I keep odd hours. Although we don’t live far from New York City, as the pigeon flies, public transit sets the schedule for my day. (I’m merely writing as a representative here, since I know others keep my hours as well.) Since I’m usually waking up around 3 a.m., I have to go to bed pretty early. One night recently I turned in around 8:00 p.m. and fell into a fitful sleep. When I awoke three hours later, it was as if my gray matter were a thunderhead. Ideas, worries, and memories flashing like lightning. Concerned, I watched the clock since I knew it was a work day. When three rolled around with no more sleep I hoped it would be like one of those rare days of interrupted rest when my conscious mind does just fine. Would it function that way on just three hours of sleep?
This incident brought home to me once again the mystery of consciousness. I had a meeting in New York I couldn’t miss that day, but by mid-morning (in real-people time) I was seeing things that weren’t there—an almost Trumpian dissociation from reality. Then I’d snap back to awareness and realize my mind was drifting off to steal some of the sleep it refused during the hours of darkness. Using the usual tricks I stayed awake for the workday and even for the bus ride home, with only brief momentary lapses where what had been reality had stopped making sense. Consciousness, it seems, functions best with a well-rested brain. A good night’s sleep put me back to normal the next day.
Reflecting back over that previous 24 hours, I thought how surreal they’d felt. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they were like an altered state of consciousness. Religions, some claim, began because of such altered states. They are strange and powerful. And fairly universal—almost everyone experiences them from time to time, whether by sleep deprivation, controlled substance use, or prayer and meditation. Even knowing the cause (going to bed with a lot on your mind when you have to wake early, for example) doesn’t change just how real the experience feels. This is one of the reasons that rationality doesn’t explain all of experience. In the same brain there are Jekyll and Hyde aspects to consciousness, interchanging with each other every few hours. As the movie Inception underscored, you don’t remember how you entered the dream. You’re just there. And when that world intrudes on the conscious, rationally ordered territory of wakefulness, the questions can become quite religious. Unless, of course, I’m still dreaming.