Gideon Dunster: Sleepless in Seattle... what about Formosa?

Gideon performing tests with one the Toba people
Imagine for a second that you are standing in an old, two room school house. Cement floors, brick walls, and a basic tin roof surround you. The closest paved road is a 2-hour drive away. The closest hospital (not clinic) is too. The only electricity comes from the only extension cord that you have surreptitiously connected to the only electrical wire running to the structure. Outside is an endless expanse of dirt which is occasionally broken up by tough shrubs, sharp cacti, and extremely hearty trees. Make-shift houses and shacks dot the landscape, while feral animals root through a mixture of trash and underbrush in search of their next meal. Dogs, cats, sheep, goats, pigs, birds, cattle, horses, donkeys, ├▒andues; they are all equal in the eyes of the sun and all free to do as they please.

In many ways, time as we think of it is irrelevant out here. The sun rises when it pleases, sets as it wills, and in between life moves at whatever pace you choose. There is no rush hour, because where would you go in such a hurry? There are no alarm clocks, because what would you need to get up for? You eat when you are hungry, drink when you are thirsty, sleep when you are tired, play when you are excited, talk when you are lonely, work when you need to, and leave the rest up to the powers that be.

Part of the river that actually still had water in it.

And yet, time is the reason that you are here. In fact, this forgotten corner of the world without technology is one of the ONLY places that you could ask the research questions that you are. While you may not be consciously keeping track of the time, deep inside the billions of neurons that make up your brain exists is a little portion that is. Made up of a paltry 80,000 neurons, this tiny portion of the brain is receiving input from the sun and telling the rest of your body when to sleep, when to wake up, what your body temperature should be, and much, much more. The people who live here—the ones you came to study—they also have tiny clocks in their brains. But unlike nearly every other human on earth, they live apart from technology and have done so for hundreds of years. Their clocks have not been corrupted by artificial lighting. They do not watch Netflix before bed or check their smart phones in the middle of the night. These people are some of the only humans left living without these influences, thus they are the only ones left to study in order to understand how technology has changed us as a species.

Getting here was not easy. In Panama, you were almost refused entry onto the plane and forced to live like Tom Hanks in The Terminal due to a miscommunication. In Buenos Aires, you missed your flight to the northern province because your hosts insist on giving you the full lunchtime experience complete with after-lunch drinks and desserts, and to refuse would have been rude (obviously). Eventually you made it to the north only to be dropped off in a tiny town without any idea if you were in the right place or how to meet up with your advisor. Finally, you rode several hours in a truck on roads clearly designed by a sadistic chiropractor. That same truck would end up abandoning you a week later on a desolate road.

As you reflect on that 10,000-mile journey which spanned three days, 4 flights, 4 car rides, one tiny microbus, and a truck, you think to yourself for the 1000th time: you really should have learned more Spanish…

The school house where we lived. You can see the single
light bulb over our table and the extension cord running
along the left side, out of the room, and up to the outdoor wire.
This September I was given the awesome opportunity to live that life for a month. In the northern Argentinian province of Formosa there exists a group of people known as the Toba (or Qom). Half of these people have largely lived without technology their entire lives, isolated physically and culturally from the surrounding country for generations. The other half live on the outskirts of a small town roughly 50 km away and have access to electricity. In a previous study my advisor, Dr. Horacio de la Iglesia, wanted to know how life without technology has influenced their daily lives. Specifically, he wanted to know how their daily rhythms and sleep patterns, which exist in a much quieter world, differ from those in a developed area, where the cacophony of technology has only grown in the past 20 years. By using the two genetically similar populations as control and experimental groups, he addressed this question. He found that people who lived away from technology and artificial light were sleeping more on average each night, regardless of the season. In addition, he found that much of the increase in sleep was due to earlier bed times that tracked closely to the sunset. This was one of the best documented studies arguing increased access to artificial light has had deleterious effects on our sleep as a society. But it still left some important questions unanswered.

The biggest question concerned the relationship between the non-electric group and the phase of the moon. Since these individuals live devoid of most technology, the greatest source of their lighting after dark comes from ambient moonlight. Therefore, it is reasonable to think that as the moon waxes and wanes, the amount of nighttime activity will change along with it. Our prediction was that on the nights surrounding a full moon, we would see more nighttime activity and a later bedtime than on the nights surrounding a new moon. Answering this question has implications for the way electrical lighting has altered our behavior as a society in addition to the ways humans likely lived prior to mass industrialization. I am analyzing the data now and am looking forward to the results.

Dr. de la Iglesia performing tests with one of the Toba as the family watches
The scientific value of the data from this trip was matched only by the human value and kindness of the Toba people themselves. Living in the remote and sometimes harsh scrubland of northern Argentina, at best the Toba are largely forgotten and at worst they are racially discriminated against. Without access to steady income, their possessions are few and their diets are simple. Education is limited beyond middle or high school, and medical care is only available in emergencies. Taken together, it would be easy for a population like this to resent or turn away a researcher like myself who comes from a privileged background and who does not speak their language well. Yet, my experience could not have been any different. Every time I visited a family, they offered me one of the only chairs they possessed so I could sit in the shade while we worked. Entire families would gather around to talk, the children sitting patiently and quietly by their parents. They would tell me (or my translator) about their families, their faith, the challenges they faced and the hope and happiness they received in their daily lives. On several occasions they offered to be guides to explore the surrounding land.

On one memorable afternoon, several of the women showed me how they would dye wool and use it to make small yarn animals which they would sell when given the chance. When it rained and I got the car stuck, they helped free me from the mud and only laughed minimally at my (admitted) stupidity. The children were inquisitive and bright, inviting us to play soccer and eagerly learning how to throw a frisbee. But more than anything, the Toba people were happy to contribute to a project they may never have fully understood for researchers from a country they would likely never visit and published in a journal they will never read, simply because they were kind.

Coatis are jerks who will steal your food and
eat it in front of you. They work in packs,
and they are not afraid of anything. Life goals.

Monkeys. Just awesome, intelligent,
spunky little monkeys. Carry on my bretheren. 


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