template for modern medicine, this very concept of the human body, was fundamentally flawed? What if your body is not a tally of parts but one giant complex system with many subsystems operating in tandem?

Perhaps you can see where this is going. Scientists are beginning to discover that the body is governed by not just the brain in our heads, but multiple auxiliary sub-brains, located in other organs, connected by neurons, and all carefully timed to operate with each other.

The analogy might be a symphony, where musicians must listen to each other to blend into one unified sound. If the entire percussion section keels over in the middle of a performance, you don’t just lose that piece of the song, like deleting an audio track. The entire group is affected.

The conductor in our scenario might be your circadian clock. Scientists have discovered chemical and neural driven sub clocks within your organs that coordinate with the circadian clock and in turn synchronize with each other. It’s the same way one orchestra section will be both in tune with, and reliant upon, other sections for playing cues.

In a recent Scientific American article, “The Clocks Within Us”, authors Keith Summa and Fred Turek write, “Genes in the liver, pancreas, and other tissues [not just the brain] keep the various parts of the body in sync. Timing miscues may lead to diabetes, depression, and other illnesses.”

Missing out on your proper sleep cycle, and thus ignoring the circadian clock’s cues of light and dark, is akin to the orchestra conductor not showing up for work.

An erratic sleep schedule doesn’t just leave you dozing off into your coffee. Critical neurons are designed to operate pre-dawn to prepare your heart for the rigors of the day. Throwing off their operations is bad news for your heart. It’s theorized this is why so many heart attacks occur in the early morning.

Additionally, when the adipose layers of the body—the fat storage system—get off their natural circadian rhythm, they can release fatty molecules at the wrong time of the day. This plays havoc with your metabolism and causes you to gain weight. Your pancreas relies on the same clock system to release insulin; if that routine is repeatedly disrupted, the result can be diabetes.

If you’ve ever heard an orchestra tuning up before a concert, you begin to appreciate just how important the conductor really is to keep everyone on the same page and the same beat. But even the greatest musical ensembles have nothing on the human body. Trying to keep it in tune begins with the sun, ends with darkness, and relies on a whole interconnected collection of biological clocks ticking forward every moment without gears or batteries.

The human system is turning out to be far more complicated than we ever imagined. In the end, much like love, real estate, and yes, music, it’s all about the timing.

How Your Brain is Like an Ant Colony

Ants are amazing. They can carry 50 times their body weight. Their total biomass worldwide equals the total biomass of humans. Fungus ants started farming 50 million years before agriculture was even a glint in early human eyes.

When it comes to teamwork, humans can’t compare. There may be no “I” in team, but there are plenty of ants. Collectively, a colony of ants is capable of a variety of sophisticated actions—building intricate nests (out of their own bodies if they’re army ants), fighting wars with other colonies, raising livestock, and yes, even raiding that picnic basket.

All this despite the long-established fact that ants are just not that smart. It’s not unusual to see two ants struggling to carry a crumb in opposite directions. Although the number varies from species to species, the average ant has something like 250,000 neurons. To be fair, that’s more than double the neurons of a lobster (100,000), but even a humble cockroach puts it to shame (1,000,000), and the average human blows that out of the water (86,000,000,000).

So how can an ant colony be so much smarter than an ant? Maybe a better way to think of a colony is not as a collection of individuals but as a complex system built out of simple parts, much like any complex system. No one screw or piston knows how to be an engine. The key is in specialization, coordination, and harmony between components.

This is all well and good, but the engine analogy breaks down pretty quickly: it’s not as though there’s an engineer with a blueprint somewhere, arranging the ants into the most efficient possible configuration and turning switches off and on. Despite her name, the queen ant has no hierarchal power and issues no executive orders. So how do ants do it?

The concept of emergence, order arising by pieces organizing themselves, no direction from the top needed, is memorably discussed on this episode of Radiolab. Ants communicate by emitting chemicals. An ant who finds food it wants to carry back to the colony leaves a pheromone trail. The initial signal is weak, but as other ants start to investigate and emit chemicals of their own, it grows stronger, until legions have assembled to lift that chicken drumstick.

Initially, the ants were scurrying in all directions, but from this chaos a gradual consensus forms. It’s roughly the same process through which a viral video gathers steam, or a stock price is determined. And—perhaps you saw this coming—some neuroscientists suggest it’s how our thoughts work.

No one neuron holds any special intelligence. No one neuron is “you.” Like ants, they’re tiny, simple beings at the mercy of chemical signals. As reports, a team of researchers in Spain suggests there aren’t even leader neurons regulating the pulses in your brain architecture. Instead, they assert, individual randomly firing neurons give off waves, which urge other neurons to fire as well, amplifying the signal through “noise focusing”, “an implosive concentration of spontaneous activity.”

If there’s no leadership among your brain cells, it seems to raise powerful questions of identity and free will. How different are we from ants, really? We can’t form housing structures from our bodies and most of us don’t eat aphids, but are we all ultimately just a collection of cells scampering after chemical signals?

