Phil-osophically Speaking – January 28, 2011


Sleep Perchance to Dream

I try to get 7 or even 8 hours of sleep a night if possible. Every study shows the restorative powers of sleep in our physical and mental lives. Lack of sleep not only affects our emotions and moods but also our immunological system. The more I live the more I believe this to be true.

Shakespeare said, “Sleep knits up the raveled sleeve of care.” So it does. It is, for me, a luxurious torpor; a blissful narcosis and with dreams dancing in our heads — a ballet of the unconscious. Since the 1950s, scientists have realized that sleep is anything but a passive, dormant activity. It is more like an electrical storm, neurotransmitters firing off like machine guns, impulses that can be measured by electrodes. Somehow, in still mysterious and inexplicable ways, sleep is a fountain of renewal and refreshment.

Rats that normally live for two to three years, if deprived of REM cycles (“rapid eye movement” during a dream state) will live only about three weeks. Our brains are far more complex and resilient, but I guess I was not taking any chances. The longest I’ve been awake was 23 hours and that was in high school. A measly record for sure and one I am a little sensitive about. Recently, during an all night vigil in a hospital emergency room, I glanced at the time and drowsily realized that I was about to break my record. It was my last conscious thought. Resting my head against a roughly grained, concrete wall I became comatose, sleeping standing up, as if I were a horse.    

It was only two minutes, but even that brief span, in the short run, can be miraculously restorative. My hopes for a new record dashed, I figured I must have some sort of physiological barrier, like the runners of old who for decades could not break the fabled 4-minute mile. When I ran for office, I campaigned furiously, almost indefatigably but I could never say, unhappily, around the clock. Exhaustion descended upon me with the weightlessness of an early morning mist and lulled me into those slumberous catacombs that sang so sweetly to me.

I suppose it is why a certain article in a medical journal has long fascinated me. It was a study undertaken in 1964, medically documenting a subject who volunteered to remain awake for 200 hours, nearly nine days and nights in return for a monetary reward. After conducting a series of exhaustive physical and psychological tests, a 35-year-old man bursting with good health was chosen. After signing waivers exempting the doctors from any liabilities, the experiment was on. At first the subject enjoyed the easy camaraderie … sense of adventure … friendly bantering … and, of course, the lip-smacking good coffee. It was a cheerful place to be.

The doctors worked in shifts; dutifully recording the subject’s every reaction … mood shift … emotional inflection. For nearly 72 hours, things went swimmingly. But then the coziness vanished and the good-natured joking died a slow, agonizing death. The subject became irritable … impatient … edgy. He no longer picked up anything to read, or watched television for fear that the strain on his eyes would vanquish any resistance from closing them.

By the sixth day his bursts of temper were becoming more explosive and frequent. He bitterly resented being accompanied to the toilet and the constant scribbling on notepads grated on him. He felt like a lab rat; was it really necessary to record his every movement …. utterance … gesture? The marathon went on.

The next day the subject was unraveling by the seams. Profanity laced tirades erupted for no reason at all; he desperately struggled to keep his bobbing, sleep-starved brain above the waters of consciousness. By now he was moving about his room like a trapped, caged animal —- ready to tear his room apart. As the seconds …. minutes… then hours interminably ticked away, the doctors began to feel physically threatened.

“I’m going to take that clipboard, pen and all and shove it ….” he bellowed at one technician who further enraged him by scribbling down those very comments. He incessantly asked for the time … how much longer, he demanded, must he stay awake … by now the time must have elapsed, right?

His agitation increased alarmingly … mood swings gyrated back and forth, he started having hallucinations. Every tick-tock became an omen; every passing second an enemy to contend with; the clock preyed mercilessly on his mind. Now a new problem emerged. He was convinced that the 200 hours was up and they purposely were not telling him. This was treachery; through some dark political motive the bastards were trying to bilk him out of his reward. An angry, accusatory index finger stopped its trajectory barely a half inch from the nose of a doctor who furtively confabulated with his colleagues on what to do about this new crisis.

Hasty assurances … encouragement … promises were made that the time was not up but would be soon. But as the eighth day dawned, all semblance of sanity was washed away. It was pitiful. The subject had arrived looking strong and vibrant; full of bravura and manly confidence. Now he crawled around on his hands and knees, whimpering and sniveling like an inconsolable child. The doctors shifted around uneasily: Had he completely gone to pieces … a nervous break down … or was he stark raving mad?

In a darkened chamber, a roomy bed with the softest mattress and fluffiest pillows awaited our hero upon the completion of his ordeal. But as the 200th hour was about to strike, things had bizarrely boomeranged: The patient physically revived; meanwhile his doctors verged on collapse. He did not want to sleep … could not sleep … absolutely refused to sleep. Instead he manically paced up and down. One hour … two hours …. three hours and he continued to mindlessly strut about. Finally, after numerous heartfelt entreaties, they lured him to his bed and almost instantly he was sound asleep.

How long he would sleep — and what the effects would be when he awoke they debated among themselves, actually wagering on the outcome. Some felt he would sleep 24 hours straight — others thought even longer. The answer came after only 9 hours and 24 minutes. The subject stirred from his deep slumber; fluttering his eyelids, his pupils hazily focused on his surroundings. Now wide awake he curiously asked for a cigarette and as he smoked carried on a conversation with the doctors as if this was just another morning.  

No sign whatsoever of any ill effects; moreover follow-up checkups gave him a clean bill of health. After being subjected to such a punishing regimen, the doctors marveled at the brain’s rejuvenating powers. The experiment also revealed that sleep was sort of like a safety valve, a mechanism that keeps our intellectual engine from overheating.

Samuel Coleridge dreamt the lines of his great poem Kubla Khan, also known as A Vision in a Dream. That might have been opium induced but the dream state with all its thunder of discombobulated images has, like lightening, flashes of illumination. When we are awake, we share the same world with everyone else; but when we are asleep, said Heraclitus, we each live in our own world. Some of our best thoughts come when dreaming or when we are about to fall asleep. When a friend told me she was suffering from insomnia, I told her not to lose any sleep over it. It was a stupid joke but she laughed. The important thing in getting a good night’s sleep is to relax, get plenty of mental and physical exercise so you feel fatigued by evening, set a regular bedtime and, of course, limit caffeine consumption and other stimulants, especially after 5 p.m. If that does not work, you can always go back to counting sheep.


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