To sleep, perchance to dream

Retirement is providing me too much time to think. Things that have long been wandering around inside my head now seem to have identified themselves as questions demanding answers. Requesting resources. Some, of course, can be ignored with a smile -like ‘why do I talk so much at parties?’, or ‘why do I worry about talking so much at parties when I seldom get invited to them anyway?’ Age has provided an answer to those that seems to help, though: ‘it’s just who I am, so it’s time to get over it, eh?’

But there are deeper, more interesting queries that are sufficiently puzzling that I feel they are worth the effort to investigate more thoroughly. One intriguing question has always related to dreams: not why we dream (although I am interested in that), nor even what they mean (another interest), but rather the manner of their presentation. Even here, I don’t wish to dwell on the seeming stochastic nature of the dream story line, but more on the medium chosen for their representation.

Many years ago when I was casting about for a relationship, I happened upon a delightful soul named Ariadne who fancied herself a witch. Not knowing very much about witches at the time, I was enchanted by her mannerisms, and her claims that there were webs or something, that clung to every item she’d collected over the years. The bowl on her table was wrapped in the memories of friends who’d used it; the lamp by the bed was covered with the fingers of the people over the years who had turned it on and off. Nothing in her apartment, it seemed, was devoid of webs like that.

I remember it made me feel special that my fingers, my touch, my essence would join the other objects in her rooms. I had never met a witch, to tell you the truth, and I didn’t really know what to expect. But I realized she was a rather busy witch, and that to continue seeing her I had to book a week or so ahead of time. And no, she wasn’t in business, or anything; she was a busy nurse working shifts in her non-witch time.

Anyway, that’s not really the point of the story. She was also strange in other things -her dreams for example. Unlike what I would assume the rest of us do in a dream -like watching a story unfolding, however difficult it may be to follow and remember- Ariadne dreamed in other senses. She claimed that she seldom saw things in her dreams; they were actually touch dreams -no visual scenes, no auditory manifestations… only touch, only sensation dreams. Like the softness of the pillow might occupy her for a while; at other times it might be the feeling engendered by the wooden frame of the bed, or, if she happened to fall asleep on the carpet, the sensation of the fabric: the pile rubbing over her skin. Not much of a plot to unravel, I would tell her, but she insisted there was as much information in a touch as in a picture.

I puzzle over that now whenever I remember her. Is it possible to dream in just touch, or was she merely trying to put me on? The closest I suppose I’ve ever come to a touch dream is the rare time when I think I’m falling, but unlike Ariadne, I have to admit I’ve always awakened before I felt anything like a carpet pile, or a wooden bed frame. I’m pretty happy with that…

Still, there is another puzzle about sleep and dreams that has surfaced now that I’m in the washing-up phase of my life: the orientation of the images is not what I would expect. Think about it. If you lie on your side with your eyes open, the world is at the appropriate 90 degree angle to your body. And if you close your eyes for a few moments, what angle does it assume in your imagination? Does it jar you that when you open them again, the world is still at right angles? No…? So, then why are dreams aligned along the axis of your body? Or, well, mine are anyway…

I didn’t think anybody else had noticed, so I was surprised to find an article dealing with just that. It was written by David Shore, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at my alma mater -McMaster University in Hamilton. He writes that ‘when we lie on our sides, the brain appears to dial down its reliance on information related to the external world and instead increase reliance on internal perceptions generated by touch.’

‘This difference, between doing the task upright and lying down, leads us to wonder if the brain deliberately dials down the most active orientation functions — the external representation — when we lie down, possibly as a way to help us sleep… the brain shifts its reference point toward interior perceptions whenever we lie on our sides.’ The inner ear, of course, allows us to assess the direction of gravity so we can tell what direction is up. Perhaps some dreams don’t really care where up is…

Apart from discrepancies that might arise while we’re dreaming (horizontally), ‘Consider this: MRI machines test people when they’re lying down and MRI results inform conclusions about what is happening in people’s brains, when in fact their brain activity might look quite different if they were sitting or standing.’ And, as Shore has shown in his experiments, with blindfolding his subjects, ‘lying on the side reduced the influence of the external representation of the world and allowed participants to pay attention to their body-centred signals.’ Of course, perhaps an awake brain works differently than a sleeping brain…

This brings me back to Ariadne and her touch dreams. Certainly, there are many nerves that are quite happy to deal mainly with internal sensations -think of the pain of an ulcer, or maybe the intestinal cramps from eating too much fibre. No doubt they couldn’t give a toss about the body’s external world. But what about touch nerves and their connections to the boundary organ, the skin? Wouldn’t they have to continue to assess and adjust to the constantly changing components of external representation -an inordinate over-indulgence in back, or arm sensations, say? For someone like me who tosses and turns throughout the night, other than short-circuiting the whole thing, how could the skin nerves possibly keep up with my continual need for reorientation while I sleep? Surely there must be some important primitive tactile reason for informing me that I should keep on the move… No wonder I’m so tired when I wake up.

It’s not entirely clear to me just what that would mean for people like Ariadne when they dream, but perhaps I should be happy I didn’t marry her. The thought occurred to me that maybe she actually sleeps vertically, and hangs from a carpet on the wall like a bat. I never asked, actually…


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