“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange – the fact of dreaming.

Thus, in a psychology book I admire greatly, The Mind of Man, Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity – I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error – and he speaks of the incoherence, the disconnectedness, of the fables of dreams. I would like to recall Paul Groussac and his fine essay, “Among Dreams,” in The Intellectual Voyage. Groussac writes that it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane – after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves. A great writer of the eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, believed that our memory of dreams is more impoverished than the splendour of reality. Others, in turn, believe that we improve our dreams. If we thin of the dream as a work of fiction – and I think it is – it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares”, from Seven Nights

 

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Review of Fugitive Minds, Antonio Melechi, Nthposition 2005

This review, unlike that of“Old Friends”, now seems rather dated. Not because of the book (which I would like to re-read) but the tone, simultneously bombastically magisterial in the opening paragraphs and tellingly naive (I have now heard of the normalisation of hearing voices – indeed it is more or less mainstream)

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There are two tendencies in popular science, particularly popular psychology and neuroscience. One could be called reductionistic. We are assailed by books claiming that “we” are “just” collections of neurons, or idiot machines to reproduce our DNA, or somesuch. Books touted to “explain”, finally and definitively, why we are the way we are. The other is the perpetually chippy and confrontational, content not merely to propound a sweeping explanation for everything but to dismiss as absurd, stupid or downright evil all alternatives.

The regrettable proliferation of inverted commas in the last above paragraph perhaps indicate how these books rub off my own taste and temperament rather than objective critical opinion, but it is a pity that popular science writers seem less and less keen simply to explain and illustrate, rather than hector and hold forth.

The fly jacket tries to set this up as Antonio Melechi versus the monstrous regiment of materialist biological psychologist and psychiatrists: he “argues that this materialist vision of the human mind and behaviour promises more than it can deliver.” This is true, but on one level misrepresents the book. Melechi is refreshingly undogmatic, and while his inclination is obviously to champion the importance of cultural factors in twilight states, this is no aggressive polemic. The emphasis is on the interplay of cultural and biological factors, and Melechi’s stress on the cultural side is not just a reflection of his own background but a corrective to the prevalent tendency to champion the biological side. But he is no blind foe of any application of biochemistry and neuroscience to psychology.

For instance, in the essay on Near Death Experiences, Melechi concludes that “many of the elements that are ‘universally’ characteristic of the NDE, from geometric forms to the ‘life review’, do not require metaphysical explanation; they are best explained in terms of a secret heritage called ‘the body.'” William James, far more than Freud, is the presiding spirit of these essays. In the introduction Melechi writes of James’ scorn for the 19th century materialists who eagerly diagnosed saints and mystics as epileptics and hysterics. This is Melechi’s attitude too, one that is properly sceptical of wild claims but never outright dismissive.

He writes, for instance, on the possible relationship between Lewis Carroll’s history of migraines and the genesis of Alice in Wonderland. The shrinking and expanding, the “curiouser and curiouser” phenomena that Alice encounters, all echo descriptions of a migraine aura. Yet Melechi is aware of the limits of this approach; writing on the temptation to see Jabberwocky as influenced by the migrainous jumbling of words, he deflates the idea by observing that the poem was intended as a parody of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on hearing voices. I was unfamiliar with the work of Marcus Romme, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maastricht (what would Europhobes make of that, I wonder), who campaigns for the normalisation of hearing voices, and the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the “bicameral mind” is purported to underly the guidance by voices of the Old Testament Prophets, the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey and other ancient texts. The later discussion of the work of John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist of whom Melechi writes “of late, [he] has been increasingly impervious to criticism and debate. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which has been less than even-handed in its criticisms of Mack, should take some responsibility for his exile” should warn one of the dangers of accepting authorities whether they be tenured professor at Harvard or self-appointed police of the borders of science.

The book is not just concerned with psychopathology (or perceived psychopathology) There is much on the twilight states that we all experience – sleep, dreaming – as well as ones which, while not universal, are very common – such as sonambulism and déjà vu. There is much on psychiatric exotica like latah, koro and arctic hysteria, and obsolete psychiatric diagnoses like nostalgia, once a dread disease of migrant workers. It functions best as a collection of essays, very well written and filled with literary and historical references, about various aspects of psychology rather than as some kind of argumentative tract. Even the most rigid biological determinist would surely be able to read these for profit and entertainment.

 

“Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts.”

Sleeping, as we all know, is the most secret of our acts. We devote a third of our lives to it, and yet do not understand it. For some, it is no more than an eclipse of wakefulness, for others, a more complex state spanning at one and the same time past, present, and future,; for still others, an uninterrupted series of dreams. To say that Mrs Jáuregui spent ten years in a quiet chaos is perhaps mistaken; each moment of those ten years may have been a pure present, without a before or after. There is no reason to marvel at such a present, which we count by days and nights and by the hundreds of leaves of many calendars and by anxieties and events; it is what we go through each morning before waking up and every night before falling asleep. Twice each day, we are the elder lady.

From “The Elder Lady” in “Doctor Brodie’s Report“, Jorge Luis Borges, trans. Norman Thomas di Giovanni. 

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One of the things I have used this blog for is as a commonplace book, collating various quotes of interest to me. One interest I have is sleep, not only in the medical sense, not only in the personal sense, but in the sense of it being a true mystery of existence. We all need sleep, but why exactly? And what is it like to sleep? We all do it, but who can describe what the sensation of sleep is – indeed, if the phrase “the sensation of sleep” is meaningless, what then?

