BOOK REVIEW: Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and DreamsWhy We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

For a long time, the questions of why we sleep and dream remained unanswered — or answered speculatively in ways that proved without merit. One presumes the reasons are potent because there seems to be little evolutionary advantage in spending a third of one’s life unconscious of one’s environs and paralyzed (literally in REM sleep, but for all intents and purposes in NREM sleep as one can’t respond to changes in the environment without some part of one’s brain taking note of said changes.) The good news is that Matthew Walker’s book offers insight into what scientists have learned about why we sleep, why we dream, why we become so dysfunctional without doing both, and what it is about modern life and its technologies that has created an apparent crisis of sleep loss. Walker goes beyond the science to discuss what individuals and institutions can do to reduce the harmful effects of sleep deprivation.

The downside of this book is that it’s a bit alarmist, and in contrast to many books of this nature one doesn’t get a good indication of the quality of studies reported. Some pretty brazen claims are made and the reader doesn’t necessarily know if they are preliminary and unvalidated or if they are well established. Here, I’m speaking about the studies that try to isolate out the effect of sleep loss versus all other factors (which is a notoriously messy affair,) and not so much studies that report on the physiological effects of sleep and sleep loss (which I see less reason to not take at face value.) At any rate, any reader who doesn’t fall asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow and sleep straight through 7 hours and fifty-five minutes — waking 5 minutes before the alarm — is likely to feel doomed if they take this book too seriously. And if you ever engaged in shift-work (as I have) or had an intense travel schedule, you are likely to feel that your life is permanently and irretrievably wrecked.

I know this is a book on sleep, but I think it went a little too far in marginalizing all other elements of health and well-being. Walker said that he used to tell people that sleep, nutrition, and exercise were the trifecta of good health, but he ultimately concluded that sleep was more important because diet and exercise were adversely impacted by sleep loss. I don’t disagree that diet and exercise are harmed by sleep loss, but – of course – sleep quality is harmed by lack of proper diet and exercise as well. The author later discusses research confirming this two-way street. I, therefore, have no idea why he changed his initial balanced and reasonable view with one that suggests sleep is the 800-pound gorilla of health and well-being.

The book’s 16 chapters are divided into four parts. Part I (Ch. 1 – 5) lays out what sleep is, how rhythms of sleep are established / disrupted, how much sleep one needs, and how one’s sleep needs change throughout the course of one’s life. Part II (Ch. 6 – 8) explores the benefits of sleeping as well as describing the nature of the damage caused by lack of sufficient sleep. Part III (Ch. 9 – 11) shifts the focus to dreams, and delves into what they appear to do for us. The final part (Ch. 12 – 16) investigates the many ways in which modern life disrupts sleep from blue light in LED’s to arbitrary school and work schedules to cures that are worse than the ill (i.e. sleeping pills.)

There is an appendix that summarizes twelve key changes that an individual can make to get more and better sleep. There are graphics throughout the book, mostly line-drawn graphs to provide visual clarity of the ideas under discussion.

I found this book interesting and informative. I would recommend it for anyone interested in the science of sleep or how they might sleep better, with the exception of anyone who has anxiety about the state of his or her health and well-being. While I understand that Dr. Walker wants to drive changes regarding views and policies that have been wrong-headed or deleterious regarding sleep, I feel he went too far toward suggesting the sky is falling for anyone who gets less than a perfect night’s sleep every night of his life.

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Sleep Haiku

eyelid weight
like snow accumulates
to avalanche

 

what world is this
where doors are portals
through space-time?

 

sleepless, and
processing drops to
dial-up speed

 

your meeting
is more sedating
than telling

 

the world blurs
walking insomniac
slows to zero

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Pt. VIII [Sleep Deprived]

This month, I skipped two consecutive nights sleep to explore the effect of sleep deprivation on consciousness. Forty-eight hours without sleep may not sound like much. A two-day fast will make you feel hungry, but is hardly a challenge for the body of a healthy individual. Of course, most people could go a few weeks without food as long as they could reduce physical activity.

Sleep may be more closely analogized to water. It’s often said that a person can go a week without water, but some people have succumbed after three or four days. The world record for consecutive time without sleep is 11 days and 25 minutes, set by Randy Gardner in 1964, but most people will experience some severe challenges after a few days, and after even one day it’s not safe to do many fairly rudimentary life tasks (i.e. driving, making important life decisions, doing any work that requires concentration.) [Note: Gardener points out that it was day three when he started to feel nausea and the challenge started to feel daunting.] My choice of two days was largely influenced by the limit of how long I could go without being productive. Into the second day, maintaining the level of concentration necessary to edit or write finished product becomes almost impossible for me and it rapidly gets worse, and I certainly couldn’t safely drive my scooter.

