Sunday, April 29, 2007

I ain't sleeping. I'm just taking a good look at the insides of my eyelid...

Tina's just back from work. At 3:30 am. So are 15 of her friends, and they all work at the call center newly set up in the suburbs of Mumbai. The nice part, is , that she gets transport to and from her residence every single day, and so her folks are not really worried; though her mother doesnt really relax till she hears the sound of a jeep driving into the building compound, and the beep of the elevator as her daughter takes her time getting out of it.

The pay is fantastic by Indian standards and a pittance by US standards. And so today, all kinds of outsourcing call center jobs are getting filled up as soon as they are advertised.

So are doctors clinics.

Time was when you did a decent day job, left around 7;30 am , occasionally bypassing breakfast to arrive early at the office. You returned at around 7:30 pm, to eternal cribs about how late you were coming everyday. You met up with your old friends for coffee on occasional weekday evenings, and everyone had a grand time cursing whoever was the reigning ogre at the office. Sleep would relax you, and tomorrow was another day.

Ever since the world, specifically the English speaking section, discovered India as a huge storehouse of cheap,well-educated,trainable,computer-savvy youth, the information industry has never been the same. Thanks to the weird and persistent drifting of continents millions of years ago, India is at work when America sleeps; what is worse, is, that it is also at work, while the US is at work.

This has given rise to a veritable flood of call centers, with almost all big companies jumping on to the bandwagon. Special training is given to Venkats and Nandini's so they can function as Dave and Sue, complete with American jargon and attitude. Saying "have a nice day" with a cyber smile at 2 am is the norm, there are supervisors functioning with a hawks eye to ensure that there is no verbal abuse on both sides, and for a girl, who looked forward to a secretary's job, where she brought her own packed lunch from home to save money, and travelled packed as one of the "sardines" in Mumbai's suburban trains, its a brave new world, where she is provided company transport to and from work, and an interesting pantry and cafetaria, where she gets midnight meals on the house, everyday.

After the first flush of euphoria, prosperity, and a sense that you have come up in the world, the little niggles begin.

Someimes it's lethargy; you lie down, count sheep, cows, goats, friends, even enemies, but sleep evades you. So you try to relax with a book, but it gets so difficult to concentrate. TV is the next thing you try. Its fairly a waste to watch, as nothing registers much.

Your Mom, worried, tries to tempt you with some freshly cooked stuff, and you try to hide the fact that your digestion is no longer the sturdy thing it was. You have joined the ranks of those with acidity. When guests come, you feel like disappearing into your room. Stress is the order of the day, and you realise that you really dont know your body anymore.....

The BPO industry , has given rise to an entire generation of young people, who have messed up their health, physically and mentally. Research indicates, that depression is a common finding among these troubled youths. Loss of hair, headaches, fatigue, sleepiness at the wrong time, reduction in body reflexes --- all these are terrible things to affect folks at so young an age. The body is being abused as never before, in pursuit of lucre.

Dr. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a neurologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, and a postdoctoral fellow in sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School is the author of a study, that seeks to find out the relation between sleep and learning. The American Academy of Neurology annual meeting in Boston, will have learnt about their findings during a meeting on May 2, 2007.

48 people between 18, and 30 were asked to learn 20 words. Folks were divided into groups, that stayed awake after learning the words, and also those that were allowed to sleep after learning the words. They were also given a second set of 20 words to learn. The findings, indicated that those who slept after learning these words, had a noticeably better recall, compared to those who were kept awake (76 percent for the sleep group vs. 32 percent for the wake group). This was more, than that anticipated by the researchers, based on their scientific initial conditions and parameters.

This has clearly proved that good sleep is essential for memory consolidation, given that our educational learning systems require excellent declarative memories (memory for facts and events and time). It turns out that good sleep also leads to good physical and cognitive functioning, an improved immune function, and a mental control over moods.

Prehistoric man, woke up with the suns rays dappling across him through the canopy of green, as he stretched and got up in his forest abode. He spent his time playing, hunting, climbing, fighting, and at some point, eating , probably the freshest of meats and forest produce, freshly processed over the latest discovery , fire. The setting sun, brought a natural end to the days activities, and he sank back into a comfortable sleep, unconcerned about gas prices, inflation, whether the insurance would cover the latest medical test, whteher he was going to be laid off at work, etc etc.

Although fire did generate some light, it wasnt enough to give people unneccesary ideas. It was not till Edison got into his act and discovered the light bulb, that folks got greedy, and messed up their sleep patterns, and energy patterns.

Before the advent of the BPO industry, sleep related health problems, were the domain of the elderly. Today the patients at sleep clinics are getting younger and younger , often suffereing from sleep apnea, which if ignored and left untreated, would predispose one towards hypertension and strokes.

Burning of calories is something that we do less of when we sleep. So one would conclude that if you slept less, you were expending more calories, and so there would be more weight control.

Turns out, that this too , is untrue. In 2004, Columbia University scientists conducted a study and proved that those who slept less actually tended to be more obese, thanks to the effect of lack of sleep on the appetite hormones.

Thee are two hormones, leptin and grehlin, in our bodies, along with a huge orchestra of other hormones, that maintain the body in a decent balance. Leptin , is responsible for controlling appetite and weight, and telling our body the energy available to it. Grehlin simply encourages people to feel like they should eat.

As can be expected, when you dont sleep well, the leptin levels reduce and grehlin levels increase, leading to an optimum situation for piling on weight.

A quarter of your lifetime of working odd hours, and abusing sleep patterns, and you have a great chance of predisposing yourself, and collecting most risk factors for all kinds of deadly things such as heart disease, liver diseease, angina, osteoporosis, and at some point, depression and dementia.

We need to worry. An entire generation of young people , in the pursuit of the lucre, is "marching into the valley of sickness", inspite of the "charge of the health brigade" , as Alfred Lord Tennyson would have said, had he been composing his poems in 2007. It forebodes ill , for an entire future generation, that is already having to face other problems, like pollution, harmful food additives, lesser green spaces and so on.

Unless attention is paid to the health aspects of the BPO industry, there is a danger of the youth of the future, losing out on the learning capabilities, and abilities, that make todays workers so valuable. There will be an entire generation of physically unfit parents, leading to problem progeny, , and over a period of time, one stands to lose ability to learn , that has brought the BPO industry where it is today .

Reminds me of what is supposed to have happened to T-Rex and his other dinosaur friends, long time ago.

The earth is supposd to have experienced huge climatic changes towards the end of the era of the dinosaurs. Unlike mammals and birds, reptiles have a problem with the type of sleep (slow wave sleep) required to boost memories, particularly those related to learning new skills. Slow wave sleep enhances learning and also physical performance. Reptiles , (because of their messed up slow wave sleep system) , are much more limited in the type of complex behaviour they can experience than other animals such as mammals and birds.

It appears, that subsequent to the tumultous climatic changes , reptiles proved incapable of deveoping skills, required to emerge from them. This slowly led to the extinction of the lot, while birds and other mammals , kind of sailed through.

Lest you think that I am making this up, this is actually research carried out by Dr. Niels Rattenborg, of the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany.

Unfortunately, we humans have a great capacity NOT to learn from our mistakes till its too late.