Humans Hibernate, So What Are You Waiting For?

Peter McCarthy
Hibernation of the senses before winter comes
Hibernation of the senses before winter comes
(Image copyrights Moyan Brenn)

Turns out, there’s another thing a bear can do in the woods whenever he feels like it. It's a little known fact, but humans also enjoy this gift from nature. So, why not? Let's hibernate. Why deny your perfectly legitimate right to doze through winter?

Hibernate Like There's No Tomorrow

The weather stinks. Public cheerfulness drops off a cliff after Christmas, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) reduces us to a shivering mass of discomfort. Worse, those pounds you gained over the holidays make you feel fat.

So, why not hibernate? Let’s do it together.

The advantages are immense, except that you may lose your job by taking a few months off.

Toil and stress fade. The depressing daily news goes on without you. You miss all the reruns that make television viewing in winter a... uhm, pleasure.

And, while hibernating, you lose weight. Gobs of it.

You may think humans don’t, or can’t, hibernate, but you’d be wrong.

We can and some do, but most of us just don’t. But now, the secret’s out, and I’m starting a human hibernation campaign.

I expect Nobel consideration. If Henry Kissinger can win the Nobel Peace Prize, which he did after supervising illegal bombing raids that killed countless civilians, anything is possible.

Hibernation Liberation

We’ve known humans can and have hibernated for a long time. They just didn't tell you.

Early in the 20th Century, the British Medical Journal printed an article about Russian peasants living in Pskov, a cold, food restricted region. They took six months off to hibernate every year, rivaling the indulgences of inherited wealth.

Humans are marvelous innovators and what the good people of Pskov did was a radical variation, an adaptation to sucky winter conditions.

They just said, “The heck with the damned ice and cold,” (in Russian) and settled in for a group slumber party.

Once a day, they woke up long enough to chow down on a slice of bread, conveniently baked during the autumn, and washed it down with a little water before going back to sleep.

This went on for six months according to the article, after which, assured that the grass was green again, they all got up, stood in line at the lavatory, ate like lords and returned to the tasks of preparing for the next winter’s hibernation.

In its quirky way, this is clearly analogous to “living for the weekend,” a six month, annual weekend of glorious human hibernation.

Of course, they missed the Winter Olympics, spring training and the ball drop in Times Square, but those losses were partially offset by being able to stay up all night during the warm months and catch absolutely everything on Turner Classics and Fox Sports.

Bears do it. Squirrels do it. Why Can’t We Do It? Let’s Fall Asleep

The interesting thing about speciation - yes, I paid $10 for that word - is that bears, squirrels, lemurs and people hibernate in different ways. There’s even a controversy about whether bears really hibernate.

Scientists split hairs (and worse), but the question is, if a bear can snap out of it and eat you when you barge in during long nap time, which it can, is the bear really hibernating?

This seems the ultimate unimportant question, trivial, really, next to the question of why you were stupid enough to roust a hibernating bear.

But since it’s human hibernation we’re dealing with here, let’s stick to the facts of our own species. It’s really quite rare. Unlike any other species, we humans usually hibernate only by accident.

This calls into question whether common sense is a really common trait. Let’s look at the record.

Just two years ago, Swedish motorist Peter Skyllberg got bogged down in snow. Curled up in a sleeping bag with only melted snow to drink for two months, he was pulled out alive. He couldn’t talk about it right away, but speculation was that he had somehow tripped off a human hibernation response.

A what?

Then, from 2001, there’s Erika Nordby, a one-year old Canadian who wandered into the snowy cold, wearing only a nappy, and was found hours later, frozen so stiff that emergency workers had trouble putting a tube down her throat because her mouth was frozen shut.

Little Erika was clinically dead, good and dead, as they used to say in the Westerns. Her heart had stopped beating for two hours, but once she was warmed up in the emergency room, it started beating again on its own. She’d gone into suspended animation.

Tell me this wouldn’t be useful, if you learned to flip that switch, whenever your boss was yelling at you.

Who even knew we could go into suspended animation at all and survive with minimal or no permanent damage? Could this be helpful on the subway, in traffic jams or when living up to a promise to sit through an entire Wagnerian opera?

Freezing With You For Two Months Isn’t What I Had In Mind

Don’t you just love it when they pull in yogis (with a dash of fat-tailed dwarf lemur) to befuddle scientists? I know I do. For me, it’s like sipping a cup of hot chocolate in January.

In 1998, Physiology published a paper in which two Indian yogis, in fair weather, albeit stuck in a box or underground, deliberately put themselves in hibernation states. Seventy year old Satyamurti, was buried in a pit for eight days and popped out fresh as a daisy.

Well, maybe not that fresh, but well and healthy.

Along with Russian peasants, Indian yogis have shown us that freezing your self for an extended period, say the length of New York City Winter or the time it takes for whoever is mad at you to get over it, is possible on purpose.

If you’re not seeing the advantages here, you’ve led an exemplary life with a beautifully optimistic point of view or you’re rich and live in Southern California.

The fat-tailed dwarf lemur? This gorgeous animal with huge dark eyes is the one and only primate, other than Russian peasants, known to hibernate, and they do it for up to eight months in fair weather Madagascar.

If another primate, an animal right there in our family tree, can do this, some Republican politicians have wondered, why not the unemployed, relieving the budget of all those checks the government has to send out? Rumor has it, there’s support for this idea at Fox News, the editorial department of the Wall Street Journal, and The Heritage Foundation is planning a study.

Really, what are the benefits of human hibernation?

The benefits are many, from the sublime to the practical to the ridiculous.

Now, say you’re obliged to spend extended periods with your in-laws. Why not invite them for a hibernation vacation? You’re only expense? A dozen or so loaves of fresh baked bread.

You could also get over a romantic breakup without having to do anything but sleep in the freezer. By the time you wake up, sorrow has passed.

On the serious side, the opportunity for weight loss is spectacular. For up to six months, you quietly burn off excess fat, without exercise, bariatric surgery or hunger pains. When you’re done, you’re as trim as Lady Gaga. Not as agile, of course, but you just might feel like blue hair would work for you.

Flip that over and you get six months of glorious food indulgence before you slip back out of those skinny jeans for your next extended weight loss nap.

More seriously, and no joking here, forms of hibernation are now being used to give injured people time to slowly recover without so much trauma. And, researchers are wondering if a safe way can be found to send sick people into deliberate suspended animation while they wait for an available kidney transplant, for instance, or a promising new drug to become available.

Really, some very large doors may be opened - and some small ones too.

I’d just be happy to a safe escape from winter’s dark and cold weather. How about you?

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