Unfortunately, I’m no stranger to sleep deprivation, though it was mostly in my youth. That makes it sound like I was a party-animal, though I wasn’t (certainly not by the standards of true party-animals.) In truth, in the military I started out working twelve hour night shifts, and I found I could rarely sleep more than four-ish hours per day. Later (still in the military) I worked days at a base in Georgia, but I would frequently (once, sometimes twice, a week) travel from Warner Robins to Atlanta after work for martial arts classes. Often, hanging out with friends after night classes, I would return to base in the wee morning hours and — on a number of occasions — missed a night’s sleep because I didn’t have enough time to get in even a solid two hours before I had to be ready for the 6am shift change. (Note: I’m a groggy napper. While some people swear by naps, I find they tend to make me even more fuzzy-headed — especially if I’m in need of more sleep than I have time to get.) [FYI: My personal record for sleeplessness is a little longer than I did this time — 55 hours-ish. It was also when I was a young man in the military.]

Where sleep is very different (from food or water) is that until recently we didn’t have the foggiest idea why we needed it. Biologists could tell us why we need air, water, and food decades ago, but no one knew why we needed sleep — only that bad stuff happened in pretty soon when we didn’t get sleep. I was under the impression that we still didn’t know (and it’s probably true that we don’t yet have a complete picture.) However, I started reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and he suggests that it’s not that we don’t know why we sleep, but rather that it’s not the simple one-to-one cause-and-effect relationship that sleep researchers had hoped to discover as a Holy Grail of sleep causation. Walker says we know a great deal about why we sleep, it’s just that there are a large number of aspects of our body’s operation that hinge on sleep. In other words, it’s a complex many-to-one relationship between causes and sleep. [Another reason I kept a limit on this experience was the book’s discussion of how many adverse impacts sleep disruption can have, and — more importantly — how long-lived the effects of sleep deprivation can be.]

There were a number of ways the sleep deprivation was felt. Of course, the predominant sensation was just an incredible pressure to go to sleep, i.e. heavy eyelids, mental drift, and “head-nodding” micro-sleep. There’s a great deal of discussion about how memory degrades under sleep deprivation, because sleep / dreams seem to be heavily involved in the memory process. I didn’t notice any memory defects [any more than I might normally have.] However, I readily noticed a decline in concentration and focus. After a day without sleep, I found that my ease of proof-reading / editing was significantly reduced even when I did it during those times when I was most awake and didn’t really feel particularly sleepy. A one-hour task would take decidedly more than that, and I recognized that I shouldn’t do any finished work because even if I took twice as long I’d likely still miss mistakes. Toward the end of the second day, I had trouble even following a sitcom story on the television (thought that was at the point in circadian rhythms when I was most desirous of sleep.)

The other mental effect I noticed was a mild altered sensory perception. This was nothing like the psilocybin tea altered perception. The first thing I notice was a little bit of movement in my visual field if I zoned out while staring at at the floor (and zoning out happens much more than it ordinarily would after a good night’s sleep.) Again, this wasn’t vivid like the shrub that sinuously wound in a serpentine fashion when I tried psilocybin tea. Rather it was just a kind of tiny “stretching” of floor surface when I looked down. You’d have to pay attention for it and might rub one’s eye to try to get rid of it. The second thing I noticed was some auditory strangeness. I heard a barking dog in a passing car, and it was as if that one sound was turned up even as the car was getting further away (or perhaps like the other sounds were turned down. All I know is that the barking of the dog took a dominant position in my auditory awareness. I wasn’t anything wild, like the dog talking to me. I suspect that would take another couple days of complete sleep deprivation. And I have no particular anxiety about dogs or barking noises.)

Physically, there were a few other noteworthy effects. First, I found myself getting chilly even with no AC on and even after I turned the fan off. What’s important to note is that I tend to run hot, and in Bangalore if I feel chilly it probably means I have the flu. I’ve known for a long time that thermoregulation is disrupted during sleep. (This is why one may go to bed comfortable and wake up in a sweat puddle, or — for some, I suppose — go to bed comfortable and wake up freezing. It’s not necessarily a change in the room’s temperature, it’s that your body isn’t so much adjusting the difference between room temperature and body temperature anymore.) I found the chill interesting. The fact that I wasn’t sleeping seemed to me should have meant that reduced thermoregulation should be irrelevant. However, after the fact I learned (again in the Walker book) that body temperature changes with one’s bodily rhythms, and that is presumably what I was feeling.

