You know how they use “ou” here in their spellings. Like “favourite”. You know what spelling I find most absurd here? Hoummous. I mean, come on.

One of the most interesting things I’ve learned about in the past few months is the “natural” sleep schedule. The National Institute of Mental Health did this experiment where they deprived participants of artificial light to see how would affect their sleep schedules. At first, they all slept a ton every night, as it seems almost all of them were sleep-deprived. But eventually, they all settled into a pattern where they would sleep at night first for 4 hours, then wake up for about an hour in the middle of the night, then sleep for another 4 hours until morning. And they felt startlingly refreshed, almost hyper-awake.

This is apparently how humans used to sleep for thousands of years, before we had artificial lighting. If you read old literature, there are countless references to this. The first period is called the “first sleep” (although it’s frequently mistranslated – like in Homer’s poems, because modern translators aren’t familiar with this sleep pattern – to something like beauty sleep). And there are many discussions of what people did in that mid night hour, stuff like praying, chores, talking, having sex.

I don’t know why, but I’m completely intrigued by this. That for most of human history, we slept in a way that’s completely foreign to almost everyone today. I really want to try this sleep pattern out. I just don’t know if I can overcome my sizable sleep debt and then allocate the 10+ hours a night needed to sleep like this.

One of the other most interesting things I’ve learned about is the theory that ancient humans didn’t distinguish between as many colors as we do today. This is based on the fascinating observation that older texts don’t have as many words for colors as we do. For example, ancient Greek writings don’t have words for blue or yellow. In fact, they use other, seemingly wrong colors to describe things like the “red” Aegean sea. The color of the sky is never described. And when new colors start appearing in writing, they tend to arrive in the same order across languages.

One possible explanation is that the ancients had really broad color categories that became more fine-grained in time. But an alternative, kind of crazy theory is that they literally didn’t see those colors. After all, it’s kind of strange to group the blueness of the sea along with red. And the idea is that they simply didn’t see any color in the sky at all. They just didn’t see as many colors.

I know that sounds nuts. But Radiolab (which had a show on this) had another show about this guy who was born deaf, and didn’t learn language until he was 30. A teacher had been trying to teach him sign-language for years, repeatedly trying to get across that these motion she was doing with her hands symbolized real objects in the world. After many years, he suddenly made that mental connection and the concept was so overwhelming that he wept. After that breakthroug, he quickly picked up sign language. Later, when he was asked what his existence was like before he had language, he said it was like he didn’t exist at all. He was there, but there was no thought. It’s only when he acquired language that he really existed. That’s fascinating.

There are other stories of schools for the deaf where, when sign language is first introduced, the first generation of students only use it to re-enact physical situations. That’s how they communicate. But later students build on that and introduce abstract concepts that the first generation can’t understand, as they’re still limited to situational thought. Also fascinating. Because it suggests that language doesn’t just allow us to communicate our thoughts; it allows us to even have thoughts in the first place. And that the range of language we have affects the types of thinking we’re capable of. And not to get too spiritual, but it makes me think more deeply about the power of words, and what it might mean that the world was created by the Word of God.

Anyway. I don’t know how true it is. But the idea that in ancient times, people slept in 2 separate 4-hour blocks and weren’t able to recognize the color of the sky – I find it fascinating. Maybe it’s just because I’m in a foreign place. But I think we often take for granted what the normal human experience is like, when I think it’s a lot more malleable than we realize.

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