By Marc Gilson
A ruffled mind makes a restless pillow — Charlotte Bronte
Have you ever wondered why middle-of-the-night television programming is so dominated by infomercials? Is it because when you’re sleep-deprived, like I am, you’ll buy just about anything? Soap that will wash the stripes off a zebra? An upright vacuum that generates its own black holes? An automatic dog food dispenser? Perfect! Wait a minute, I don’t even have a dog.
It’s 3 am, and I think I just bought a timeshare in Death Valley.
Insomnia: from the Latin. “In,” meaning “non,” and “somnus,” meaning “sleep.” I suffer from “nonsleep.” And when you suffer from nonsleep, you have plenty of time for things like looking up word origins and watching infomercials. As entertaining as that may seem, I can tell you from experience it’s a poor substitute for “the balm of woe,” as Sir Philip Sidney poetically called sleep.
I don’t know when the nonsleeping started. Probably when I was in college and playing as a drummer in a 90s grunge band. In those heady days of my youth I was quite used to being up late, or sometimes all night (weren’t we all?). Or maybe it was after my son was born, and I spent many nights cradling him as I walked up and down the hallway to settle his cries until I almost started crying myself.
But that’s all history now. My son is grown to adulthood, and now here I am in middle age, leading a “normal life,” with a normal-ish schedule, and yet somehow my physiology didn’t get the memo. When it gets to be about bedtime I’m about as sleepy as a ferret on a black coffee drip.
When I’m going through an insomnia phase, my bedtime goes something like this: Sometime around 11pm or so, I dutifully brush my teeth, pick out some (usually) non-clashing clothes for the following day, get into bed and just…lie there… After awhile of this, I might decide to read, watch TV (usually old classic movies), or listen to calming music. Then I might remember something I forgot to do like get a shirt out of the dryer so it doesn’t wrinkle, and then I’ll come back to bed and repeat the process.
Nothing I do seems to produce the desired somnolence, and I remain frustratingly, persistently conscious. Time itself plays games with me, sometimes moving too fast, sometimes too slow. Either way, minute by minute, I roll this way, then that way, wrestle with my pillows, stick a leg out from the covers and pull it back in, watching the clock go from 1:30 to 2:00 to 3:15, and all too soon the sky outside begins to lighten and I hear happy little birds chirping outside my window. Happy little birds that ought to be shot.
Insomnia stinks. But even as I toss and turn in the wee hours I know I’m not alone in my red-eyed sleeplessness. Over 60 million Americans suffer from some sort of sleeping problems. And historically speaking, I’m in some pretty good company.
The classic film star Marlene Dietrich suffered from insomnia. Her remedy? A sardine and onion sandwich on rye. I bet she also held the record for the worst morning breath in the world.
Theodore Roosevelt had his share of sleepless nights but coped by downing a shot of cognac in milk. Not bad, Teddy!
Groucho Marx was a notorious insomniac. Notorious because Groucho’s reputed cure involved phoning people in the middle of the night to crack jokes and insult them. Groucho was fortunate to have lived in an age before caller ID.
Vincent Van Gogh, the one-eared wonder, dealt with his insomnia by treating his pillow with camphor which worked great except for one problem: it poisoned and nearly killed him.
One thing that unites many insomniacs in their nightly pursuit of sleep is a propensity toward obsessive thinking. Homer said, “There is a time for many words, and there is a time for sleep.” In the case of many of us insomniacs, there’s no real distinction. During those dark, sleepless hours, the mind is racing. “Racing” is too general a description, though. More like inventing, scheming, devising, innovating, philosophizing, problem-solving. Insomnia can be torture, but it can also be a wellspring of great ideas. In my case, my head is filled, not with visions of sugarplums, but with storylines, book ideas, band names, ways of ending world hunger and reducing gas prices.
