Thursday, July 24, 2008
The Strange Science of Sleep
I wonder how many of Americans’ day to day decisions and rituals can be traced back to the fact that they are going to die someday. I focus on Americans because, as one, I feel I can only comment on the collective psyche that I know best. Certainly, there are overt behaviors such as buying life insurance or a grave site that can only be traced back to a person preparing for their own death. But there are more subtle nods such as parents teaching their children as much as possible before they “leave the nest”; this is to their benefit but also is the parent acknowledging that they won’t be around forever to act as their teacher. It occurred to me recently that the rituals we have around sleeping deftly mirror some of the rituals we’ve created around dying. There is the nightly preparation of the body as we brush, wash, put on different clothes just meant for sleeping, apply ointments or lotions only used during the night, and arrange our bodies in certain positions. Clearly these come to resemble the tasks of an undertaker. We generally make the room darker and cooler than we do during the day. Predictably, there are accoutrements of medicines, sleep aids, and water stocked next to our bed, almost like the arbitrary offerings of an altar. Of course, the sleeping itself is the closest mimicry of death for all of us as we lay prone and close our eyes and slip into unconsciousness. While we sleep, we can be wholly unaware of the activities around us and there are always some. Clocks tick, air conditioning or heating units click on, bugs scurry, car headlights come through our shades. We don’t wake for each of these, we spend hours unconscious to it all and accept when we wake that nothing abnormal happened. But sleeping is a strange ritual unto itself as we spend roughly one third of our lives unconscious and cocooned in revitalization. We repeatedly revitalize these bodies that will ultimately give out. But we sleep, and we practice the feeling, we hope we wake, but get closer to death with each passing night.