Life is short... but only if you're boring

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Three years ago I went skydiving. It’s hard to remember how I convinced myself to do this, but it probably had parallels with how I get up in the mornings, exercise, or start going out with people: blurrily pretending it’s not happening until far too late.

But from the moment major fear kicked in, as I sat on the rattling edge between the inside of a plane and my dangling, sky-surrounded legs, my recall is near perfect.

The plane was dark pink. I was strapped to an instructor, who had the parachute, but there was also a pale green handle attached to my left side, just under my hand.

“Is this the cord that releases the parachute?”

“No, that’s the handle that separates you from me.”

I let go of the handle, the straps and my own sleeves, and spent the fall in the uncomplicated pose of Coyote from Looney Tunes, after he’s already hit the ground. It was extremely cold, I couldn’t really see, and the G-forces toyed with me like lint in a Dyson.

After exactly 20 minutes of this, the parachute opened.  “Wow, that was amazing,” I said, “really, really amazing.”

“Stop panicking – we’re nearly done.”

We were. The whole thing was over in four minutes  - the free-fall bit had been a matter of seconds. But my memory of it plays out as a full 20-minute narrative.

Physicists tell us that time can speed up, warp and shoot off in odd directions, but we never seem to feel these changes. Our inner clock usually records time passing in a manner that is fairly well synced to our wristwatches. In certain situations, though, especially those inspired by fear, our minds seem to be able to stretch time out like a wet jumper.

An experiment conducted by David Eagleman at the Baylor College of Medicine aimed to work out whether this odd illusion was experienced in the moment of fear itself, or after.  Do we, like characters in the Matrix, see time passing at a slower rate as we experience it (low pitched bullets droning past, water droplets suspended like jellies) or do we make it all up afterwards?

He persuaded a number of brave participants to SCAD-jump – drop 150 unsupported feet into a net. This was terrifying enough to bring out the slow-motion effect: afterwards, on average, the subjects overestimated the length of their fall by 36 per cent.

He gave everyone a chronometer, a watch that flashes numbers a little too fast to see. If the fallers experienced time-slowing, he reckoned they just might be able to see the numbers on their way down.

This turned out not to be the case, and he concluded that the time mistake happened in the memory. The slowed effect, he suggested, had been a function of hyper fast brain activity. The amygdala (seat of emotion and memory) had been jolted into recording every last detail of the experience. Rolled out afterwards, the bulked-up memory seemed to stretch far longer than would be accurate.

Live fast, live long

Time for us, then, depends a little on sensation. The days may indeed go faster as we get older and more emotionally stable, but expand again when we do something exciting.

So perhaps my conclusion should be “live fast: live long” – cramming our days with adrenaline highs might be the best way to slow the vertiginous pace of time. Interesting, but also, in some ways, very much whatevs. I’m not skydiving again.

Skydiving. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.