Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Elusive hypnogogic jerks: How to cure your insomnia

By Marissa Rose

16 October 2021

Sleeping woman with cat by Wladyslaw Slewinski. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

It’s 11pm and I’ve been tossing and turning for an hour trying to get to sleep without success. It’s been a very stressful day with assignments due and class presentations and I am so wired up my brain just can’t seem to relax. My mind is going over everything that happened during the day, and worrying about all the work I need to do tomorrow.

I check the time on my phone again. 12:10am. Now I’m really stressing. I have to be up in six hours and if I don’t get to sleep soon I’m going to be wrecked! But the more I try to sleep, the more it seems to elude me. Eventually I give up and go to the lounge room and stare out at the suburbs of twinkling streetlights that seem to mirror the sky above them.

Tuning into sleep frequencies

Much like your heart beat rhythmically, your brain also fires rhythmically with electrical impulses. The frequencies of brainwaves change depending on whether you’re awake and alert, awake and relaxed, sleeping lightly, or in a deep sleep.

Gamma brainwaves (39 – 42 Hz). Image credit: Steelmaster via GIFER

When you’re alert and concentrating (such as when writing a scientific essay) the electrical impulses within your brain are firing quickly as Gamma brainwaves.

Beta brainwaves (13 – 38 Hz). Image credit: Gravelshaper via GIFER

During regular everyday activities such as talking and driving, your brain is still firing quite quickly, but moves in Beta brainwaves.

Alpha brainwaves (8-12 Hz). Image credit: Vozshura via GIFER

When you’re awake but relaxed, the frequency of your brainwaves slows down, becoming Alpha brainwaves.

Theta brainwaves (4-7 Hz). Image credit: Balkis via GIFER

As you start to drift into sleep, Theta brainwaves start to appear and as your body and mind relax they gradually decrease in frequency over 30-45 minutes.

Delta brainwaves (1-3 Hz). Image credit: Saithilace via GIFER

When you reach a state of deep sleep, electrical impulses within your brain slow down to their lowest level and become Delta brainwaves.

Surfing the delta wave

My brain is clearly stuck in the wrong frequency for sleep. So the question is: how do I slow down my brainwaves so I can shift into a hypnagogic state of consciousness? Then I remember all the meditation classes I attended where I saw people literally falling asleep within five minutes of starting meditation. That’s it! Research has shown that mindfulness meditation does indeed help to reduce insomnia. In fact, studies have shown that mindfulness improves sleep in older adults, cancer survivors, asthmatics, and those suffering from the painful condition of fibromyalgia.

I know that the goal of meditation is not to fall asleep, but in this case, I decide I’ll make an exception and try some horizontal meditation. I’m so tired that it’s hard to find the mental energy to focus my mind on one thing, and it feels counter intuitive. How can waking myself up enough to concentrate be the answer to falling asleep? Well, it works because mindfulness slows Beta brainwaves into Alpha brainwaves. This makes the transition into sleepy Theta brainwaves much easier.

After just a few minutes of mindfulness meditation, or focussing on one thing, I feel my mind calm. The disorganised thoughts subside and I feel myself finally able to relax. After a few more minutes I drift off to sleep.

Hacking your brainwaves

Scientists are finding more ways for you to hack your brainwaves at home. Biofeedback headband devices are now available and can be used to self-monitor and manipulate, or hack, your brainwaves. With instant feedback on your brainwave frequency, you can train yourself to induce gamma brainwaves for highly productive study, or slow your brainwaves down to induce sleep.

I’m really looking forward to the day when wearable electroencephalogram (EEG) biofeedback technology is integrated into all smartphones. It’ll mean that finally, looking at my phone at night will actually help me fall asleep!



Illuminating the Impacts of Light Pollution

The electric lightbulb has been labelled one of the most influential inventions of the modern day. But is this this influence all good?

Although it may not seem harmful, the detrimental impacts of light on human and ecosystem health have been reported as a research blind spot. However, another frightening side of this issue is just being illuminated- light pollution may be operating as a form of cultural genocide.

