Sunday, October 21, 2018

The Work Of Sleep

Some people think that sleep is a waste of time. If sleep is nothing but resting the mind, then what do you call what people are doing while they are sitting on the couch watching Netflix? That doesn't seem like more than resting to me. Sleep certainly does not immediately appear to be productive.

Some people say that they can't get by without at least ten hours of sleep every night; others claim to be fine with about five. Some people believe that sleep has always been a way for primitive organisms to kill time while it was too dark for them to see what they were doing. By now, I suppose, it's only a bad habit as far as those people are concerned. We do seem to spend a lot of time sleeping, and most people do seem to enjoy it. What's really happening?


I am not a sleep expert. I have no training in that area. My only evidence to support any opinion on the subject is based on my own experience, which I calculate has included almost 200,000 hours of sleep. I guess that I've read a bit on the subject too, but not enough to get a license or anything.

Parental Advisory

No laboratory equipment was harmed in the preparation of this post! No research at all was done! No additional reading, no interviews, no nothing! This post is almost entirely anecdotal, with some slight influence from general reading.


The sleeping hours in general have always been my favorite time of the day. People tend to leave you alone, unless you're at boot camp or being held at a CIA rendition site or something. My favorite aspect of sleeping is dreaming. In fact, I have a special talent for dreaming.

I've always been good at recalling dreams. There have been times when I could easily recall multiple dreams from each of the previous several nights. I regularly have dreams that I can remember for years. I love dreaming, almost every type of dreaming. The oldest dreams that I can clearly recall come from my preschool years. They were nightmares, often associated with sleep walking. What can I tell you. I was precocious!

I've always had recurring dreams, dreams that were very similar in subject matter while never being actually identical. I won't bother you with details, but these dreams usually have a symbolism to them that you do not have to be Professor Langdon to figure out. They're not very puzzling. It's a way for your mind to remind you that you still have this aspect of your life that needs working on. The degree to which you are either working on the problem or ignoring it colors the tone and intensity of the dreams.

I've always had nightmares. You could say that I'm something of an expert by now. When I was a child, before or about the age of ten, I had been having such terrible nightmares so frequently, and for so long, that I decided to do something about it. I decided to put my foot down. It was probably hormonal. That's the age when children start to get pumped full of a chemical imperative to stand up for themselves. I intuited that they were my dreams, taking place entirely in my head, so naturally I could take charge of the situation if I wished to. And it turned out to be true. The professionals call it “lucid dreaming.” For a while there, if I were in a tight spot in a nightmare, being chased by some terrible thing, or just a menacing presence of some vague kind, I would pause in the dream and take charge. Wait a minute! What I need is a motorcycle! Then a motorcycle would appear in the dream, and it would start on the first kick, and I'd sail off into the happy sunset. I say first kick, but I don't really remember if I even knew yet that you had to kick them to start them. Maybe I just jumped on and rode off, like magic. It was my dream, after all.

After a few years of that I just didn't care anymore. I became comfortable with the idea that they were only dreams, and that obviously they didn't contain any inherent threat. So what? It's no more threatening than going over to the RKO Keith's in Flushing and watching “House on Haunted Hill,” directed by William Castle. Nothing but cheap thrills. I didn't even think about it anymore, and I lost the ability to dream lucidly. I have never missed it. Now I just enjoy the show, whatever is showing this week. I do think, though, that I still walk through all of my dreams with the clear understanding that they are dreams, and that I am only dreaming, which does prevent the sheer terror from taking over. I experience only mild discomfort when things get out of hand, which they still do on a regular basis.

Most dreams are a bit silly, kind of nonsensical. Things just happen, jumbles of images from our pasts, strange admixtures of people from various periods in our lives. Doctors who have supposedly been trained in matters of the mind do not agree on the utility of all of these mental hieroglyphics.

