Musings: Is food really our only source of energy?

Does the sun do more than light up our lives?

I have sometimes wondered if we (and by that I mean human beings in general) can absorb different types of energy for use.  Typically we think of getting “energy” (and by energy here I mean that feeling that gets us going / keeps us moving) from food.  But is food really our only means of picking up energy?  Some studies have shown that prolonged separation from sunlight has a negative impact on the mood and I wonder if these are pointing at a more fundamental influence that sunlight has on our energy levels.  On a personal note, I remember that when I was meditating multiple times a day in direct sunlight, I had tons of energy even though I was barely eating and I wasn’t losing any weight.    I know there are some groups out there, such as Inedia (see wikipedia for more), who maintain they can live on sunlight and water alone.  Even if it is possible to absorb energy from the sun, I don’t think sunlight is a replacement for food.  The body needs the nutrients we absorb from food to function, and although we get some vitamins from the sun, certainly not enough to sustain a healthy, active lifestyle.  Even plants, which we know get a substantial amount of life energy from the sun, cannot live on sunlight alone and require nutrients from soil or water to thrive.

Why does music make us want to dance?

Returning to the idea of absorbing alternative forms of energy (ie – not just food energy), when I listen to dance music I also feel an ‘energy boost’.  Is this just a perceived increase in energy or are my energy levels really rising?  I have read somewhere that listening to high energy / upbeat music makes the heart speed up and this is what causes the burst of energy.  That makes some sense, however – if this is the case, I would think that I would feel tired after listening to music; the way I do after a hard workout.  Conversely, though, I feel much more energized.  Perhaps my workout just isn’t getting the heartbeat thing right – but let’s look at the flipside of this argument.  How exactly is the music making my heart speed up if I’m not absorbing the energy from it to do so?  Is my body expending food energy to do this?  If that’s the case – listening to music should cause us to lose weight?  Have we ever wondered why music makes us want to dance?  Dancing is a very high energy expenditure for the body.  I don’t want to dance when I’m on the phone, or when a teacher is lecturing at me in class, nor when I sit at my corporate desk at work.  Those types of sound do not trigger the desire to dance.  So why does music do so?  I also believe there are studies out there about music affecting mood – I don’t think the idea of music affecting mood would surprise anyone.  But like sunlight, does this hint to an effect on a more fundamental, energetic level.

How can sunlight and music tangibly affect?  By which I mean, what is the `by which one thing has an effect on something else?  Usually for that to happen there needs to be some connection between the two things by which the change can be effected.   I would argue that, in this case, energy is passing from the one medium (sunlight / music) to the other (us).  And if that is the case – then is it possible that we are actually able to use or expend some of that energy?  I charge my ipod with energy from the wall outlet, the ipod uses that energy to ‘play’ my music, the music and sound waves go directly into my ears – is it impossible for me to be converting those sound waves into expendable energy?  I mean – the energy has to go somewhere right?  Is it just turning to ‘heat’ in my eardrums?

How could we test this hypothesis?

So let’s pretend you agree that the above is fairly logical and interesting.  How could we go about measuring this type of energy in the body?  It seems like you would have to start with finding a way to measure ‘usable’ energy before you can determine whether we can convert other types of energy besides food into a usable form.   I guess one way to experiment with this concept – informally – would be to have a few groups of people who all eat the same exact meals let say for breakfast and lunch (maybe you have them fast for 12 hours before then?  I don’t know how far you’d have to go back… but, this is a thought experiment, not detailed lab instructions) and after lunch then you have one group lay out in the sun for let’s say 30 minutes, another group sit and listen to high energy music for 30 minutes, and the control group can do whatever they want for 30 minutes as long as they’re not expending much energy and aren’t performing the other two activites (read a book? sit quietly? watch tv?) then you have all three groups hop on an exercise machine; treadmill? elliptical? Gazelle freestyle?  I imagine you might be able to tell if there is some differentiation in the energy output of the individuals on these machines over a period of time (high-school science project, anyone?).   Along those lines – it would also be interesting to study the energy output (by effort exerted on machine or maybe endurance) of people who are watching TV while exercising, listening to high energy music while exercising, exercising in direct sunlight (?) or doing none of these supplementary activities and just working out.  One experiment we could all try at home is measuring how long we can sustain the energy to dance without music vs. how long we can sustain the energy to dance with music.  Is there a notable difference?

I don’t mean to suggest that this is only a factor for sunlight and / or music – their could certainly be other sources of energy we might be able to ‘convert’ and use.  Obviously even if there were some studies out there that suggested this was possible there would still be lots of unanswered questions.   For example, does everyone have the ability to do this – or just some people?  Also, I would imagine lower-energy music (like ballads, etc.) requires just as much energy to play on a device for a minute as high-energy music.  However, low energy music does not have the same perceived, positive, ‘energizing’ effect on our mood or energy levels. (So there goes my wall-outlet argument, right?).   I recognize that there would need to be a scientific approach taken to this question in order to determine whether it is possible for humans to absorb and convert / use energy from sources other than food.  However, there is so much we don’t understand about even our own energy levels that I think it is a question worth exploring.

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