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The Seven Day Week: A Chronobiological Perspective

To the present day, our time is structured in a fundamental way by the seven day week. Is the seven day week simply arbitrary? It is certainly ancient, having already been established in early Mesopotamia around 3000BC or earlier, and pervasive around the world in many different cultures with distinct historical development. It is my contention that the 7 day week is definitely not arbitrary, nor merely a cultural development, but is rooted in the psychobiological rhythms of the human organism.

It is well established that many natural biological rhythms within man and nature synchronize with the natural environmental cycles of the yearly changes in day length, the daily alterations of light and dark, and the lunar cycle. Within man these range from a monthly rhythm in weight discovered in 1647 by the Italian scientist Sanctorius; to the 24 hour fluctuations in body temperature and blood pressure; to the monthly and seasonal fluctuations in hormone levels; to the fluctuations in cell division that peak at night and drop markedly during the day.

These rhythms are the subject of a science known as chronobiology. One of the more intriguing recent discoveries is that these rhythms may synchronize with the major daily, monthly, and yearly environmental rhythms, yet “what is clear is that they are inherited, programmed into the genetic blueprint of the organism”. In the words of Dr. Franz Halberg, one of the pioneers in this field and the originator of the term “circadian rhythm”, “Rhythms are the products of genes not just in space but in time”. There has even recently been the isolation of a specific gene known as the per gene, for period, which codes for protein in the cells that regulate rhythms. The researchers have discovered similar DNA coding in humans. Thus we actually have coding in the human organism for the natural periods of year, day, and month.

What does all this have to do with the seven day week? A remarkable discovery of this science is that very specific rhythms with a period of a week also exist. Certain hormonal rhythms follow this period, as well as blood pressure and heartbeat, as do seven day crisis patterns of organ transplant rejections and illness crisis, acid content of the blood, oral temperature, number of red blood cells, and the quantity of cortisol, and levels of certain crucial neurotransmitters. “These weekly rhythms are broadly distributed across species and variables: they are found in unicells, insect, rodents and a host of human variables, e.g., in urine, blood, blood pressure and breast surface temperature.”

Or as Jeremy Campbell states: “Perhaps the most intriguing of these body rhythms are those that have a period of about seven days. These circaseptan (7 day).rhythms are one of the major surprises turned up by modern chronobiology. A central feature of biological time structure is the harmonic relationship (my emphasis) that exists among the various component frequencies. A striking aspect of this relationship is that the components themselves appear to be harmonics or subharmonics, multiples or submultiples, of seven, a number that has played a disproportionately large role in human culture, myth, religion, magic and the calendar.”

Here we find again the all important harmonic relationship based on the number 7. The rhythm of the week is inherent to the human being, not just a cultural phenomena. The “scale” of seven days is a fundamental timing structure, a structure fundamental to our very experience of time. As Dr. Halberg goes on to directly state: “Circaseptans (7 day rhythms) have much to do with nature, apart from culture, as has now been documented for many species.

To repeat, even a form of life that reportedly has been on earth for several hundred million years (certain strains of unicell bacteria) knows how to count by seven days. This does not detract from the fact that human culture recognized the organisms circaseptan(7 day) makeup and made the week into a cultural institution. Cultural evolution complements, as a third ingredient, the two biologic modes of evolution, the Darwinian adaptations of schedules of life on earth and, on the other hand, the internal integrative evolution from within the organism. The evidence for the internal evolution rest largely and precisely on the acquisition of the schedule week which is harmonically in keeping with external geophysical schedules (day, month, year), yet is not an approximate match of such schedules.”

The fact that the 7 day week is an inherent timing mechanism to the human being correlates well with my observation that crisis events or intensified periods that are forecasted by the universal pattern of growth tend to occur every seven days during a turning point period, almost like clockwork.

Considering the foregoing, is it such a leap of faith to presume that there could also be 7 month and 7 year scales or rhythms that are “harmonically in keeping with external geophysical schedules” of the year and the month. Especially considering the fact that “every seven years or so, the cells in your body are completely recycled.”  It is not at all a unique idea. As Georg Feuerstein states:

“The idea that human life proceeds in distinct stages is obviously rooted in experience. Similarly, the periodization into phases of seven years is not as arbitrary as it may seem. In the Western world, seven year cycles of personal growth were first suggested by Solon (600BC) the Athenian Law Giver. Around the time of Jesus of Nazareth the idea was renewedly propounded by the Jewish philosopher Philo, and in the Middle Ages the notion was revived by Christian and Moslem scholastics.”

Martin Luther, the father of Christian Protestantism remarked “the seventh year is a stepping stone, i.e one which transforms…which calls forth renewing of character and a new situation.”. In a more modern bestseller, Passages by Gail Sheehy, she makes reference to specific periods of transitions that approximate 7 year points.

In summary, the week of 7 days is harmonically related to the basic cycle of the day. It represents a “whole”, just as the diatonic scale represents a whole, with seven constituent parts of seven tones.