Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Surviving February: Human Hibernation?

A few months ago, The New York Times published "The Big Sleep," an op-ed that alluded to Graham Robb's theory that in the Middle Ages, people basically slept the winter away:
In the mountains, the tradition of seasonal sloth was ancient and pervasive. “Seven months of winter, five months of hell,” they said in the Alps. When the “hell” of unremitting toil was over, the human beings settled in with their cows and pigs. They lowered their metabolic rate to prevent hunger from exhausting supplies. If someone died during the seven months of winter, the corpse was stored on the roof under a blanket of snow until spring thawed the ground, allowing a grave to be dug and a priest to reach the village.

The same mass dormancy was practiced in other chilly parts. In 1900, The British Medical Journal reported that peasants of the Pskov region in northwestern Russia “adopt the economical expedient” of spending one-half of the year in sleep: “At the first fall of snow the whole family gathers round the stove, lies down, ceases to wrestle with the problems of human existence, and quietly goes to sleep. Once a day every one wakes up to eat a piece of hard bread. ... The members of the family take it in turn to watch and keep the fire alight. After six months of this reposeful existence the family wakes up, shakes itself” and “goes out to see if the grass is growing.”

I've been thinking about this ever since. Can it really be true? Medievalists, what say you? Is this a well-established fact in medieval studies, and, if so, why don't they teach us about this in Chaucer class? Is it even possible, physiologically speaking, to sleep this much after you're 17 years old? And if so, wouldn't your muscles waste away the way that those of people in nursing homes and intensive care units do?

Edited to add: I'm writing about this now because while this seemed totally impossible in November, by February--the month where days are short, cold, and gray--it's seeming more sensible by the minute.

Update 3-19-08: There's a letter to the editor about this in the NYTimes in 1906 , but it still sounds unlikely.

[Another post about human hibernation and Malcom Gladwell's take on it.]

19 comments:

Pilgrim/Heretic said...

I love theories like this, and I suspect there's a lot of that kind of thing going on that we don't fully recognize (Roger Ekirch's book _At Day's Close_ is my favorite example, on the history of what happens at night). The hibernation thing probably doesn't show up in Chaucer studies because most of England wouldn't get cold enough to hibernate; I'd guess that would only be a useful strategy in areas like northern Russia. I wonder about the muscle question, though; that's interesting.

undine said...

Is that the one that talks about people going to bed early, waking up around midnight for another meal, and then going back to sleep?

That makes sense about England's being a warmer country and hibernation not being necessary; I hadn't thought of that.

Amateur Reader said...

It's nonsense. Robb's use of sources is primitive - he's completely credulous. Some 18th century traveler writes that people in Siberia hibernate, this "fact" is written up in a 19th century medical journal, and Robb just repeats it.

undine said...

amateur_reader, I'm glad to hear you say that; I want to read more about it eventually but so far had only seen sources that quoted it as fact.

Bardiac said...

Wait... does this mean there aren't people whose faces are in their chest and they have no heads? Because Othello talks about them... :)

I sympathize about the wanting to hibernate. I usually just want to keep warm, and once I've been there a bit, my bed is nice and warm!

New Kid on the Hallway said...

I'm coming to this really late, but I have to confess I've never heard of this. Maybe I don't study the really far north, but I'm not super convinced, especially since I've never seen any evidence that the Inuit hibernate. Since domesticated animals don't hibernate (that I know of), and people would have been in big trouble if they didn't feed/water/milk their animals regularly, I don't think the hibernation thing would fly for your average medieval peasant. Plus there are a lot of winter festivals we know about that would interrupt the hibernation (Christmas, for instance).

I know that in Iceland/Greenland people brought the animals inside for the winter and had to carry the sheep outside in the spring until the sheeps' muscles recovered, but the people themselves seemed to be pretty mobile.

undine said...

bardiac, I've seen pictures of those men, or engravings, so they must be true, right ;-)?

new kid, that's a good point about the Inuit and also about feeding the animals. I'd think that feeding the animals would be kind of a high point in the day if the weather were really as bad as is suggested here. I didn't know that about carrying the sheep.

And if this were true for Russia and France, the two places mentioned, wouldn't it also be true for Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Scotland?

Mo said...

england was a much colder place in the middle ages, due to the Little Ice Age.

Anonymous said...

When times are tough, all mammals can hibernate slow down metabolic processes to conserve energy, . . .
and life in harsh winters.

Little research is known about non-ursine winter sleeping habits.

I'm planning to try this and document it (just moved back to NE from FL). Sorry if this sounds anti-consumerism (LOL). Won't be buying much for a month.

Will try to remember to post again.
Going into the semi-wild on January 4, 2009 to commune, and maybe consume, with nature.

undine said...

Mo, I wonder if it got as cold as it does usually in northern North America. I remember reading in Piers Plowman about plowing in February or some such thing.

Anonymous, please do let us know how the experiment in hibernation goes. It would be easier without electric lights since the days are so short. Up here in Northern Clime, it gets to be daylight by about 8 a.m. and gets dark by around 3:30, so that's not much daylight to interrupt hibernation.

Anonymous said...

I was looking up human hibernation and came across this. I don't know if many people do this, but I feel I have a form of nibernation and it scares me as my life in the winter almost ceases as I am always cold and all I want to do is stay warm. I can't go to sleep until 5-7am and then sleep until 2pm usually or sometimes 3. I live alone and so it doesn't matter what I do. In the summer I sleep until noon but then am busy the rest of the day. I'm not lazy but my body definately responds to cold weather,in an unnatural way.

undine said...

Anonymous, I think this happens in part because of the light, but maybe it is an adaptive response.

Anonymous said...

Was just watching QI on IPlayer. According to quizz master Fry, up until the 20th century French peasants would 'hibernate' during winter. They'd all snuggle up together sleeping and dozing the winter away, awaking periodically to take on sustinance,until spring arrived.

undine said...

Anonymous, I wonder if he's referencing the same article that the NYT is. All the roads to this topic seem to lead back to the same couple of sketchy sources.

cplusher said...

Check this out...

http://www.livescience.com/health/050421_hibernation.html

undine said...

Interesting, cplusher! Thanks for posting the link.

Dylan said...

I'm also coming to this post really late.. I think there is definitely a sociological aspect to human hibernation. If we could physically go through the process, i wonder what kinds of societal pressures would be brought on us. Sleeping for 6-7 months while everyone else is active, it would make me crazy. I think that if it were physically possible to hibernate, we would only be able to do it if it was acceptable and common in society.

******** said...

whatever your idea of human hibernation is, i think what is the most important that could be regarded a breakthrough in this field is the ability to live longer than normal years.think about this, you have lived 30 years, and you go for say 30 years in hibernation, after you wake, you live another 30 years, and after wards , go into hibernation again say another 30 years. if one could make this cycle 4 times, we are saying a person can live 120 years. imagine what advance and improvements must have come in the next 50 years in this field of hibernation. i strongly believe in the continuation of any existense that wishes to continue without the compulsory termination (death ). I think we need to research more in this field .

Chris Kearin said...

Tommaso Landolfi wrote a pretty amusing story about human hibernation, called "Pastoral." It's written in the form of a series of letters from a Parisian woman who has relocated to the provinces and reports back on the local customs, which include hanging yourself from the rafters in a goatskin sack and sleeping through the winter.

Although the reports Robb cites may be exaggerated, they don't seem completely implausible. Maintaining a small number of livestock animals indoors probably wouldn't involve extensive labor, provided sufficient provisions had been put aside at the end of the harvest season.