Second, I noticed a very mild rumbly-tummy effect. I didn’t realize how much sleep problems can be tied into eating problems until reading about it, but I have noticed in the past that my stomach gets a sensation that is akin to being hungry if I’m on no sleep — even if I’ve not been without food (at least not more than I normally would be through the night.)

Those were the most noticeable effects. I can see why some people have had similar experiences while severely sleep deprived as during mystical experiences of other cause (e.g. hallucinations from consuming substances, severe fasting, etc.) Still, for me, the long and short of it was that sleep deprivation had (in contrast to the the other practices I’ve done in this series) a clearly negative impact on the performance of body and mind. From difficulty concentrating to a slow time when running, my body was hindered by lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation diminished my mental and physical competence with no offsetting benefit that I could determine (other than assuaging my curiosity.) 

Next month’s post on experiencing altered states of consciousness will be on a mystery topic. [Which may or may not be my way of admitting I’m not sure what I’m going to do yet.] 

My Year of Discovering How Weird the Mind Gets, Part VII [Lucid Dreaming]

Lucid dreaming is the act of becoming aware that one is in a dream while dreaming. It’s called “Dream Yoga” in some Eastern traditions (most notably, Tibetan [Vajrayana] Buddhism.) Many people pursue lucid dreaming because they find it just too cool to experience the world of dreams consciously, but — for those who don’t — the natural question is “why bother?”  Well, it gives one an unprecedentedly vivid insight into one’s subconscious mind. [For those who are still wondering “why?” This post is probably not for you.]

Since I was young, I’ve occasionally experienced lucid dreams. But it wasn’t until recent years that I began a dream yoga practice — which I had discontinued until resuming it for this month’s study. Those unfamiliar lucid dreaming might wonder how one “practices” becoming aware that one is in a dream in the midst of dreaming. If one didn’t come to the table with a talent for lucidity in dreams, one can’t exactly do anything about it in the middle of REM sleep (rapid eye movement, when the bulk of dreaming occurs.)  A dream yoga practice consists of actions one takes during the day to help facilitate becoming lucid during one’s dreams. These actions include:

  • Journaling one’s dreams (i.e. writing down whatever one remembers of one’s dreams as soon as possible so that one builds the capacity to remember dreams, which can be ephemeral.)
  • Doing reality checks in waking life whenever one notices anything that has an unreal quality about it. This is done in an attempt to train your brain’s BS detector — that’s obviously not how neuroscientists refer to it, but in waking consciousness we have a potent ability to notice and focus our attention on apparent incongruities. The parts of the brain that manage that responsiveness tend to be down for the count during sleep. Hence, in a dream one can walk out of one’s bedroom onto the Serengeti Plains without a second thought. So you are attempting to train your brain to become aware when the anomalous takes place. If it works right, you will begin to do the reality checks in your dreams as well. Of course, real life offers much more subtle seeming incongruities, hence the need to be on the look out for them. There are two approaches to reality check with which I’m familiar. The one I use is to count my fingers, and then flip my hand over and count them again. In a waking state, I always have five digits during counts. In dreams, my hand does some funky stuff. An alternate method is to look at a clock or watch, look away, and then look back at it. In real life, only a second or two will have passed, but in a dream the times will likely be entirely different.
  • Bedtime resolutions to remember one’s dreams and to become lucid during them. For yogis and yoginis, this is like a sankalpa, a resolution that one repeats during yoga nidra (“yogic sleep,” a yogic relaxation and mind development technique that — ironically — doesn’t involve sleep but rather a prolonged hypnogogic state [between waking and sleep.]) The resolution should be a short statement without negation that is repeated exactly the same way several times.
  • Meditative practices that recall dream settings. One practice that I stumbled onto is done in a meditative state. When my conscious mind quieted and I was experiencing subconscious imagery, I found that I could remember many more of the settings in which dreams take place. I have a lot of recurring settings for dreams. [Typical of dreams, these places don’t always look exactly the same, but they feel like they are meant to be the same place.]

Long story short, one is doing two basic things in the practice of dream yoga. First, you’re trying to remember your dreams better. As I suggested, you could be becoming lucid in dreams every night, but if you don’t remember them you’re not gaining any conscious insights from them. Second, you’re trying to recognize the dream state by way of the bizarre incongruities that take place in dreams.