For comfort, I leave you with this quote from beloved sci-fi author Madeleine L’Engle, who can see at least one clear distinction between us and the insects. “Human beings are the only creatures who are allowed to fail,” she says. “If an ant fails, it’s dead. But we’re allowed to learn from our mistakes and from our failures.”

It’s through this self-examination that we have the capacity to grow and improve, to iron out our drawing skills or learn how to stop making the same relationship blunders. Ants don’t have that luxury.

So the next time you see an ant crawling towards your picnic basket, you might allow yourself a second of sympathy for the little gal (and it is a gal; all foraging ants are female). Just be sure to brush her away before she’s beating an emergent trail straight towards your sandwich.

Stay Dark, Stay Bitter—and Stay Healthy

Hershey, Pennsylvania may be proud of their namesake, but they have nothing on the ancient Aztecs.

It’s speculated that chocolate, derived from the cacao bean (pronounced “ca-COW”) had its coming out party some 3100 years ago as an Aztec religious tradition. What you may not know is that some believe the drinking chocolate of the Aztecs began as a beer recipe gone horribly wrong.

It seems the Aztecs liked their beer, and enjoyed dabbling in home brewing. One can only imagine their surprise, taking that first sip of what they thought would be a rich dark stout, only to discover they’d concocted something closer to an unsweetened hot cocoa.

Intentional or not, a cavalcade of recent medical evidence suggests the Aztecs were onto something. Dark chocolate, defined as 70% or higher in cacao, has some remarkable benefits.

Milk chocolate, as in the standard Hershey bar, has much more sugar and much less cacao. But its less sweet counterpart boasts high levels of both flavonoids and antioxidants, which help maintain health at a cellular level by fighting off free radicals, which have been linked to heart disease and cancer. In addition, cocoa butter is a heart healthy fat with a positive impact on your cholesterol.

Maybe it’s no wonder, then, that British researchers have found that people who eat dark chocolate on a weekly basis have a 37% lower risk for all manner of heart diseases.

According to Dr. Andrew Weil, a Swedish study showed that women who consumed a higher amount of chocolate appeared to reduce their risk of stroke by 20%. Meanwhile, studies in Britain have suggested the number might be as high as 30%.

Michael Roizen, M.D., says that thanks to compounds called polyphenols, this delectable treat can also lower your risk for diabetes by 29% and “chocolate’s natural ingredients also discourage blood clots, ease blood pressure, and even help your body absorb blood sugar more easily.”

And a recent Nature World News article reports that, in studies conducted at the University of Nottingham, it looks like eating chocolate could “help to sharpen the mind” and even provide a short-term boost to cognitive skills.

Chocolate has become a mainstay in our diet. This is never more true as Valentine’s Day looms over next weekend, when those of us with significant others will rush to grab up those last-minute heart-shaped candy boxes, and the singles among us will self-medicate with their own personal pints of Rocky Road. But in a holiday all about celebrating—or more accurately, commercializing—sweetness, remember: if you want to do your mind and body a favor, it might be time to reach for something a little more bitter.

When Two Heads Aren’t Better Than One

In case you were wondering whether or not there is, in fact, a word for everything, allow me to tell you that polycephany, the condition of having multiple heads, is most common in snakes and tortoises. Humans, of course, tend towards a more singular arrangement.

The foundational concept behind the business meeting is that bringing together more minds will ensure better results, that the ideas generated will be lit by the total of all intelligence in the room. In the abstract, it sounds reasonable, but in our own lives, we have reason to doubt.

Consider how many people used to sneer at the heliocentric model of the solar system, or germ theory, or universal suffrage. Consider the Titanic. Consider the continued inexplicable success of Two and a Half Men. Whether we’re talking scientific communities of yore or the modern viewing public, large groups of people can have a pretty mixed track record.

So do the benefits of collaboration hold up to public scrutiny?

Julia A. Minson and Jennifer S. Mueller of the Wharton School at University of Pennsylvania put it to the test. Their findings were reported in a Psychological Science article called “The Cost of Collaboration.” It turns out that this mental teamwork is indeed useful, but Minson and Mueller had one important caution. When two or more people problem-solve together, they tend to get overconfident.

When we reach universal agreement, we are far more likely to believe we’ve hit the right answer, to vigorously defend that position, and to refuse to re-evaluate.

And herein lies the rub: during a collaborative session, if the team encounters outside information that doesn’t line up with the feel of the room, that information is frequently dismissed. Once that momentum has built, minds close.

What’s interesting is that human emotion, that warm feeling of safety in numbers, can trump the sum of those analytical brains.

The result? Group activity and discussion are likely to generate more ideas, but that titular cost is that those same people are more likely to find themselves in an echo chamber, and less likely to seek out—or even listen—to dissenting thoughts.

It’s enough to make you think twice about the phrase “a committee of one.”