The Effects of Modernization on Personal Human Life


Anyone who has lived along the west coast of North America
may well know that, each year, hundreds of species of birds
migrate seasonally up and down for various distances along
that continental shelf. One of these species is the whitecrowned
sparrow. TI1eir route in the fall takes them from
Alaska to northern Mexico and then back north again every
spring. Unlike most other birds, this type of sparrow has a
highly unusual capacity for staying awake, for as long as seven
days during migrations. This seasonal behavior enables them
to fly and navigate by night and forage for nourishment by day
without rest. Over the past five years the US Defense
Department has spent large amounts of money to study these
creatures. Researchers with government funding at various
universities, notably in Madison, Wisconsin, have been investigating
the brain activity of the birds during these long sleepless
periods, with the hope of acquiring knowledge applicable to
Jonathan Crary
human beings. The aim is to discover ways to enable people to
go without sleep and to function productively and efficiently.
The initial objective, quite simply, is the creation of the sleepless
soldier, and the white-crowned sparrow study project is
only one small part of a broader military effort to achieve at
least l imited mastery over human sleep. Initiated by the
advanced research division of the Pentagon (DARPA), 1 scientists
in various labs are conducting experimental trials of
sleeplessness techniques, including neurochemicals, gene
therapy, and transcranial magnetic stimulation. The near-term
goal is the development of methods to allow a combatant to go
for a minimum of seven days without sleep, and in the longer
term perhaps at least double that time frame, while preserving
high levels of mental and physical performance. Existing
means of producing sleeplessness have always been accompanied
by deleterious cognitive and psychic deficits (for example,
reduced alertness). This was the case with the widespread use
of amphetamines in most twentieth-century wars, and more
recently with drugs like Provigil. The scientific quest here is
not to find ways of stimulating wakefulness but rather to reduce
the body’s need for sleep.



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