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.
Some historians, I suspect, despair of the volumes already written on all periods, ancient and modern. History, however, can cover a variety of segments of time. A. Roger Ekirch, for example, thought to write a fascinating history of darkness. At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past is a thoughtful exploration of what night has historically meant. For those of us born in the era of constant light, the realities of what it was like after dark in the past are almost unimaginable. I’m sure Ekirch didn’t intend it to be so somber, but the reality of frequent crime in unlit regions made reading much of this book a sober experience. Confident of their ability to get away with it, many up until modern times took advantage of the night to commit all kinds of crimes. Makes you kind of want to check the door locks once again before turning in.
Much, but increasingly less, of our lives is spent in sleep. The advent of artificial light has led to changes in lifestyle that, according to biology, aren’t terribly healthy. The natural rhythms of sleep and wakefulness may be challenged by jobs or enticements to stay up late and surf the web or any number of other factors. Now that light has become so very portable in the form of smart phones and tablets, even less of darkness remains. Although it’s a bit repetitive and not laid out chronologically, At Day’s Close contains many provocative observations about the dark. There’s even a bit about monsters.
Night has always been symbolic. Death and fear were associated with night early on, and we still call the era of scientific progress the Enlightenment. Churchmen (for it was an age of such) tended to condemn night as evil, the Devil’s time. Not all agreed, for some considered the dark a creature of God and complained of the hubris of setting up lights at night. The religious symbolism of night is very rich and very ancient. Those of us used to artificial light have difficulty imagining what it took to navigate after dark in ages past. More than an annoyance, night could be a truly dangerous time. Dreams, once mainly the products of the night, also had religious significance before being rationally explained. The industry of banishing night also has, in some respects, the effect of banishing dreams. We should stop and think before we put night to flight. Half of our time is spent in darkness, and all of our time is highly symbolic.
It’s kind of like the transporter dilemma on Star Trek. Where is the person/Vulcan/Klingon when their atoms are being disassociated in one location and reassembled in another? In the classic series, McCoy was never happy with the technology, and even today our doubts linger about what constitutes a person. The other day in a routine medical procedure, I underwent anesthesia. Lying there in the corridor, staring at the calmly themed over-head light colors (no, they actually were themed covers; the drip hadn’t started yet), I wondered where I was about to go. I’ve only had anesthesia once before that I can remember, and I recalled awaking suddenly from the most profound, dreamless sleep ever. It was very different from ordinary sleep. So where was my consciousness at the time?
We have no satisfactory answer to the question of what consciousness is, let alone where it is. Materialists would say, literally, it’s all in your head. Consciousness is a happy mixture of electro-chemical signals in a dull gray organ that’s busing churning out this illusion that Steve A. Wiggins is something more than, well, a mixture of electro-chemical signals. Those of us who’ve experienced enough to question such simple answers wonder a bit more deeply about it. What is consciousness? We’ve all had that feeling, I suppose, of awaking from a dream and being disoriented, even throughout the day at points, as to whether it was real or not. Or, alternatively, remembering something but not being sure if it “really happened” or might’ve been a dream. Ordinarily we recognize the difference between waking and dreaming consciousness, but sometimes the line is blurred.
My experience this time around was the same as last. One moment you’re talking to an anesthesiologist and the next you’re awaking from a completely blank state of mind, a little confused about where you are. You haven’t been in dreamland since there was nothing there. The exact mix of chemicals isn’t the same as when you fall asleep. For all intents and purposes, you are completely gone for that span of time. When I woke up I remembered the anesthesiologist and the watch he was wearing. His accent. His assuring me that the bubbles in the tube were okay. Between that moment and this, nothing. A complete blank. I went in hoping that I might explore alternate states of consciousness in those few disassociated moments, but that’s not how it happened. I think I’m ready to beam back aboard now, though. I trust my consciousness will follow my gray matter, even as I’m being beamed through the ether.