Hummingbirds, Space-Time, and the Importance of a Nap

Originally posted on the Collective Agency Blog 

When life started out on Planet Earth, we weren't very good at getting around.

As single celled organisms, we could basically control two dimensions: what's inside and what's outside. But where we traveled was completely up to the waves we happened to be riding. (Wheee!)

Then some of those cells developed little propellors, and it was off to the races. Flagella gave way to fins and limbs and wings... and life learned to dance in three dimensions.

Of all the countless permutations of life, there is one that has mastered 3D space like no other: the hummingbird.


If you've ever spent time watching one in action, you know that they can move in any direction with ease. Up. Down. Left. Right. Sideways. Hummingbird don't care. 

We humans are the new hummingbirds. We move nimbly within not just three dimensions, but four.

Hovering Through Time

As Alfred Korzybski noticed, language gives us mastery over not just space, but time. Because we use words to think and talk about things that happen to us, we are better able to remember them. This helps us navigate the future.

If that sounds complicated, it's not. I can ask a dog to fetch me a newspaper. But I can't tell it to fetch me the paper at 5pm tomorrow; I can only do that with humans. (Not that I would. Who reads newspapers anymore?)

This ability to "bind time" is amplified when lots of us start communicating. So when the Internet was born, our mastery over time accelerated with the speed of hummingbird wings.

Google is now able to predict flu outbreaks in real-time. Twitter spreads word of earthquakes faster than the shockwaves themselves.

Meanwhile, telescopes allow us to literally peer back billions of years to the beginnings of the universe. And we now have a pretty good estimate for the life span of our planet.


It's awe-inspiring to think that the thin sliver of brain matter that distinguishes us from the other primates is what allows us to conceive of space-time at a cosmic scale. And it's not hard to imagine that this ability will one day give us the ability to leave Earth long before it is swallowed by the sun.

But does all of this mastery come with a cost?

High Metabolisms Require High Maintenance

A hummingbird's heart beats twenty times per second. In that same second, her wings flap seventy times. To maintain this pace, her metabolism runs at a frantic rate, leaving the little bird just hours away from starvation at all times. 

Sound familiar?

We too are frenetic. Constantly in motion. Nine to five. Buy, sell, buy, sell. Go go go.

Each new innovative breakthrough promises to make our lives easier, yet the pace of our work continuously amps up. We've made so much progress, but we seem to be moving too fast to enjoy it.

Still, the techno-utopians trumpet the magic of accelerating change. Pedal to the metal, they say. More is better, they say. Big data will solve your problems, they say. 

Meanwhile, we all just feel overstimulated and exhausted. 


Each night, after a long day of searching for food, the hummingbird falls into a torpor: a deep state of rest in which bodily functions slow to a crawl. As she conserves energy, her body and brain recover from the frantic activity of the day.

We've been told that accelerating our pace of innovation is the surest path to a worry-free future.

But before we flap our collective wings any further... couldn't we just use a good nap?


More fun with dimensions...