A very expensive Upper East Side Freudian psychiatrist once told me that dreams were only nature's way of preventing us from becoming bored at the need to remain asleep for so long every day. I'm pretty sure that there is zero chance that that is true. The Jungian psychiatrists believe that the real focus of interest should be the images that are found in the dreams. I tend to agree that they are onto something there. I have had numerous dreams about big houses over the decades. Often within a series of dreams about the same big house that stretched over many, many years. I still occasionally visit essentially the same vast apartment-like structure that has appeared in my dreams for at least twenty-five years. There are ten or twelve floors, more or less identical, almost entirely unoccupied. There are unused kitchens, and empty bedrooms. Often the top floor is a music room of some kind where there is a large collection of guitars and guitar amplifiers, with some drum kits and keyboards sprinkled around. Sometimes there is no roof, although generally the structure is weather resistant. This is the Pharaoh, an image that has haunted the dreams of man since the eons before the invention of writing. The word Pharaoh itself means, “big house.” I have wandered these rooms in dreams hundreds of times, meeting a great variety of people, playing, in fact, many of the guitars, although in the dreams I am much more concerned with playing through certain amps. I guess that the symbolism is that tone is everything to a guitar player. These “big house” dreams are almost never threatening, although they can get strange sometimes. Most often, it is the exploration of the whole place that seems most important. I always wake up feeling like these were happy dreams, and they give me a warm, secure feeling that can last for days. Who wouldn't like a big house? So yes, I think that the Jungians were onto something with their image fixation.

Working on Problems while Sleeping

I'm a big believer in this one. Whatever stupid dreams pass before out tired eyes, however long we lay there like we had been stunned by a sharp blow to the head, our brains are constantly churning the milk of unsolved problems, desperately trying to make the butter of peace of mind.

We sleep, apparently dead to the world, dreaming our stupid dreams, and yet there are parts of our no longer primitive brains working on problems that we may have forgotten about. I've experienced clear proof of this hypothesis on many occasions.

For instance . . .

I graduated from law school in 1991, and I took the California bar exam in late August of that summer. While I was waiting for the results, I was working at a very small law firm in Santa Monica, up in the twenties on Wilshire Boulevard. At the time you could park two blocks away from Wilshire, but no closer without a neighborhood-specific permit. So that's what I did. I was getting to work pretty early, and within a few blocks by the numbers I could always find a good all-day spot up in the neighborhood. Usually the walk was four or five blocks, but the price was right. Anyway . . .

The results of the August bar exam are mailed to test-takers sometime in mid-November. It takes a while to grade that mess. One day around the first week of November, I was visited by clear proof that our minds are furiously at work while we sleep.

I've had this experience of what the French call satori more than once, and this was one of them. The job was easy, and I was early, and it was a fabulous southern California morning, crisp and clear, perfect in every way. No worries! Just walking along, thinking of nothing at all. I idly looked up into the trees over my head and was struck by a flash of sunlight peeking through the leaves, as will happen. The flash triggered a memory, the memory of a dream from the night before. In the dream, I had remembered one of the essay questions from the bar exam, almost three months previously. Although I had forgotten all about it, the entire question had come back to me in my sleep, not only that, but I had realized that there was one issue in the question that I had not addressed in my answer. The issue had been explained to me completely in the dream, by my own mind, and I could remember it clearly right there, walking down the street. The experience was almost frightening.

We lay there, senseless, and yet our brains are busy working on problems, all kinds of problems. I had obviously been working on this problem for months, unbeknownst to me. Just imagine the volume of it. Most of it ends up in the brain's junk pile. This one was part of the bar exam, an event that rather a lot depended on. Three years of hard work, for one thing, not to mention a huge investment of blood and treasure. One issue on one essay question is not enough to start worrying about, and I didn't. I knew that I had passed the test; from the morning of the first day I had not worried about the result one time. That's the way it worked out, too. Two weeks later I got the small envelope in the mail.*

Collating and Sorting Memories

This one I take on information and belief. It takes place in parts of the brain not associated with problem solving or visualization. The dark corners where our memories are stored.

The geniuses tell us that certain parts of the brain process and sort and file away specific memories. Does the brain also make value judgments about our memories? Probably. Let's stick this one way over there. Oh, we'll keep this one up top where we can access it easily. Before you suspect that this is not something you want to trust to your unconscious mind, remember that it is, indeed, your mind.

Might as well trust it. It's going to do whatever it wants to anyway.

*The California bar exam results come two ways. If you fail, they send you all three days of it in a big envelope. You are free then, at your leisure, to study all of your shortcomings in detail. If you pass, you receive only a single sheet of congratulations in a small envelope. My family's joy at my small envelope is one of my most cherished memories. When I got home from work my oldest son burst out of the house waving the small envelope in the air. I can remember his smile and his joy like it was yesterday. It was a good day.

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