SCIOPS 01.17: Moon Movement

Hello SCIOPS! It’s me, Max.

So I was in the woods for two weeks and I remembered about the moon. I lived deep in the forest for years and walked home every night by starlight, but this year in Seattle has really disconnected me from the natural rhythms of our planet. As it’s the new moon (well, last night was), I thought I’d share a little bit about time travel of the everyday variety.

The human body wants to be in rhythm. We ride circadian waves of waking and sleep, we breathe in as the trees breathe out, our hearts beat a score to the opera of our lives. The universe is all waves and vibrations, as every hippie since Einstein can tell you. daily chronobiology

The scientific study of these biological rhythms is called chronobiology . It’s worth reading up on, as there’s lots of grey areas between proper scientific study and total snake oil. But there’s also the live-in laboratory: we’re each of us in a body, with all the rhythms that entails. We can observe and experiment with our own biological cycles, as long as we take notes.

Between the electricity, the glowing rectangles, the constant engine noise and the light pollution, the city is a pretty hard place to be in touch with nature. So when I decided to start keeping track of my own daily/monthly cycles, I wanted something analog. I designed the Chronolog for this express purpose.

picture of my Chronolog

The Chronolog is a pocket-size paper moon calendar. Each copy starts on the new moon and goes through an entire cycle. The pages are not dated, so the Chronolog can be used in any year and month. It’s a super simple construct – I’ve found that if I complicate this process I just won’t keep up the habit.

I use the Chronolog at least once a day, usually right before sleep. It has sections for “dream”, “day”, and “data”. When I remember my dreams (not that often), I’ll write them down in that section as I wake up. At bedtime I note in the “day” section things like what I ate, what I accomplished, what book I’m reading, or who I interacted with during that day. The “data” section is for consistent tallies that I want to study over time: what time I woke up, how many beers I drank, how much money I spent. Theoretically I could flip through the last year and a half of Chronologs and pop all those tallies into a spreadsheet, although in reality I mostly keep them in a drawer.

I’ve found that annotating my days has vastly increased my recall. It’s also helped me to build healthy habits – eating and sleeping regularly, for instance. The reinforcement of writing down “9:00 bedtime” day after day means I’m less inclined to skip a day or stay up too late. And if I do forget to make notes, I just make sure that I catch up the next night.

If you want to try this beta version of the Chronolog, you can download it here . It’s an imposed copy, so you should be able to just print it (double-sided!), fold it in half, and cut down the middle: Chronolog! Two copies fit on 8 sheets of printer paper, so you can share with a friend or keep one in a drawer for next month. Start tonight – it’s the day after the new moon!

If you want more on chronobiology, check out Douglas Rushkoff’s book Present Shock . He writes about the fractured sense of time engendered by 21st century tech, and how we can combat that in our own lives. Here’s an excerpt, regarding the neurochemistry of Moon phases:

Just as there are four solar seasons with rather obvious implications (winter is better for body repair; summer is better for exertion), there are also four corresponding moon phases, sections of the day, quarters of the hour, and even stages of breath, Filippi argues. By coordinating our internal four-part, or “four phase,” rhythms with those of our greater environment, we can think, work, and interact with greater coherence. Integrating the research of Dardik, Goodman, and Robinson along with his own observations, Filippi concluded that in each moon phase the brain is dominated by a different neurotransmitter. According to Filippi, the prevalence of one chemical over the others during each week of the lunar cycle optimizes certain days for certain activities.

At the beginning of the new moon, for example, one’s acetylcholine rises along with the capacity to perform. Acetylcholine is traditionally associated with attention. “The mood it evokes in us is an Energizer Bunny–like pep. That vibe can be used to initiate social interactions, do chores and routines efficiently, and strive for balance in our activities.”

Nearer to the full moon, an uptick in serotonin increases self-awareness, generating both high focus and high energy. Serotonin, the chemical that gets boosted by drugs like Prozac, is thought to communicate the abundance or dearth of food resources to our brain. “When under its influence we can feel euphoric, spontaneous, and yet composed and sedate. Whereas acetylcholine worked to anchor us to our physical world, serotonin buoys us to the mental realm, allowing us to experience the physical world from an embodied, more lucid vantage point. We actually benefit from solitude at this time, as when an artist finds his muse.”

Over the next week, we can enjoy the benefits of increased dopamine. This chemical—responsible for the rush one gets on heroin or after performing a death-defying stunt—is responsible for reward-driven learning. “It allows us to expand our behaviors outside of our routines, decrease our intensity, and essentially blend with the energy of the moment. If acetylcholine is the ultimate memory neurotransmitter, dopamine is the ultimate experiential one. Functionally, it serves us best when we’re doing social activities we enjoy.” In other words, it’s party week.

Finally, in the last moon phase, we are dominated by norepinephrine, an arousal chemical that regulates processes like the fight-or-flight response, anxiety, and other instinctual behaviors. “We tend to be better off doing more structural tasks that don’t involve a lot of reflection. Its binary nature lets us make decisions, act on them, and then recalibrate like a GPS with a hunting rifle. The key with norepinephrine is that if it’s governed well, we experience a fluid coordination of thought and action so much so that we almost fail to feel. Everything becomes second nature.” So instead of letting the natural rise of fight-or-flight impulses turn us into anxious paranoids, we can exploit the state of nonemotional, almost reptilian arousal it encourages.

Further, within each day are four segments that correspond to each of these moon phases. In the new moon phase, people will be most effective during the early morning hours, while in the second phase leading up to the full moon, people do best in the afternoon.

Admittedly, this is all a tough pill for many of us to swallow, but after my interviews with Filippi, I began working in this fashion on this book. I would use the first week of the moon to organize chapters, do interviews, and talk with friends and colleagues about the ideas I was working on. In the second, more intense week, I would lock myself in my office, set to task, and get the most writing done. In the third week, I would edit what I had written, read new material, jump ahead to whatever section I felt like working on, and try out new ideas. And in the final week, I would revisit structure, comb through difficult passages, and recode the nightmare that is my website. My own experience is that my productivity went up by maybe 40 percent, and my peace of mind about the whole process of writing was utterly transformed for the better. Though certainly anecdotal as far as anyone else is concerned, the exercise convinced me to stay aware of these cycles from now on.

If you try this beta version of the Chronolog, let me know what you think! I can incorporate your feedback into future versions.

Thanks for reading.

– Max


SCIOPS

is a cogsec newsletter. If you liked this issue, forward it to a friend. If you’re not signed up, you can sign up at

tinyletter.com/sciops

. Reflections and criticism can be levelled by responding to this email.