Bears Awake from Hibernation in Yellowstone
I recently read that the first bear at Yellowstone has emerged from hibernation. That got me thinking about human seasonal cycles, circadian rhythm, and habits. Are humans capable of hibernation? I know sometimes I feel as though I “hibernate” all winter long by slowing down activity, sleeping more, (sadly, also eating more and storing up fat). I am less inclined to take on new projects during the winter, but tend to “wake up” come spring.
As Katherine May in a February 2020 article in The Guardian attests:
But by early February, I’m sagging. Tired, hungry and sick of the dark, my motivation has run out, my bank account is empty and the world feels soggy underfoot. I start to skip my yoga class and social invitations feel like an imposition. The urge to pull the duvet over my head becomes very strong indeed.
Humans cannot actually hibernate, but in the coldest months of the year, many of us are drawn to something similar. We want to batten down the hatches against the treacherous weather outside, preserve our energies, lay on fat. If only we could suspend the demands of life, just until the sun comes out again, all would be well.
Who else feels like this!?
What is Real Hibernation and What’s its Purpose
Hibernation is a way that animals conserve energy to survive due to extreme cold temperatures and lack of food. It involves physiological changes by a drop in body temperature and slowed metabolism. The disadvantages to hibernation in the animal world are vulnerability to predation and no opportunity to procreate. But what would the human version look like?
According to Live Science writer Natalie Wolchover in an article published February 18, 2011, there have been cases of humans demonstrating a type of hibernation:
Occasionally, seemingly miraculous cases of humans going in and out of hibernation-like states are reported. In 2006, for example, a 35-year-old man was rescued on a snowy mountainside in Japan 24 days after going missing. He seemed to have survived by entering a state of nearly suspended animation: His organs had shut down, his body temperature had dropped to 71 degrees, and his metabolism had slowed almost to a standstill. Subsequently, the man made a full recovery.
The topic of human hibernation is hotly debated in the scientific community, from what I’ve been able to discover. Some say there is not evidence that humans can go into hibernation, described as an extended state of torpor. Torpor is defined as the physiological state of metabolic depression wherein body temp, breathing, metabolism drop. But some scientists believe that distant human ancestors did hibernate. (Healthline, Nov 28, 2022) Here’s one view from New Scientist on how modern human hibernation may be defined. Check it out!
Waking Up, Renewed and Refreshed
According to the New Scientist article and others, there are some clear benefits to a human quasi-hibernation. In the modern era with the advent of light and communications technologies, we could theoretically work 24-hours a day every day! Do we now need some built-in breaks to ensure we guard our health and sanity from burn-out? I know it takes a lot to give myself permission not to obsess over my To-Do list and simply read a book or even stare out the window! I feel guilty if I’m not doing something productive. In a world where the ability to multitask is worn as a badge of honor and people admire someone who is “always busy,” we probably need to adopt some form of a “forced” hibernation for our health and sanity.
I put off a lot of projects this winter and let things lapse. Now I’m ready to pick them up again. I’m in a better place to tap into creativity, energy, and enjoyment for the tasks (instead of dread or boredom!). How about you? Do you take time off during the winter? How do you keep from experiencing burn-out? I’d love to hear from you!