The Science of Sleep

Jeff Warren is the author of a fantastic book called The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. In it, he describes twelve unique states of mind that are available to us over a 24-hour day. Some occur with strict regularity, others are more rare. It’s particularly interesting if, like me, you daydream at night, snooze in the day and occasionally feel like you don’t quite know what’s going on.

It helps mental health too, mainly because by explaining and eulogizing a state of mind, he takes the fear, worry and stress out of sleeplessness. A bit like when people say: “you’re not afraid, you’re excited”. But better. Here is a piece on insomnia he wrote for Huffington Post:

Holidays are over and money is tight. But you still need a vacation, a break from the everyday routine and the everyday mind. Consider a head trip, the ultimate in bargain getaways. Most of us think of awareness as a kind of binary proposition: we’re awake and then we’re asleep. But the real mind is far more variegated and textured. Every 24 hours we move through a number of overlooked but still exotic states of consciousness. Some of these destinations are inevitable, others take a bit of work to get there. They all have insights to offer the open-minded traveler.

First stop: the middle of the night. Most of us wake up half a dozen times a night, at the end of every REM period. Usually these wake-ups are so short we forget they ever happened. But sometimes, especially as we get older, they’re longer. We wake blinking in our beds and stare at the dark ceiling. We listen to the sound of our bed partner’s regular breathing, of the occasional car passing outside, of the wind in the trees. Sleep, for the moment, is out of reach. At this point, though few of us realize it, we are actually confronted with a choice. Choice A – the one most people make – goes something like this: “Oh man, I can’t get back to sleep. I have insomnia. I have to be up early tomorrow, I’m going to be a zombie at work. I’m dead. I’m dead I’m dead I’m dead” followed by hours of agonized tossing and fretting and staring at the LED bars on the clock radio in abject despair. This is the dark night of the soul route, a bit extreme perhaps but nonetheless a scenario many will find familiar.
But there is another choice – choice B. Choice B draws on some fascinating historical and scientific research that challenges the consensus view of sleep as a continuous, consolidated 8-hour block of time. When University of Virginia historian A. Roger Ekirch began researching sleep in pre-industrial societies he was surprised by hundreds of references to something called “first sleep” and a second or “morning sleep.” It seems as though before the advent of mass artificial lighting – with its attendant suite of late-night consumption opportunities – much of the Western world slept in two sections: once in the early evening, and once more in the early morning. In between our ancestors woke for several hours to a curious state of consciousness that had no name, other that the generic “watch” or “watching.”
Ekirch’s historical evidence aligns with scientific findings from the respected National Institutes of Health chronobiologist Thomas Wehr. For one month Wehr had a group of volunteers spend the full duration of a 14-hour winter’s night in bed. Every one of the volunteers lapsed into a segmented sleep pattern. Although it took a succession of long winter nights to provoke this kind of sleep, when Wehr published his findings he speculated that segmented sleep may be the default physiological pattern for humans in general – certainly it matched similar patterns observed in modern forager cultures. Sleep, it seems, is more plastic than most of us realize. It can be pressed and squeezed and shaped by culture. Perhaps, Wehr speculated, as we age this older segmented pattern begins to reassert itself.
A final bit of background for Choice B. During the wakeful portion of the night the brains of Wehr’s subjects showed “striking” chemical correlates. Levels of prolactin rose to twice their daytime levels, a hormone associated with lactating mothers and peacefully roosting chickens. The volunteers described an altered state of “quiescent rest,” a peaceful awareness where time passed very quickly. When Wehr told some of his older friends and colleagues about his findings it apparently changed their whole experience of being awake at night. “It’s amazing,” Wehr told me, “one’s attitude can determine whether the Watch is experienced as a disorder or part of the natural sleep rest cycle.”
Now let’s return to our scenario, one I relate from personal experience. We wake in the night to the sound of our partner’s breathing, an occasional car driving by outside, the wind in the trees. Fresh from a period of REM, the mind is filled with dream images. “This is natural,” we think. Alertness mixes deliciously with drowsiness. At once heavy and buoyant, we luxuriate in bed and ponder our dreams, looking inside but also out. In Wehr’s words, we are situated in a unique “channel of communication” between dreams and waking life that has been gradually closed off by our productivity-obsessed culture. The Watch is a protected window into the myth-saturated world of dreams. It is a time for prayer and contemplation, of lying in our warm beds and seeping in rare atmospheres. It is, in sum, a kind of wakefulness that should be celebrated, not simply endured.
So. You’re awake in the night. Tomorrow will come regardless. Why not enjoy the trip?

The book is as much a journey of self-discovery as anything else. Warren practices lucid dreaming at a retreat in Hawaii, tries to meditate in Scotland (hoots), and mixes the whole things up with digests of psychological literature and interviews with various boffins on the subject.

It hasn’t had quite as much attention as it deserves, because sometimes the whole ‘altered states’ thing is often seen (including, if I’m honest, me from time to time) as a bit beardy weirdy, not proper science. But sleep? Well, we spend a third of our lives doing it. Who knows what we could be missing out on.

The picture above is animated on his website and explains the full cycle, but until you get there, here are some of the states of mind he discusses. Some of them may sound pretty familiar:

  • Hypnagogic: a transitionary state before we go to sleep when we often experience mild hallucinations.
  • Slow wave sleep: deep sleep when our body grows and repairs itself. We do seem to dream a little in this state, but the dreams themselves are usually unspectacular. People woken for this phase report dreaming about getting ready for exams and other mundane activities.
  • The ‘watch’: a period of ultra-relaxed wakefulness occurring in the middle of the night that is mainly experienced by cultures whose rest and activity patterns follow the sun.
  • REM dreams: A lighter type of sleep where we do our most creative dreaming. This is where all the bizarre stuff happens.
  • Lucid dreaming: this state is difficult to enter, but magic if you can do it. Suddenly you control everything: you can do what you want and it all seems absolutely real, not like a normal dream at all.
  • Hypnopompic: the mirror image of the hypnagogic – a transitionary stage after we wake up when, again, we can experience mild hallucinations.
  • Trance: well-known to anyone who’s seen a hypnotist in action.
  • Sensorimotor rhythm: a goal of neurofeedback ‘brain training’ that is thought to help people such as those with attention disorders to concentrate. Creates a clear, calm and focussed state of consciousness.
  • The Zone: also called ‘flow’ by psychologists. A high arousal, high concentration state when everything clicks. The Holy Grail for people playing sports.
  • Pure conscious event: very hard to articulate. This is a highly focussed state usually achieved through meditation where the brain’s continuous chatter is dialled right down to nothing and we can just be.

Nothing on snoring, I note. Still, tireless in my scientific enquiry, I managed to dig up this gem:

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