Six a.m. on a Sunday… I groaned and turned off the alarm clock. I hadn’t been sleeping well, or enough, and did not want to obey the imperative summons… especially not on a day when, historically, most folks get to sleep later. As I clawed my way through the fleeing remnants of a dream in which I had been dreaming about dreaming, I wondered about the whole sleep thing. We are supposed to spend about a third of our lives in slumber. Is that a design flaw, a superb bit of physical engineering or a gift? Maybe it is all three, or perhaps that depends on where you are standing.
There has been a huge amount of research done on the need for and benefits of sleep, from both the physical and psychological perspectives. We have identified the stages of sleep, the way the mind solves problems and the body heals and recharges. But that side of things wasn’t what was bugging me.
Other than the ‘low-battery’ warning that tells us our bodies need sleep, what is it about the process that makes us crave it? We look forward to sleep and yet, during the night hours, normal consciousness takes a hike; we have no control over our bodies or, apparently, our minds. We are defenceless… and we surrender ourselves to sleep willingly? You have to admit, that seems an odd state of affairs.
And we are not on our own. We don’t understand sleep in all other creatures, can’t even fully define it, but it seems that all of them sleep in one way or another. Fish sleep with their eyes open, as most of them don’t have eyelids to close. Dolphins only let one hemisphere of the brain sleep at any time, so they can keep moving. Others only cat-nap for minutes… though cats sleep around sixteen hours a day.
There was a sci-fi programme on the TV at my son’s home the other day, in which a machine had been invented to condense the required hours of sleep into minutes, so that we need not waste our time unconscious. In real world terms, I could see where that would be a money-spinner for its inventor… there is never enough time to do everything we need, want and would like to do. The first part of our lives we are pretty much helpless and do as we are told. The latter years of life are often limited by failing health, depleted finances and energy. The middle years are generally pretty full between work, relationships and families. Time to follow our dreams is at a premium… and perhaps that is the beauty and attraction of sleep.
Dreams are weird things. Some people remember them in detail, others not at all. Some dream in black and white, others in colour. Dreams can seem totally random or make perfect sense…and sometimes both at once.
You can experience a whole lifetime in a night, ride dragons, explore outer space, change careers, do and be anything your waking mind can imagine… and then break all the barriers of possibility and do the impossible too. We are superlative storytellers in our dreams, creating whole and believable worlds, down to the last small detail, peopled with perfectly ‘real’ characters. For a moment, I had an odd thought. What if dreaming were the real purpose of living? Rather like a reversal of that sci-fi machine, where our bodies themselves are just the machines that allow us to sleep, and where our waking life just gathered impressions to fuel imagination so that we could cram all the experience of multiple lifetimes into a short few years… It would make sense of why we tend to remember our dreams so imperfectly; why would we want to live ‘ordinary’ lives awake after the adventures of the dream word?
I know science and the conscious mind have explanations for dreams, as well as the stages and uses of sleep, but I have a feeling there is more to the dream state than we yet know. And yet, we speak of people being asleep who walk like automata through the world, unaware of its magic and beauty.. We use the term ‘dreamer’ as a disparagement, when everything useful that has every been invented was first dreamed up in someone’s imagination.
Maybe we should be paying more attention to our dreams and what they might be capable of showing us? I know that one of the pivotal moments of my own life to date was experienced in dream… an experience so profound that, forty years later, it is as fresh as ever in memory and as relevant to the way I live my life.
Science would probably say that the dream was just my subconscious mind collating and presenting what I already knew deep down… or seeking justification for my choices… or something equally sensible. I honestly don’t care where things come from if they can change my life for the better. And if dreams give me access to a level of mind that knows better than the surface ‘I’, I’m quite happy to dream.
All I need now is a boss who will let me…