Why don’t we value the practical magic of sleep and dreaming?

Yesterday morning, I had a surreal experience that has happened only a handful of times throughout my life. After waking at 3:00 a.m., I had my morning coffee, watched TV, ironed clothes, etc.–all my energy comes in the morning and quickly dissipates thanks to Lyme–and then I decided to try to get in a quick pre-work nap because, if I didn’t, the day would be rough. I managed to fall asleep and entered into a long, very long, lucid dream. Throughout the experience, I knew I was asleep and dreaming, and a collage of waking and fantasy life experiences patched themselves together into a true fascination of a dream. It lasted, without question, for hours upon hours. I enjoyed the experience so much that I let it go on, but eventually I panicked and forced myself awake because I figured after such a long time, I was late for work. I woke up to find I had only been lying down for 15 minutes.

The theoretical physics of time.
The theoretical physics of time.

Dreaming is real-world magic. Beyond theoretical physics and mathematics, it’s the only occasion in our world through which the fabric of time can be stretched, cut up, or manipulated in any other way. Aside from states of psychosis triggered by drugs, medicines, and what we consider to be mental illness, dreams are the only ways by which our fantasies become real.

And they are intensely personal. In a writing class in my MFA program, a professor once asked why we love fiction but are always quickly bored when a person describes her dreams to us. I’ve had vivid dreams all my life and have put a great deal of thought into the phenomenon, and I had an answer: in fiction, as in life, as in any game, there are limits or rules that define what can and cannot be done. Pushing limits brings out the tension that adds drama to fiction and anxiety to real life. In dreams, there are no limits–therefore no drama, no anxiety that can be described when describing the dream. Dreams can be dramatic and angst-ridden and the highest state of every other emotion, but almost always only for the person who experiences the dream firsthand. Describing one’s dream to another person, or even dramatizing it usually fail to live up to the first-person experiences. (Some of my favorite books and movies are exceptions to this rule–Mulholland Drive probably is the best example, but even it, without the limiting ending, wouldn’t add up to anything of any significance.)

I love science, and I subscribe to Scientific American among a number of other science-related magazines. The October 2015 issue explores the question “Do I really need to sleep?” Some of the findings:

  • Insomnia is always fatal–but inexplicably so.
  • The immune and endocrine systems are supported by sleep.
  • Sleep-deprived people have more negative outlooks.
  • Memory suffers without adequate sleep.
Sleep is not nothing. It's something amazing. Let's leave it at that.
Sleep is not nothing. It’s something amazing. Let’s leave it at that.

A few points nagged at me when reading this article. First, as much of a blessing as scientific investigation has been to medicine and exploration of life, our world, and even other worlds, it also can be an excuse to act–to use an unscientific term–demonically. The first finding above was proven by depriving rats of any sleep until they died. Think about how you feel without even one night’s worth of sleep; now imagine that prolonged and escalated for months, ultimately causing your death. Thanks to the monstrous little bugs called borrelia and bartonella, I’ve experienced a wide array of pains, from neurological “pins and needles” and cluster headaches to severe arthritic pain in literally every joint in my body. I would take any of these–even cluster headaches–over never being able to sleep. I can’t think of a worse torture, and I can’t think of any excuse to keep any animal alive without sleep for longer than a few days, much less until it dies. It’s unconscionable and inexcusable.

My outlook on life is different than that of many others. Sleeping and dreaming are different experiences, but they are inexorably connected to one another: again, except in an altered state caused by a drug or mental psychosis, a person cannot experience dreams without being in sleep mode.

I am agitated when I hear people ask “Do I really need to sleep?” and especially when I hear people say “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Martha Stewart, for example, has been famously celebrated for subsisting on 3-4 hours of sleep in order to run her empire. That’s how she likes to live, and that’s fine; but in my world view, it’s not a life’s path to be celebrated, promoted, and emulated.

What are we living for? The reality is that sleeping and dreaming are highly active states. The body actually paralyzes itself during certain states of sleeping, likely because of the increased brain activity and decreased consciousness. There is so much going on that we don’t understand during sleep, but because from an observable, third-party perspective, seeing another person sleeping suggests that that person isn’t doing anything, we regard sleep as “wasted time.” Oh, but no.

