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Circadian science

Book Of The Month (February)

Sync by Steven Strogatz

For our second book of the month, we picked Sync: How Order Emerges from Chaos In the Universe, Nature, and Daily Life, by Steven Strogatz. This might seems like a bit of an oddball choice for a company that’s working on consumer apps in the health space. Why pick a math book if you’re a sleep, circadian rhythms, and well-being start-up?

We’ve got our reasons, but before we get into them, let’s back up a little. There are a lot of things in life we think of as incontrovertibly rhythmic. Walking, for instance. That’s rhythmic: there’s a beat to your steps. Swinging on a swing is another. Breathing, heartbeats, dancing to music—it’s weird to think of these without a rhythm. More bluntly, if these things don’t have a nice, clear rhythm, odds are pretty good that something’s pretty wrong.

For some reason, though, we don’t seem to care about the rhythms of our sleep. There’s this hyper-focus on eight hours of sleep a night, and nowhere near enough focus on when those eight hours are happening. Analogy time: imagine you’re listening to a weak, erratic heartbeat. You wouldn’t say that everything was fine, just so long as a certain number of beats happened each minute. You’d care that the rhythm was off.

Rhythm is a fundamental property of our bodies and our health. Literally fundamental: you can write down equations to describe how molecules at the smallest scale interact in the body and have rhythms arise spontaneously from the physics of how they bind and bounce off each other. And in the messy, chaotic conditions of the real world, rhythms often try to match up with other rhythms. There’s something very foundational about synchronizing.

Or, to quote Sync:

“For reasons we don’t yet understand, the tendency to synchronize is one of the most pervasive drivers in the universe, extending from atoms to animals, from people to planets.”

Your internal clock tries to sync up with the rhythms of the sun. The rhythms of the clock in your stomach try to sync up with the rhythms from your brain, as well as the rhythms of the food you eat. If the brain rhythms and the food rhythms are telling two different stories—think, two pieces of music with different tempos playing at the same time—your stomach clock can struggle to find the beat.

Modern life pretty much makes it impossible for us to keep all our circadian systems in sync: There are going to be times when you have to stay up late; when your work, or life, or just being really hungry one night make it so your brain falls out of sync with the sun and your stomach. The solution isn’t never losing synchrony: it’s recovering it quickly whenever you do.

So why did we pick Sync for our book of the month? Well, #1, we’re fans of Steven Strogatz and applied math in general. Reason #2, we love how it calls attention to the fact that rhythms aren’t some optional add-on to life; they’re at the very root of it.

Or, to quote the book:

“[T]he capacity for sync does not depend on intelligence, or life, or natural selection. It springs from the deepest source of all: the law of mathematics and physics.”

As for Reason #3? There are just some beautiful pieces of writing. Take this one:

“Synchronized chaos brings us face-to-face with a dazzling new kind of order in the universe, or at least one never recognized before: a form of temporal artistry that we once thought uniquely human. It exposes sync as even more pervasive, and even more subtle, than we ever suspected.”

When people stop thinking of sleep as something to count, and start thinking of it as one instrument in the complex orchestra of the body’s rhythms, we think they’ll feel benefits they weren’t expecting. Our bodies are hardwired for rhythms. Let’s bring them into sync.