It’s one of the ironies of the condition for many of us; the time when you don’t really have any heavy thinking to do coincides with the mind being on fire with thought. The insatiable mental restlessness occasionally combines with stunning creativity, and I begin to develop a kind of self-deluded confidence in my ability to problem-solve. Economic recession? No prob! Energy crisis? Bring it on, baby! Unified field theory? Child’s play! Want to know what’s really at the center of a black hole? Well it’s a…nah, you wouldn’t believe me if I told you.
I jest, and yet I’m pretty sure that in the middle of the night – in that strange dimension of both shadow and substance – my mind seems to have somehow tapped into something almost superhuman. And that, dear reader, irks me.
It irks me because those high-voltage moments of creative inspiration that keep me awake at night have gone the way of the Dodo Bird by daybreak. There are people who do drugs and have these kinds of experiences. There are people who meditate and have these kinds of experiences. Me? I go to bed every night and spend several hours mentally puzzling my way through a myriad of life’s riddles, wonders, and mysteries big and small, composing poetry, music, and making definite plans to become a sculptor (I do have some Play Doh around here somewhere). But when I’m back on my feet, my brain has reverted to that of a Neanderthal. I might be Einstein or da Vinci at 2am, but by seven in the morning I’m like Rocky Balboa after a 12-round fight, thick-tongued, baritone-voiced, and staggering around.
What is it about those sleepless hours spent in the pitch black or dim blue television light that seems to fire up the synapses to such an agonizing level of wakeful brilliance? Even Edgar Allan Poe (not much of a TV watcher) wondered at the intensity of experiences he had, “only when I am on the brink of sleep.” He described them in unavoidably “Poetic” terms (sorry for that one) as being, “a class of fancies, of exquisite delicacy, which are thoughts: they seem to me rather psychical than intellectual. They arise in the soul…only at its epochs of the most intense tranquility…and at those mere points in time where the confines of the waking world blend with those of the world of dreams.”
Others too, like 18th century philosopher, scientist, mystic, and all-around interesting guy Emmanuel Swedenborg, plumbed the depths of the mind at night and used his sleeplessness as a means of inducing fantastic visions of travelling to Heaven, Hell, and other spiritual realms. Mystics have long thought of this unusual state of mind as a kind of portal to deeper, esoteric wisdom.
There is something surreal and fantastic that happens during those sleep-scarce nights, and I’m not alone in wondering what it is.
As it turns out, sleep researchers tell us there really is a kind of Twilight Zone where sleep is concerned; a narrow band of consciousness where the rational aspects of the wakeful mind overlap with the fantasies and free-spiritedness of our unconscious. A state where the mind runs wild, and virtually anything can happen. A kind of “Bermuda Triangle” of the brain. It’s called the “hypnagogic” state.
As the tiny neuro-electrical impulses of our brains gradually slow from around 15 cycles per second during wakefulness down to 10, and then 6, and then 3, we pass through this hypnagogic state and drift into a deep, peaceful sleep. That’s how it’s supposed to go, anyway.
But if you are an insomniac like me, your brain can actually stall-out in the middle of the hypnagogic state and stay there for extended periods. Being in this half-awake, half-asleep state is like being stranded in some sort of strange, Rod-Serlingesque purgatory where all kinds of weirdness can occur. And it ain’t always fun. It’s a little like certain parts of New Jersey; the fortunate drive straight through, the unlucky run out of gas and get stuck there.
Consider this from Wikipedia:
“The hypnagogic state is sometimes proposed as an explanation of experiences such as, alien abduction, apparitions, or visions, also known as a trip or psychedelic experience…Transition to and from sleep can be attended by a wide variety of sensory experiences. These can occur in any modality, individually or combined, and range from the vague and barely perceptible to vivid hallucinations.”
So hypnagogic states go beyond simple insomnia. They have also been associated with experiences of “unexplained presences, night terrors, holy or evil visitations, loss of body control or awareness, sleep paralysis, and auditory hallucinations.” Whoa! Unexplained presences? Evil visitations? Mother-in-law jokes aside, try sleeping through that!