Light Pollution in Hong Kong (Image by clf5102555 from Pixabay)

Light pollution limits our visibility of the natural night sky. It is the result of the excessive use of artificial lighting and most common in built-up industrial areas, where outdoor lighting reflects into the sky from unnecessarily bright and poorly targeted lighting design. In 2016, it was reported that more than 80% of the world lives under light polluted skies.

The traditional incandescent (or heated) lightbulbs were phased out over the last decade in favour of more eco-friendly options. While this was highly beneficial, the initial replacements (compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs)) have not been without their own issues. Namely the health effects caused from their blue light (shorter wavelengths) emission.

This light has a wide range of physiological and biological effects on us. Light pollution causes stress to our hormonal systems and disrupts our natural circadian rhythms (our internal day/night cycle). Scientists have identified associations between the circadian rhythm disruption and insomnia, depression, heart disease and even cancer.

Similarly, many wildlife creatures rely on these rhythms to complete their basic survival tasks. Pollinators like beetles and moths get distracted and forget to eat or breed. Turtles, fish and birds can lose their way on their migratory paths. Excessive light at night even disrupts normal photosynthesis of some plants.

So light pollution is harmful, but what’s the cultural importance of being able to see the stars?

The Southern Cross from the Kalahari (with visible Coalsack Nebula) (Photo by Vernon Swanepoel from flickr)


Indigenous Australian Astronomical Knowledge

Indigenous Australian and Torres Straight Islanders are the oldest astronomers on this planet. These complex knowledge systems intertwine science with storytelling, forming a way of understanding, explaining and predicting nature.

Astronomy is a large element of these traditions. Creation stories include both the land below and the sky above. The stars home ancestors and spirits, operating as law books to remind people of important life lessons. As light pollution blocks access to seeing the stars, it also blocks this cultural connection.

Furthermore, it risks continuing the damage to Indigenous communities’ knowledge and languages caused by colonisation. Light pollution threatens cultural continuity, or the ability for the culture to be passed onto the next generation. It further highlights the widespread and ongoing detrimental impacts of colonisation.

In the old Australian school curriculum, only the European names and histories of the stars were taught, while Indigenous knowledge systems were excluded. However, recently Indigenous Astronomical Knowledge was added to the National Curriculum. Insightful resources have been compiled for Grade 5 and 8 students, incorporating this knowledge into seven key learning areas. This is vital move in recognising the importance of conserving Indigenous knowledge and language.


What Can We Do to Reduce Light Pollution?

Fortunately, it is possible to reverse light pollution- unlike most other forms of pollution. You can make a difference by only using lighting when necessary, drawing the blinds to keep light inside at night, and using sensor lights outside your home at night.

A few other ways forward include using ADSA approved night-friendly lighting and better urban lighting design (such as intelligent streetlighting). Better regulation of LED lighting and more independent research into alternative lighting. And importantly- keep supporting, platforming and listening to Indigenous voices in science!

Conserving the night sky, and the associated Indigenous knowledge systems, is just as important as our attempts to save any other ecosystem on our planet.

Can I win Love Island?

For those of you who don’t know, Love Island is a reality television show that follows a group of contestants confined to a mansion in an exotic isolated location. The show revolves around relationships, both romantic and friendships. We watch as these relationships evolve and change over time and each week the least popular couple (or person) is voted off by the public. This leaves space for new contestants to join the show and shake things up in the existing relationships i.e. offer up spicy temptation. The most popular couple as voted by the public at the end of the season wins a substantial cash prize.

So, let’s get this out of the way. Am I ashamed of the number of hours I’ve lost watching Love Island? Yes. Am I aware of everything that is wrong with it? Also, yes. It’s wrong, its abhorrent, it propagates horrendous values – especially about women. Does that stop me watching? No.