Not surprisingly, I have found that the best descriptions of sleep are in literature. I have collected passages from  J G Ballard, from  Elaine Dundy, from  Thomas Bernhard, from  Cees Nooteboom, from Bravig Imbs, from Marilyn McEntyre, from Heraclitus via George Steiner, from  Homer via Adam Nicolson, from  Vladimir Nabokov – an eclectic bunch, to be sure. No doubt many many more examples could be collected and I am missing some obvious ones. I have tended not to collect descriptions of dreams or dreaming.

Re-reading “Doctor Brodie’s Report” over the weekend, I came across the above passage, which, of all those I have collated, seems to capture most beautifully the mystery of sleep, the varieties of human experience of it, and as a sort of bonus something of the mystery of dementia. My own father died nearly five years ago, having had dementia for at least seven years and more likely a decade. One of the only blessings I can think of about our experience is that his essential personality was preserved. I do wonder what his day to day existence was like and I feel that Borges’ description of the elder lady’s life captures something essential and hard to pin down about it.

Marilyn McEntyre on sleeplessness and the night vigil

I drift off happily at bedtime, but now wake between three and four in the morning. I like to wake early, but not quite that early. At that hour, I’m faced with a decision: Do I get up and begin a day that will likely end in untimely fatigue, or lie there and try to find my way back to rest, if not sleep?

Nighttime is a time-honored metaphor for seasons of darkness, loss, uncertainty, mourning. It’s not only a metaphor: nighttime is in fact when our demons tend to assail us, and unhappy memories or unnerving anxieties move to the foreground of consciousness, just before or after periods of restless sleep. It can be hard, in the dark, to maintain perspective and resilience. It can be hard, if we’re tired, to appropriate those wakeful times for fruitful prayer or meditation. A fatigued mind isn’t necessarily a relaxed one.

Wakeful nights, like periods of spiritual darkness, may be times to practice the kind of watching described in the story of Passover in Exodus 12: “It was a night of watching by the Lord.” It was doubtless also a night of anxiety, restlessness, and hope mixed with apprehension and unknowing. But the Israelites knew the Lord was abroad and something was afoot, and so they watched and waited, not only that night, but in ritual remembrance “kept . . . by all the people of Israel throughout their generations.”

Since then, the night watch has become a part of Christian ritual, remembered liturgically in the Christmas and Easter vigils, and by the custom of watching with the dead the night before burial.

Sometimes it’s good to remember how much germinates in the dark of our lives—like seeds in the darkness of the soil, or like trees fattening their leaf buds in winter. During those times we never know what’s being prepared within us, because it hasn’t yet broken into the light of consciousness. The Spirit works within us in ways we barely imagine, and can only—and only sometimes—recognize after the fact.

When we think we’re simply thrashing about, wandering aimlessly in the fog, there may be, as Hamlet reminds us, a divinity shaping our ends.

Knowing that, we may submit to that process of being shaped and tried and prepared with a little more patience in the waiting and awareness of the subtle signs that come even in the very midst of darkness. They remind us of how the slow sun rises, as Emily Dickinson so beautifully and accurately put it, “a ribbon at a time.” Those ribbons of light may be pale and thin, but each of them is a promise and a harbinger of far more to come.

Sleep and dreams

One of my interests is sleep. Some of this is personal; I  used to think I was a “bad sleeper”, until I discovered that thinking you are a bad sleeper makes you a bad sleeper, and also that my sleep pattern wasn’t as bad as I thought (one of the advantages of a sleep diary approach)

Some of this is professional. Sleep problems are a major contributor to and marker of mental distress, and a warning sign of relapse in mental illness. Empowering someone to sleep better often makes a massive difference to people’s live.

Overriding all this, however, is a sense of wonder that this universal human experience is so little understood and so unknown to our conscious self. Unlike eating or drinking, the physiological function of sleep is unclear. We notice its lack, but what is it we are noticing?

On this blog I have tried to collect various passages from works, usually not explicitly “about sleep”, that touch on what it is to sleep. The literature on dreams is vast , that on sleep itself is less. A major reason for this is obvious; the experience of sleeping is not open to us, whereas that of dreaming is (to a degree)

The contemporary medical/scientific conception of dreams is that they are either meaningless or at most reflect the emotional state of the dreamer. This is one of the most dramatic breaks with most of human history, during which dreams were seen as messages from the Divine, or or prophetic. Freudian dream interpretation – with its idea that dreams are the Royal Road to the Unconscious – was perhaps, despite Freud’s atheism, the apotheosis  of the significance of dreams in culture.

Anthony Clare once said to me (among other psychiatric trainees) that people expect psychiatrists to explore two lines of questioning we rarely actually do explore – their sexual life and their dream life. While psychiatry, psychology and neuroscience are now unlikely to set much store if any on dreams, a vast popular literature still exists on their interpretation. A lot of this is probably spurious, but also reflects a thirst for meaning, and a cultural continuity with the status of dreams in most of human history.

 

 

From “Rituals” by Cees Nooteboom

“I sleep very little,” said Philip Taads. He was sitting in the same place as yesterday and wore a plain blue kimono. “Sleeping is senseless. A peculiar form of absence that has no meaning. One of all the people you are is resting, the others remain awake. The fewer people you are, the better you sleep.”

“If you don’t sleep, what do you do?”

“I sit here.”