According to researchers like Andreas Mavromatis of Brunel University, hypnagogia is a state of mind in which the “conscious and unconscious literally overlap.” In his 1987 book, Hypnagogia, The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep, Mavromatis describes hypnagogia as a kind of halfway house between the familiar sticks-and-stones world of wakefulness, and the decidedly bizarre landscape of the inner mind. The hypnagogic state is a place where horror and bliss commingle, where senses cannot necessarily be trusted, and where ideas flow unencumbered by things like logic and common sense.
Mavromatis conducted his own experiments with hypnagogia by relaxing subjects as close to sleep as possible, without letting them actually drift off, and then asking them – totally sane subjects, mind you – to report their experiences. Here’s just one typical sample:
“I saw a large green eye opening and closing…The impression of colour – bright greens and yellows – water falling into a cup or chalice…Hills, mountains, or pyramids, a drinking glass on a shelf, a snail, the back of a person…also fish – I don’t actually see it but I can smell it. Swirl of light.”
It reads a little like a David Lynch screenplay, doesn’t it? One bizarre and seemingly disjointed sensation after another.That’s just the kind of thing that can happen to you in the hypnagogic state. And let me tell you, there’s really no end to the adventures one can have when enduring a layover in hypnagogiaville. Let’s take a deeper look.
One of the interesting phenomena associated with hypnagogia is the so-called “Tetris Effect.” Named after the hugely popular video game developed by Alexey Pajitnov in 1985, the Tetris Effect refers to the tendency of the brain to visualize various puzzle-piecing activities, such as rotating differently-shaped colored blocks to make them fit together like you do with Tetris. People who spend a lot of time in hypnagogic states are prone to this sort of thing, and they do it obsessively. Whether it’s Tetris, Pong, chess, or Solitaire, games easily find their way into our obsessive tendencies and have been responsible for many sleepless hours (but some pretty solid high scores) for plenty of tired people.
Of course we all know about another common effect of hypnagogia: sleepwalking. Comedian Mike Birbiglia has based much of his comedy on his own battles with sleepwalking. This includes an incredibly funny – yet terrifying – story he tells in which, during one memorable sleepwalking episode, he leaped through a second story glass window of a motel room in Walla Walla, Washington, followed immediately by a hilarious conversation with one confused night clerk at the motel’s front desk when Mike, in shredded and bloodied pajamas, re-entered the motel through the front door, attempting to explain himself. The event also necessitated a visit to the ER and numerous stitches. If you get a chance to listen to him tell the story, you’ll be in stitches too. It’s a great story, but the severity and danger of his sleepwalking has also forced him to change his lifestyle; Mike goes to sleep each night in a tightly zipped up sleeping bag and wears mittens to keep him from escaping in the middle of the night and wreaking havoc.
But there’s another phenomenon associated with hypnagogia fewer people are likely to be familiar with. It goes by the astonishingly alarming name: “Exploding Head Syndrome.” That’s right, the good old EXPLODING HEAD SYNDROME. Sheesh. As if I needed one more thing to keep me awake at night.
According to Wikipedia, Exploding Head Syndrome, “causes the sufferer to occasionally experience a tremendously loud noise as if from within his or her own head, usually described as an explosion, roar, or a ringing noise. This usually occurs within an hour or two of falling asleep, but is not the result of a dream and can happen during the day as well. Although perceived as tremendously loud, the noise is usually not accompanied by pain.”
(Reassuringly, Wikipedia also mentions, “Note that exploding head syndrome does not involve the head actually exploding.” Well, there’s a relief.)
If Exploding Head Syndrome isn’t exciting enough for you, imagine this: There you are, snug in your comfy bed, when you suddenly become aware of a strange presence in the room. A presence that should not be there. But as you go to grab your baseball bat or reach for the light to scare off this intruder you find yourself unable to move, not even a finger. Your head and limbs suddenly weigh thousands of pounds. You’re immobile, and not at all happy about it. Whoever – whatever – is in your room is now free to do what it will and there’s not much you can do about it. Welcome to the exciting world of sleep paralysis.
