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Michael Cleary-Gaffney: The Circadian Clock As A Metaphor

Each of us has an in-built intrinsic clock which measures the passage of time. Every cell in our body contains a clock but it is the brain which keeps our cells in sync with the environment. Think of the body as instruments from an orchestra and the brain being the conductor. Without a conductor the instruments would play out of sync. An important feature of our natural environment is the 24 hour changes in solar conditions which we can divide into day and night. The brain receives information about time of day through the eye which then passes this information to our main circadian clock known as the superchiasmatic nucleus (SCN) located within the heart of the brain. The SCN adjusts its internal clock to the correct time of day and sends a time-keeping signal to the cellular clocks in the rest of the body. The resulting circadian rhythms in our behavior and physiology last approximately a day. Without a circadian system our bodies wouldn’t know the difference between day and night which would eventually become pretty tiring.

When disruption and interference to the circadian clock occurs this can result in poorer cognition such as impaired attention, poor memory and thought processes. What is even worse poor circadian function can result in the onset of cancer, problems with metabolism and is even implicated in psychiatric conditions. Thus, making sure that our clocks are functioning at optimal performance is essential for healthy living.

I am excited about the metamorphosis project transforming the metaphor of an in-build clock into art. I’m sure that while you read this excerpt you are simultaneously imagining a figure of a clock inside your head. Be that a literal figure of a clock or an abstract version of a clock which is intrinsic to our behavior and physiology. As brain scientists we are continuously developing metaphors/representations in order to better understand and explain phenomena and the circadian clock is another metaphor.

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