So, armed with over 50 hours of Love Island ‘research’ and a desire to use everything at my disposal (science) to succeed – can I win Love Island?

Image credit: Asad Photo via Pexels

The answer

A predictive model developed by F Hoffmann-La Roche used data derived from all contestants who participated in Love Island from 2015 – 2020. The results found that working as a tradesman, having brown hair and a four-letter first name were key predictors of success. Just so you know, I am a woman, I work at Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria (in an office), I am blonde, and my first name is comprised of six letters. Luckily for me a key indicator of success is also behaviour. This includes the number of relationships a contestant forms and ‘doing bits’ to the camera. ‘Doing bits’ refers to confessional-style moments contestants have alone with the camera. It is an opportunity to express real feelings and they are critical for curating the best possible image for yourself to the general public. So, individually, it’s not looking good for me. HOWEVER, if I crack enough jokes and cry at the right time, whilst simultaneously teaming up with a brunette named Kane who works as a welder, I might be in with a shot. Not too shabby.

Image credit: Scott Lewis via Flickr

So, what does this mean?

Yes, why Kane and not Imogen? (that’s me). Research on the popularity of reality television is divided and covers both the light and darker aspects of human nature. Some studies argue that the appeal of reality television stems from positive feelings of compassion and empathy. People enjoy watching ‘real’ emotions and situations they can relate to. On the other hand, some researchers maintain that reality television viewers are inherently voyeuristic and enjoy the feeling of witnessing private and humiliating moments. Personally, I don’t think it is one or the other. I think that witnessing someone experience humiliation can very easily illicit compassion – as we have all done and will do things which are embarrassing. At the same time, enjoyment from someone’s humiliation may stem from the relief of knowing this is a shared human experience.

So, why do I think a brunette tradesman with a four-letter name is popular? Precisely because this is a very easily digestible and stereotypical human being. If what we are ultimately looking for is an experience where we relate to other people, it makes sense that we would favour a type that we are already familiar with.

Medicinal cannibalism. What happens when we consume people?

In ancient Europe medicinal cannibalism or ‘corpse medicine’ was a surprisingly common practice. With evidence dating from the 12th century and an interest in cannibalism peaking in the 16th and 17th century, the medical consumption of people was more than just a phase. In Rome and England, apothecaries housed stocks of ‘mummy powder’, a concoction made from pulverised mummy remains obtained from sacked Egyptian tombs and used to staunch internal bleeding. Skull was also a very popular ingredient and was, naturally, used to cure headaches. King Charles II of England was renowned for enjoying ‘The King’s Drop’, his own personal tipple that mixed crushed human skull with alcohol. So popular was the use of bones for medicinal remedies that gravedigging for stolen body parts became a real problem.

Image credit: shrukweza via flickr

Human fat was another choice selection. German doctors routinely used fat soaked bandages to treat wounds, with the belief it would stave off or cure gout. Rubbing fat on muscles was also considered an ailment for aches and muscles soreness. The ‘thieves’ candle’ was one of the longest lasting traditions, with evidence of them being used in the 1800s. Whilst not necessarily medicinal, it was believed that a candle made from human fat could paralyse a person.

Ancient Romans would drink the blood of fallen Gladiators to cure epilepsy and the Germanic poor would wait at executions in the hopes of a cup of still warm blood. By consuming human blood as freshly as possible, many people believed they were retaining the body’s spirit and vitality. For some, the preferred choice was the blood of young men, for others the blood of virginal women. Fresh blood remained a popular choice in Europe, unless you were French, in which case you preferred to your cook your blood into a marmalade.

Image credit: David Cruz asenjo via Pexels

A key principle of corpse medicine originated from homeopathic remedies, which were prevalent at the time. The idea being that ‘like cures like’. Have a headache? Eat a skull! Blood disease? Drink freshly acquired blood. Many Europeans also believed they were magically absorbing the spirit of the deceased, staving off death and increasing health and wellbeing.

What about the 21st century?