In 1781, artist Henry Fuseli painted one of the few classic works that will literally chill your spine. It’s called “The Nightmare.” In it, we see a dreaming woman, sprawled out, clad in a lovely white gown – so innocent, so pure. But what’s happening in her sleep is anything but pure. She is experiencing a bizarre episode, with a creepy troll-like succubus sitting right on top of her. He is a troll of clearly questionable intentions. And then there’s the evil-looking bug-eyed horse head looking in on things (which, to me anyway, actually adds a certain weirdly comic element to the scene). The picture Fuseli portrays is really kind of amazing in that it shows both the contents of the nightmare, as well as the sleeper who suffers it – a kind of blending of the real and the dream-imagined worlds that many insomniacs can relate to.
It’s rumored that Fuseli himself suffered from insomnia and terrible nightmares, and painted “The Nightmare” over several sleepless nights. It apparently created quite a stir in its day, and it’s considered by many to be one of the only artistic depictions of the horrible experience of sleep paralysis. If so, nooooo thank you!
Sleep disorders can be very, very serious. And I don’t mean to make light of them. But you really can’t ignore the tremendous amount of comedic value in some of these sleep conditions. Consider PLMD: Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. People with PLMD often sleep alone, and for good reason. This condition involves sudden and sometimes violent movements of arms and legs during sleep. It affects about 4% of the adult population, including, I’m sorry to report, a certain girl I maintained a long-term relationship with in the late 1980s. We discovered her condition together one night when, sometime around 4am, I was awakened by the affectionate display of my girlfriend’s forearm slamming into my face. What did I do to deserve this?? Eyes watering and nose throbbing, I flipped on the light and looked at her in astonishment, about to call the police and file a domestic abuse report, when I realized she was still snoring away. Hence, my first experience with PLMD.
Later, she was very sorry, of course, although her contrition didn’t do much for my peace of mind come bedtime. Then it happened again a few nights later when she threw her dainty fist – thankfully in the other direction from where I was sleeping this time – and shattered the lamp on her nightstand. Although I still think of her fondly, I figure the eventual demise of our relationship probably helped keep my health insurance claims low and may have saved my life.
The world of sleep deprivation is a fascinating, frightening, and bizarre one. But all things considered, I guess my hypnagogic hyper-thinking isn’t as bad as it could be. No evil presences, no leaping out of windows, no paralysis, no broken lamps, and my head hasn’t exploded yet. And truth-be-told, I sometimes enjoy those moments of heightened inspiration, fleeting as they can be. There’s something almost magical about watching one’s brain work late at night; something that really cannot be replicated during daylight hours.
Maybe all the secrets to life really are kept in that twilight zone between wakefulness and sleep. All the answers to life, the universe, and everything could be just a sleepless night or two away. Maybe hypnagogia is a kind of built-in drug trip we all have access to, where windows to hidden worlds are opened for us, mysteries are solved, and the next great novel is already composed – just waiting for someone to just write the damn thing down.
So I can’t honestly say I am completely unhappy with my occasional bouts of nonsleep. It certainly gives my brain a good workout. Then again, who am I kidding? I’ve got bags under my eyes big enough to require wheels and a baggage claim tag. I’m drowsy and crabby all day long. The TV is stuck on yet another infomercial, and I just misplaced the remote control again. If sleeplessness is a drug, it’s a drug I’d be better off without.
So maybe having written all this blather on my hypnagogic dilemma I will actually get a couple of hours of sleep tonight before heading off to work. Meanwhile though, I’d sure like to find a better way of tapping into that strange, dormant brilliance, and coaxing out into the daylight that too-shy muse that resides in us all, somewhere, in the Twilight Zone.