Disrupting our 24-hour cycle: DST, Buckminster Fuller and the 26-hour experiment

Once a year in the middle of March our normal American day gets truncated to 23 hours. This year, that 23-hour day was earlier this month: March 9. Every time the clocks change, people will complain, people forget, some are late, some are early and we all have our bi-annual discussions of why do we have Daylight Saving Time? Daylight Saving Time (DST) is the brain-child of a New Zealand artist George Vernon Hudson who proposed the idea in 1895. The clock-changing practice then spread to the U.S. during World War I with the idea that it would help conserve coal.  Adding daylight to the end of the day as spring approaches is thought to increase society’s efficiency. The idea relies on an assumption that most people wake up after 8 a.m. and go to bed after 8 p.m.. Without changing clocks, human activity would be more asynchronous with the sun’s when it starts rising earlier in spring and summer months if we kept to the normal, non-DST time table. For example, a sun rising at 6 a.m. for a population sleeping in until 8 a.m., means waste in the use of natural sunlight before 8 a.m. wake-up calls. Thus, shifting clocks an hour later during DST allows for more daylight at the end of the day, when the “average” person is more active and more apt to make use of solar energy, conserving our use of artificial sources of light. The idea’s effectiveness is debated.  Books have been written on the subject. And well before Hudson standardized the practice, Ben Franklin wrote letters strongly in favor of what would be the future of DST.

Ben Franklin: “Early to rise…”?

In Franklin’s letter to the Paris Journal in 1784, he describes accidentally waking up at 6 a.m. and being surprised to see the sunlight:

Your readers, who with me have never seen any signs of sunshine before noon, and seldom regard the astronomical part of the almanac, will be as much astonished as I was, when they hear of his [the sun’s] rising so early; and especially when I assure them, that he gives light as soon as he rises. I am convinced of this. I am certain of my fact. One cannot be more certain of any fact. I saw it with my own eyes.

The letter is an archival gem. For a man quoted for saying “early to bed, early to rise,” Ben Franklin admits to sleeping in until noon. But the letter is also interesting in its documentation of human activity patterns at that time. Was the American routine in 1784 different than 2014’s? His realization that there was “wasted” sunlight in the morning hours before the majority of people woke rose Franklin’s concerns over wasting oil. This same concern may also be warranted in current society if human activity patterns are just as off of sun-synchrony now as they seem to have been then. Do we still wake up at noon?

According to Snoozester, an online wake-up call and reminder service, the most common wake-up time in the U.S. is 6 a.m., a wake-up time 56 minutes earlier than the sun’s this morning. Though without DST, the clock time would be 5:56 a.m. at sunrise, only 4 minutes before the mode wake-up time. It seems as though most Americans lack Franklin’s schedule of sleeping in until noon and the hour shift at the start of DST may not save energy so much as shift energy usage from the evening to the morning.

How far are we from a 12-hour day, 12-hour night schedule? This plot shows variation in day and night length by latitude across seasons.

How far are we from a 12-hour day, 12-hour night schedule? This plot shows variation in day and night length by latitude across seasons.

Could we run on solar time?

Discussing DST brings up an interesting concept of solar time versus clock time — a concept introduced into society only with the invention of time keeping devices. Most people do not know the exact time of sunrise and sunset in modern industrial society until they are reminded by their iPhone or weather app. What would our societies be like if we attempted to set schedules and large scale time keeping on a solar or lunar clock — what if lunch meetings were held at solar noon? What if bedtimes were held at moonrise? Could we do it? (if you would like to try, come to the sunrise yoga series at Yoga in State College).

Interestingly, cities where the clock-time is more similar or less similar to the actual solar time are found to have cultural patterns of activity aligning with solar times rather than clock-times when comparing across cultures. Why does Spain eat dinner so late? According to some, it is a combination of their latitudinal position and World War II history which have set them in a time zone such that eating dinner takes place at a much later clock-time than it is in other places, but at a comparable solar time. Perhaps we all already do follow a solar schedule more closely than we think.

Changing the 24-hour cycle

Regardless of how closely we follow the solar cycle in our waking and sleeping patterns, our society does make use of 24-hour day/night cycles to coordinate the world’s schedule. Why is the day 24 hours? The 24-hour day originated with the Ancient Egyptians who set the day length to 12 hours with a 12 hour night. An hour at that time was roughly measured by the “decan” stars which rose at roughly equal time intervals during summer nights. This is called equinoctial scheduling and was also used by the ancient Greeks as proposed by the astronomer and mathematician Hipparchus.

Since then, numerous individuals have tried to stray from the set 24-hour rhythm in an attempt to maximize their personal efficiency. Their thinking seems to follow the idea that we might be able to maximize productivity with punctuated days and nights. One might imagine that sleeping less but more frequently could result in having more waking hours to work.

The Buckminster Fuller Sleep Cycle

One approach to a more efficient day than a 12-hour night and a 12-hour day is to divide the day into more frequent intervals of sleeping and waking. This is called polyphasic sleep cycling. Supposedly, Fuller advocated the idea of sleeping for 30 min. intervals every 5.5 hours, that means sleeping four times a day but for a cumulative amount of only two hours, a schedule known as the Dymaxion. Considering his publication of over 30 books and his 28 patents, it seems to have worked in favor of efficiency for Fuller.

Forced desynchrony

In James Gleik’s book Chaos, Gleik describes Mitchell Feigenbaum’s “personal quasiperiodicity” — a former researcher at Los Alamos National Laboratory who took to following a 26-hour schedule, resulting in his day/night schedule becoming increasingly and decreasingly out of sync with the world’s 24-hour time table. Feigenbaum’s personal experiment is similar to what neuroscientists use to study cognitive responses to desychrony. Desynchrony refers to setting a human clock to a 28-hour day/night cycle so that the subject is out of sync with the “normal” circadian rhythms of human populations. Studies on desynchrony have shown significant impairment in human cognitive performance, which increases as the length of time on a desynchronous schedule increases.

Sounds like the 24-hour clock may be good for our brains. We can spring ahead an hour or fall back one, but let’s keep that to just once a year.





2 thoughts on “Disrupting our 24-hour cycle: DST, Buckminster Fuller and the 26-hour experiment

  1. I’m fascinated by Fuller and his Dymaxion sleep cycle. To be able to achieve that would literally give me 6 hours a day of extra time! I’m doing an experiment this year when I’m slowly transitioning my sleep from monophasic to polyphasic with many different schedules along the way. Fingers crossed I can eventually master Dymaxion!

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