the Science of Sleep

At 7.30am there is a knock at my door which wakes me from slumber and reverie, which is odd. I live in a gated complex; it is unusual for me to receive visitors at any time. I don’t get up out of bed; I slept at 4am, having been struck by the urge to work until the early hours of the morning; never deny the muse.

Nevertheless, the rude awakening punctuated one of those dreams we have which feels so deliciously rich and poignant at the time of waking, but which begins to decay in the light of the day; this morning, I was afforded the opportunity to reflect upon that dream.

I love dreaming. I am fascinated by the imagery the sleeping mind conjures; fantastical narratives are born, of elastic duration, in a nebulous space that is the most subjective of experiences.

I have been pig-headed enough, in my life, to create a lifestyle where dreaming, play and creativity take centre stage. Often I consider this frivolous; a luxury my parents and relatives could not afford. Many would baulk at my choices, for who can afford the time to roll around in the cumulo-substrata of their dreams? For me, this is the realm of the artist.

An artist is a fascinating leaf on the human tree, with its broad spectrum of experience. All of us are valuable nodes, in this crazy-ass experiment we call humanity. The litter-picker; the bean counter; and, indeed, the dreamer. What is the role of the artist, if not to fully give herself over to the imagination, to immerse herself in dreams?

Last night, I watched a brilliant TED talk by one of my favourite musicians, Nitin Sawhney, in which he lightly touched upon the dance of chance across which artists often happenstance, by reflecting on a conversation between two schools of thought, if you will; East and West. He compared classical music traditions; Indian (emerging from an oral tradition, with a subjective, interpretive structure, relying on spontaneous creativity and uncertainty) and European (written tradition, a set structure and composition, and relying on certainty).

The talk began with Sawnhey reflecting on the meeting between two giants of the mind, Tagore and Einstein (Rabindranath Tagore is less known to Westerners. A polymath, he is perhaps most popular for his songs, poetry and literature. Despite being ardently anti-nationalist, he inadvertently penned songs which were adopted as national anthems by India and Bangladesh, but his polymathematics extended to the field of philosophy, sustainability, human rights, and many other fields. What I perhaps adore most about him is that despite being a Nobel laureate, his poems and songs can be recited by pretty much every single one of the 250 million odd Bengali speakers on the planet alive today; his work translates to the common people.)

According to Sawhney’s illuminating talk, scientists like Einstein – a talented violin player himself – had no sway with the mathematics of chance and whim. Not for him the flighty creativity of Beethoven; instead, he preferred the clinical ouevre of Mozart. To Einstein, the world was ordered, and his job was to to uncover that order, or symmetry. He had little time for flights of fancy. I doubt he would have given much time over to consider his dreams. Whom amongst us would?!

The 1930’s, when Tagore and Einstein had their famous meeting, also gave rise to the psychoanalytic movement in Vienna, down to the work of two brilliant men, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

In his documentary “The Power Of Nightmares“, film maker Adam Curtis suggests that the worlds of marketing and advertising, which has had such a remarkable effect on the world we live in today, was a direct result of Freud’s work.

The soft science of psychology is in its infancy. The advent of MRI brain scans will push the science on immeasurably in the next century, but before we learnt to see inside the brain, we could only postulate how it worked; hence the pseudo-science of psychoanalysis (which still has so many advocates, despite its inaccuracies, flights of fancy and  – at £60 per session weekly for at least a year – expensive navel gazing).

Of course, both Freud and Jung – firm peers and colleagues at one point – were fascinated by the realm of dream; you might infer that much of their work centred on that indeterminate world where time becomes plastic, fantastic, elastic; a world where we humans, with our love of stories and storytellers, collude as both performer and rapt audience in the most weird and wonderful arena of the unloosed mind. Ridley Scott’s ‘Bladerunner’ was based on a Philip K Dick novel with a delightful name: ‘Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?’

