Look, I’ve got a mind of my own, occasionally borrowed by one misguided enthusiasm or another, but still, mine. I’m capable of change. I used to love Turkish Taffy; now I give it a wide berth. I’m fond of wordplay and British humor and can’t watch what passes for comedy on broadcast television.
The point is, damn it, as I edge ever closer to the last frontier, I am still relegated to the class of human known as “Baby Boomer”. I’ve never liked the term; “Boomer” is less infantilizing, but reeks of bonhomie and machismo. I’ll admit that “The Pig in the Python” is clever until my over-active suggestibility kicks in, and I’m gifted with the image of an enormous snake roiling in discomfort as its distended belly is attacked from within by the frantic flailing of an undigested animal, in this case, “Babe”.
Apparently, that’s us, and before grammarians leave the room, please, nobody in their right mind would say, “That’s we”. Don’t start questioning my use of “their” to modify a singular subject either; we’re over it.
“Is that it?”, you ask; “in a universe of grievances, you sat down to gripe about your generational nickname?”
Well, yes, but only in passing. As you have probably guessed, this morning’s meditation has to do with the eternal questions: “What do we know, and how do we know it?”
More precisely, “what the hell is wrong with sleeping through the night?” See, that’s where the generational carping comes in. Apparently, my generation has arrived at yet another of life’s check points, and I am not amused. I’m grumpy and mildly delusional, clumsy and thick witted, and it seems I’m not alone. I’ve been informed that nobody cares, and that’s fine; I can maintain a full head of discontent without an audience.
“Have you tried … ?”
Yep, not the cryogenic bath or rohypnol, but pretty much every other nostrum and sleep inducing practice. The weighted blanket and banana tea were not terrible ideas; the jury is still out on making a to-do list, slathering myself with essential oils, and breathing through the left nostril. After years in denial, I’ve gone through several sleep studies and now slap on my Respironics DreamWear mask, hit the switch, and hope nobody has to find me in the end, lifeless, looking like the star of 1907’s Le Cochon Danseur, a terrifying anthropomorphic dancing pig. My two or three hours of “sleep” then ended, I check my AHI (apnea hypopnea Index) to see how many times I stop breathing per hour. On a good night, my brain forgets to tell me to breathe about 25 times an hour; last night the needle was buried at 51, indicating that my apnea can be characterized as moderately severe. I thought severity was a condition like uniqueness, incapable of modification, but again, nobody cares or wants to know.
Here’s what interests me, however, and what should be of interest to anyone who sleeps … or doesn’t: We (and by “we” I mean anyone) don’t know what sleep is, why we sleep, how we fall asleep, why we dream, or why the same “we”, having evolved to the peak of mentation, spend about a third of a lifetime unconscious.
“Wait …” you interject. “What about the four stages of non-Rem sleep and the four or five cycles of REM sleep? What about that? We know that/”
Uh huh. This is a messy analog, but let’s say you leave a partially eaten melon out on the sidewalk. Let’s say you do that under laboratory conditions, day after day. You’ll gather a lot of facts about what melons look like on day one and day five, you have some information about who shows up to live in the rapidly decomposing melon, You’ll even be able to talk about the relative speed of decomposition based on temperature. But if our understanding of melon half-life is based entirely on external observation, all we’ve got is description.
It’s not easy to get beyond external description with regard to the brain. The temptation is to say that we’ve got a Schrodinger’s cat here; a paradox of quantum superposition in which a subatomic event may or may not happen in an arena we cannot see without affecting the outcome, but we’ve been slicing and dicing brains for quite a spell, mapping brain activities with magnetic resonance imaging, and from time to time carrying out what is gently called Deep Brain Stimulation, implanting electrodes in certain areas of the brain and turning on the juice. We’ve zapped enough brains to deduce that the four lobes have specific jobs to do, finally able to say, for example, that the temporal lobe controls memory, speech, and sense of smell.
Again, uh huh. Got that temporal lobe business all wrapped up, do we?
I’m not prepared to say that everything we know about the operation of anything is really only available to us when it doesn’t work, but let’s agree that with regard to the brain, information arrives with dysfunction. Ok, so let’s take a look at what happens when a temporal lobe is damaged. Sure, we get impairments in auditory functions, visual functions, loss of language perception, impaired long term memory, and … altered personality and altered sexual behavior.
So, where are dreams? All over it seems, although there’s a little less activity in the frontal lobe during REM, leading highly trained researchers with postdoctoral expertise to suggest that paucity of frontal lobe activity may explain why we do not self-correct or criticize the wacky stuff that comes up in our dreams. In other words, no idea.
I’m cranky this morning and inclined to hang the entire medical profession out to dry, but the truth is that nobody really knows what they are doing with regard to sleep, so I might just as well slip into my pig face, drink some banana tea, listen to the calming sound of a forest primeval, rub myself with extract of henbane, breathe through my left nostril, and make a to-do list.