Marc Chagall's paintings are dreams frozen in time.
Marc Chagall’s paintings are dreams frozen in time.

Sleep is something to be celebrated and, yes, explored–but ethically. Dreaming is unlike anything else in this world. It’s something to be prized and a part of life, like all senses and like the arts, for which we should have greater appreciation. Even for those who dismiss dreams as irrelevant to waking life, they give us the incentive to think in waking life about what they mean–doing so provokes curiosity and imaginative thinking, which in turn opensldoors for innovation in the material waking world. At the same time, dreams are (for most of us) the only opportunity to spend time with family and friends who are no longer around, for us to break all the rules of what we believe is reality, and to remind us that, despite all our efforts, it’s not only impossible but a fool’s mission to explain every aspect of life and living.

Science has been hard at work since its inception to explain consciousness, and psychology has been hard at work to explain how consciousness, unconsciousness and the subconscious exist symbiotically–the hows and whys of all these aspects of being alive.

I am all for exploration, but I’ve been told all my life that I “think too much.” When people tell me that, it’s not a compliment and it has nothing to do with intelligence; it means that I obsessively analyze everything and try to make sense of it. The one area in life for which I don’t need an explanation is sleeping or dreaming. Sometimes we need to take a step back and simply accept things over which we have no control: death is one, although we’ll never stop working toward a “cure” for it (heaven help us all if someone finds one–in my book, that would be the invention of actual hell–but that’s another meandering rant). Another is sleep. Scientific American asks “Do we need to sleep?” I learned a long time ago that it’s never wise to ask a yes-or-no question while conducting an interview for a variety of reasons–one of which is that sometimes there’s a straightforward answer that leaves nothing left to discuss. This is one of those occasions. Yes, we need to sleep. Why do we need to sleep is the question that’s being explored by science, and you know, that’s OK as long as it’s explored ethically (never, ever deprive any living creature of its basic needs for self-gain), but it’s also unnecessary. Yes, we need to sleep. We know this. We need it as much as we need to eat and as much as we need to eliminate waste from our bodies; we have zero control over this, and we need to realize that we shouldn’t have to control every single aspect of life. No one says that breathing uses vital energy that could be applied to something else and seeking out a way to prevent the need to breathe so that we can be more productive (actually, of course, scientists really are trying to do just that–so scratch this entire sentence).

We have such strange priorities today. People worry about the potential impending artificial intelligences that may force human beings to compete with them–but we are already doing that, willing away our organic animal nature in favor of the numbers-crunching capacity of the mind and the lifting power of the body. As every young man and woman becomes a creatine-powered bodybuilder who operates at peak efficiency and educational systems are converting human minds into STEM-only computer processors, the imaginative, fantastical aspects of life–which remain real despite being dismissed–are rejected. It’s so strange to me.

I love sleeping. I love dreaming. I’ve never taken a recreational drug in my life, save alcohol, which I’ve decided I don’t like because it numbs senses when I want to heighten them. But, oh, how I love to indulge in sleep. It’s a privilege and a gift and a tremendous part of life. As science explores why we “waste a third of our lives” in a dormant mode, I spend much of my work day, stressing over things that are truly unimportant much of the time, and which often are contributing more waste and damage of all kinds to our collective human experience, wishing I were harmlessly and very actively in bed experiencing that other part of life that no one else seems to value at all.

I assume I am writing this only for myself, and therefore won’t bother to edit it into a well-organized essay about the importance of sleeping and dreaming. My words here meander, and that’s fitting for the topic at hand. I do wonder whether anyone else out of the seven billion people crawling this planet like a colony of carpenter ants appreciates the gift we are given in the ability to experience actual magic during a full third of our lives. It’s bewildering to me that people don’t greet sleep each night with the excitement of diving into a blockbuster movie or a great work of literature or music. Sleep is a pleasure. Dreaming is a privilege. We should be more grateful and appreciate both while we can because if you think you’re going to sleep when you’re dead, maybe look into the science of sleeping: death is, as far as we know, the end of consciousness; it happens when the brain stops functioning. During sleep, the brain is working overtime to support your waking functions and to enchant you all the while. How can anyone take that for granted?

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writer, painting, liver with chronic lyme disease, gay man, looking for respectful imaginative people with whom to associate and experience life

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