It’s going to be a while before science gets to grips with dreaming. Let’s hope that scientists of the future will be more creative in their approach.

(My favourite neuroscientist on the planet is David Eagleman, a man who seems determined to use his laboratory in ways which might be considered highly creative. We’re used to science breaking things down into smaller and smaller, quantifiable components; Eagleman, however, is a big thinker; he is interested in the vast amounts we don’t know yet, not the tiny amount we do, and speaks eloquently about the role of creativity in science. It’s a burgeoning field; this year I was lucky enough to make acquaintance with the brilliant Dan Glaser. Dan specialises in creating bridges between science and art. Currently director of the Science Gallery, this autumn Dan became the first scientist to judge the Man Booker Prize.  He’s been involved with the Body of Songs, a collection of songs inspired by the body’s organs, by the likes of Ghostpoet and Bat For Lashes.

One might say that if Freud and Jung could be considered scientists (and psychoanalysis is indeed a branch of the soft science of psychology, but let’s not forget the fact that at the turn of last century, phrenology was taken pretty seriously), then their laboratories were subject to subjectivity of the highest order.

Though their methodologies seem a little archaic now (heaven forbid anyone who would today put themselves through the kind of “Tell me about your mother” couch therapy, so popular amongst the good and the great of 1930′s Vienna), Jung was definitely a sharp thinker, whose later meanderings saw him become fascinated by different models of thinking, specifically Chinese; he loved the I Ching, which is such a wonderful playground of metaphor for those who don’t like to think straight. Indeed, Jung’s world of archetypes was dominated by myth and dream; The writer Alan Moore calls this shapeless world, from which we grasp our ideas, as idea space. I’m not sure what Neil Gaiman calls it – in the Sandman series, he imagines a very Jungian world called The Dreaming – but he certainly draws from this amorphous pool, to create his stories.

Look – I’m going to be honest. Despite all these ideas, spewing forth from my head in some kind of thought-blancmange, I’m not the sharpest tool in the box. My clevererer friends often bat their lashes at me in that condescending way one does when listening to kids who spout crap in their efforts to figure things out. I guess all I’m saying is that I want science to get to grips with dreams; I want to dig around in the earwax of that underworld with a scientific probe; I want to dive into that space inbetween, in an effort to penetrate what I’m convinced – in my blissful ignorance – lies somewhere outside of my mind, in a yet undiscovered place, somewhere outside of relative time and space.

“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.” – Hamlet


 And by the way – here’s my morning’s dream..

Shot on a budget of £63.73, Edwin Van Durfelwenkel’s breakthrough film was a strange tale which began with a woman who learnt to listen to her lover’s dreams by inserting her tongue into his ear as he slept.

The tongue became a storehouse of dreams, and soon began to develop its own desires, fed by the nightly fantasies cooked up in the  backwater nether-synapses of the woman’s lover. One night, as the woman made herself a midnight snack (bacon and maple syrup on waffles), the tongue grabbed hold of the knife she had inadvertently placed in her mouth, and cut itself off, upon which it ran out of the house; waited patiently until first light; then caught a train to Whitstable, whereupon it stood forlornly by the rollicking waves, until a plan of action formed.

For the next six years, the tongue lived the life of Reilly on a seaside resort in Trinidad and Tobago, earning money from stocks invested in the country’s large supply of bitumen (primarily used in the construction of autobahns) until it fell in love with a handsome young gigolo, whose ulterior motive was to use his fleshy counterpart to procure a visa to a land where sheer stockings were considered the norm amongst a certain class of lady;

The denouement involved the kidnapping of Formula One asshole Bernie Ecclestone, whose subsequent brainwashing allowed his billions of millions to be divested into research and development of 100% biodegradable everything.

A young Fifi LaTrident starred as the tongue, and soon after the accolades poured on her saw the procurement of her role as a Higgs Boson molecule in the box office smash, Atom Heart Eats the Revenge of the Heisenberg Principle.




Comments are closed.