In the 21st century Western world cannibalism isn’t entirely unheard of. People eat placenta believing that it can improve breast milk and mental health, level out hormones and raise energy levels. Corpses in good condition are also medically sought after, providing lifesaving organ transplants. With studies suggesting that some recipients acquire the memories, personality, emotions and preferences of their donors. These beliefs are not dissimilar to the attitude of our ancestors, hoping to absorb the spirit of the dead. At the same time, the black-market organ trade reveals a disturbing parallel to the graverobbers of yore. Our need for live-giving blood has also not waned, with blood transfusions and donations saving lives. Whilst it is easy to recoil from the practices of our past, it is also easy to forget what is normalised based on belief and the best available knowledge at the time. Afterall, we may not be eating people for medicinal health, but we are certainly still consuming them.

Were you sexually awakened by a cartoon animal? Don’t worry, you’re not alone.

If you are in any doubt of this phenomenon, please read the comments under this YouTube clip of Lola Bunny from Space Jam. Better yet, a google image search will reveal just how deep the legacy of this animated rabbit goes – hello X-rated rabbit cosplay. You might be thinking, yes that makes sense, Lola Bunny has a notably human physiology. BUT if you check out these threads from Punkee, Buzzfeed or even this clip from the Graham Norton Show, you’ll see that cartoon crushes can include decidedly animalistic representations.

Photo credit: Bo Zhong via Pexels

Putting aside the social and cultural ramifications of adults sexualising anthropomorphic animals aimed at children, let’s delve deeper into what might cause children to be attracted to cartoon animals. Dr Kathryn Seifert, a psychologist who specialises in child development and sexuality, explains that it is perfectly normal for children to have a crush on fictional or imaginary characters as well as real people – basically anyone! Children are trying to understand relationships, they are not looking for a partner. A child’s crush stems from curiosity and learning about what relationships mean. It is impossible to equate the crush of a child with an adult falling in love and having sexual feelings for another person. Basically, if a cartoon animal’s behaviour and mannerisms in a relationship help a child to understand the world better then attraction naturally follows. Not so weird after all.

What about teenagers?

Crushes on cartoon animals generally dissipate by the teenage years.  However, teenagers who develop romantic interests in fictional characters (including cartoon humans) or even media personalities are very common. For teenagers, crushes on fictional characters are a common part of romantic and sexual development. It allows them to use pretend experiences to assume different roles, thereby fostering metacognitions. Some studies indicate that these crushes can also be very important for teenagers who may be processing new emotions and pain. For the most part, adults describe these teenage fantasies as a phase and something to grow out of.

Can adults fall in love with fictional characters?

In adults, the term fictosexuality describes strong and lasting feelings of love, lust and infatuation for fictional characters. Generally, this does not apply to animals however there are always exceptions – see furries. A study conducted by University of Jyvaskyla in January 2021 found that fictosexuality may develop from a mix of cultural conditioning, where fantasy relationships with gods, deities, spirits, monarchs and celebrities are normalised, and a lingering attachment to the imaginary worlds of childhood and adolescence.

Photo credit: Danny Choo via VisualHunt

Where fictosexuality differs from a child or teenager’s crush is through psychology. Whilst children develop new feelings because of curiosity about relationships, studies have found that adults develop feelings for fictional characters generally out of a fear of rejection, loneliness or as compensation for something missing in their lives.

Fictional characters are often superhuman (whether in physical appearance or ability), display enhanced and romanticised values and cannot reject the viewer. A relationship with a fictional character is also based on the terms of the viewer, they can retreat or end things at any time. Essentially, fictosexuality can provide a safe psychological space for people who may find the complexity of human relationships overwhelming or traumatic.

Whether it is new feelings of love for a cartoon lion or a committed relationship with an anime girl, it seems that love for fictional characters reflects our collective infatuation with storytelling and relationships. It is very human and certainly not something to be ashamed of. Without the power of storytelling we would lose much of our ability to understand, relate and appreciate the world.

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