Phil-osophically Speaking: December 1, 2011

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Sweet Dreams Are Made of This

It is frequently remarked that our best thoughts come to us while we are in that quasi-dreamlike state, just before we helplessly saunter off into the deep, soothing catacombs of delirium that constitutes sleep. I’ve often experienced an inchoate thought that crystallizes in my quasi-somniferous brain, only to be left to drift aimlessly in the nether regions of consciousness waiting for the morning light to commit these cerebral sunbursts to paper. Too often, however, I awake to find that these meanderings have vaporized along with the disappearing darkness.

It’s quite depressing; these sublime thoughts itching at the horizon of consciousness seem so vital, so imperishable that their disappearance upon awaking comes something as a shock. I reproach myself for being too lazy to drag my worthless husk of a carcass out of bed to memorialize these nocturnal inspirations on a clean white piece of paper. Such laziness is inexcusable; it is not as if I have to trek to the nearest Staples to purchase the necessary recording instruments — they are always in my house, just a few measly steps away. But fatigue is a formidable enemy; its daunting breastworks have defeated regiments of thought that failed to charge at the sounding of the trumpet.

Many others have spoken of being similarly frustrated. Sleep is best induced when the mind is in a state of anarchy, as commotions of thoughts noisily bubble in the subconscious; but a singular thought, which illumes proud and unbowed before the final gasp of awareness fades and then dissipates into a maze of hallucination, is worth immortalizing with a few strokes of the pen.

Relaxation of the body is the key to unlocking the mind. Marcel Proust enjoyed and perhaps needed to write while lying in bed. Away from the distractions of the world, Proust composed his masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past, a landmark of Western literature, and entirely written by Proust in a reclining position, propped up on his pillows, in an un air-conditioned room of tightly shut windows often during the sweltering summers in Paris. Peculiar, yes, but who am I to argue with the glories of high art.

Or even René Descartes, the author of perhaps the most famous utterance in the history of philosophy, “I think, therefore I am” experienced, paradoxically, his most feverish brainstorms amid the peaceful twilight that lies between the burning sun of consciousness and the dusk of dormancy. Put aside for the moment the syllogistic challenge of whether Descartes actually proved, as he intended, the reality of his existence or whether he only proved that thinking was going on. Rather, let us focus on the indisputable fact that the corpus of his philosophical musings and his mathematical insights were seeded while lounging half-asleep in his bed, pensively reflecting about the way the world works.  The old priests at a Jesuit College who educated him took pity on Descartes’ fragile health, sparing him from their Spartan regimen by allowing their young charge to stay in bed until noon. Descartes adhered to this reclining habit all his life, and it paid enormous pedagogical dividends by richly embroidering the scientific method.

We all heard about Newton’s falling apple that prompted his staggering insights about universal gravity. The story is delightfully true except for the comic nugget that the apple fell on Newton’s noggin. But few have heard of Descartes’ fly. While tottering on the precipice of sleep, Descartes observed a fly crawling on the ceiling and had an epiphany. It struck him that the path of the fly on the ceiling could be described only if one knew the relation connecting the fly’s distance from the two adjacent walls. Descartes suddenly realized that he could describe the fly’s path in a series of numbers thereby making time visible through the medium of mathematics. This meant that motion could be calibrated by what is now known as analytic geometry, which is the application of algebra to geometry.  

Contrast this with my own experience back in the miserable summer of 1989. That’s when my orthopedist ordered two weeks of bed rest to treat my herniated disc between the vulnerable fourth and fifth lumbar. While lying motionless one becomes frightfully familiar with the most inconspicuous banalities. Such is the nature of prolonged stretches of tedium that I don’t think I missed one creeping thing that either crawled on the walls or the ceilings. But never once (this was before I heard about Descartes’ fly) did it dawn on me that if I projected a fly’s trajectory in integers, I, too, would have discovered a branch of mathematics that could predict the flight of cannon balls and the elliptical orbits of planets. The things you miss — perhaps I wasn’t drowsy enough to pick up on it!

The truth, alas, is quite different. There is a mysteriously elusive quality to the workings of the intellectual imagination, especially when its properties of understanding are unique and profound. So I consoled myself about being a stranger in the strange land of Descartes’ higher mathematics by remembering that Picasso, another creative genius, was inept in performing simple arithmetic because he saw numbers through another prism. The number “7,” for example, reminded him of an upside down nose. Picasso’s genius was obviously related to his gifts for constructing shapes, figures and moods. This tidbit served as balm for my feeling of inadequacy until, unfortunately, I remembered I had no talent for painting either.   

None of this, however, detracts from my belief and experience that those lulling moments before sleep can serve as a creative catalyst that eludes us during the rush and frenzy of the day. That, after all, is the point of this little article (you see, there is a point). When thoughts come to mind, whatever you are doing, write them down. That is what René Descartes did. He wasn’t content to abstractly ruminate about the fly and his integers. Thoughts, he knew, are a precious but perishable commodity that can melt like snow. So during that long ago evening, by the dim light of flickering candles, Descartes lifted his delicate frame out of bed to scrawl his dreamy reflections and the future of science was forever altered. So you never know — when lightning strikes during those nocturnal hours ignore the growing heaviness of your eyelids and write it down. It just might be the best idea you ever had — it might even change the world. You never know.

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