The war against sleep

phesanat phriend

 

I worry I sleep too much, particularly being depressed and having been so ill. I would like to get up cheerful and alert at 7.15 every day, but rarely manage to do so. If at all possible, I nap in the afternoon. I need at least eight and a half hours a day, and preferably nine, or even more. That’s a lot of my life asleep. And as I struggle out of bed, my first thoughts are wondering when I can next get back to it again.

When I was much younger, with two scientifically minded friends I tried a sleep deprivation experiment. We went for 40 hours without sleep – missing one night. The going is hardest in the few hours before the time you would naturally wake up. So come 5 am we felt pretty rotten. The worst symptom I remember was nausea, which fortunately seemed to be cured by a good old-fashioned fry-up at the normal time for breakfast. I don’t think I could get past 1 am now, I need my sleep so much.

A few years ago I came across the obituary of the British writer Colin Wilson in the Daily Telegraph. I was both slightly surprised, as though I had expected a greater fuss to be made of his death than a short obituary a few days after the event, and sad, because in spite of some of his strange musings on Atlantis and the paranormal, I thought he was an inspirational thinker and writer. He called himself a “new existentialist”, and wrote about how humans routinely underachieved in failing to fulfil their potential.

Wilson introduced me to the ideas of the Russian mystic and philosopher George Gurdjieff (d. 1949, birth date uncertain). Gurdjieff sported a Dali-esque moustache and had apparently perfected the useful technique of being able to give a woman an orgasm just by looking at her in the right way. He also argued that we spent much of our time “asleep” . By this he meant not just that we were in bed dozing away much of our lives, like me, but that we we living automatically, reacting to life without being fully aware (also like me). Colin Wilson talks of “the robot taking over” our lives.

These words strike a chord, and I know exactly what they mean by living automatically and the robot taking over. I am in this automatic, non-reflective state much of the time. I wake up, have breakfast, start work, have lunch, a rest, do yet more work, have a bath, have a glass of champagne, watch a movie, listen to music, read, go to bed, and then invariably have vivid violent dreams. And I repeat the next day. The robot lives my day; I am in a sense asleep even when I am awake. I am less clear what the alternative to being asleep is though. Of course it’s being awake, but what does being awake feel like? I do have moments of what are called in the literature “epiphany”, when I feel a surge of happiness and almost mystical oneness with the world. Being awake is I think being aware, and being aware of being aware. You’re aware of being alive and aware of being awake. You can place yourself in a context. Living properly is a war against sleep.

I remember a story told by Gurdjieff’s follower John G. Bennett. I have tried to find the exact quote, but have failed, so if you know where it came from (and perhaps can tell it more accurately), please let me know. Bennett describes how he had spoken to Gurdjieff, and then carried on with his life. The robot took over. Then a few weeks later something prompts him, and he comes to his senses again. He says something like “I realised that I had been asleep for two weeks, and then I woke up”. I know exactly what he means.

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

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