I should point out that mine is a bare bones practice, there are other activities one can do as well. Really hardcore practitioners set alarms in an attempt to wake themselves up in the midst of a dream. This allows them to remember dreams better and to help them become aware they are in a dream when they return to the dream after going back to sleep. This isn’t so far fetched as it might sound. We tend to dream in cycles of around 90 minutes and proceed through the same sequence of mind states from waking consciousness through hypnogogic state through various stages of sleep into a hypnopompic state and the back to waking consciousness. So, there is a degree of predictability on which to base one’s alarm estimate. I’m not so keen on disrupting my sleep. [Part of the reason that I discontinued practice is that I found I really only remembered lucid dreams when my sleep was troubled. (Usually it is not so much “troubled” as I when I’m sleeping lightly because I’ve slept longer than usual — e.g. occasionally oversleeping on the weekend.)  If I sleep like a baby, I typically don’t remember lucid dreams — that doesn’t mean I’m not having them, but I wouldn’t know if I did.]

Even though a dream yoga practice has often seemed to have little influence on my having [or, perhaps more accurately, remembering] lucid dreams, this month I’ve had five that I remembered — a couple of which I only remembered the in-dream reality check (counting fingers.) [A warning to would-be lucid dreamers, its possible to wake yourself up with the excitement of becoming aware that you are in a dream.] I’ve been consistently journaling and have picked up doing more reality checks. [Bangalore is a great place for this because it’s in constant flux, so I’m forever having “was that there yesterday” moments and “has that looked like that for the past five years” moments as I move about the town.]

It’s been fun coming back to this practice. I’m one of those who doesn’t really need another reason for trying to dream lucidly other than the fact that I’m so in awe of being in a dream and knowing that anything my mind can conjure might come next. Still, the lucid dreams I’ve had this month have offered some interesting features to contemplate the meaning of, including: faceless people, being on some kind of backward moving speed-walk while I tried to go investigate a scene in front of me, and something akin to being in a video game.

I’m leaning toward doing a short stint of sleep deprivation for next month, if I can find two days or so to safely give it a try (i.e. no need to drive or do anything else requiring fresh faculties.) I’ve gone about 54 hours without sleep before (not for its own sake, but because of the situation at hand,) and know it can have some interesting effects.

POEM: Subway to Dreamland

img_3397b

I flicker into sleep

like a bad fluorescent.

Then, the drift, floating down.

Nothing said, nothing meant.

So ends the subway to dreamland.

In the bowels, in the dark,

below the city of my mind,

lurking in a world so stark.

In dreamland, random rules.

Any change can happen here.

A tiny flea bloats big,

the sum of all your fears.

No childhood toy is free

from being terror’s shill.

To dance you into darkness,

little Teddy fits the bill.

But here you can script flip.

If you can keep your sense.

You see the secret that few know,

 your mind pays all the rent.

BOOK REVIEW: The Tibetan Yogas of Dream and Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche

The Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And SleepThe Tibetan Yogas Of Dream And Sleep by Tenzin Wangyal
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

I stumbled upon this book in a used bookstore, and didn’t know what to expect–but was intrigued. It’s a book on the Tibetan Bön approach to dream yoga and sleep yoga, written by a Bön lama (monk.) Dream yoga is a term used in Buddhism and other Eastern traditions to refer to what is called lucid dreaming in Western scientific circles. My review will focus on the more than 3/4ths of the book that deals in dream yoga (lucid dreaming.) The 40-ish pages that deal with sleep yoga are outside my wheelhouse. The author suggests that that part is for initiates who are familiar with certain background concepts. I’m not an initiate, and—in fact—I have no idea whether there is any merit to sleep yoga practice. Lucid dreaming is a well-studied and documented phenomena, but, as far as I know, what the author calls sleep yoga remains unstudied. All I can say is that the part on dream yoga is readily comprehensible, despite much of it being couched in spiritual terms, but a lot of the section on sleep yoga is arcane and ethereal.

As it happens, I was pleasantly surprised with the portion of the book about dream yoga. Having read a number of books dealing with the subject recently, I wasn’t sure whether I would learn anything that was both new and useful. But I was exposed to ideas that were new, useful, and mind-blowing. There were a few ideas for helping one to achieve lucid dreaming—mostly through practices carried out during the day—that I’d not seen in other works, at least not put in such clear terms. Also, while there is a lot of reference to the Bön and Buddhist spiritual traditions, this didn’t result in the explanations being needlessly complicated or arcane. There is a lot of information that one doesn’t need if one is a secular practitioner, but many readers will find it interesting, even if it’s not necessary to advance their practice.

The book is organized into six parts: 1.) The Nature of Dream, 2.) Kinds and Uses of Dreams, 3.) The Practice of Dream Yoga, 4.) Sleep, 5.) The Practice of Sleep Yoga, and 6.) Elaborations. The last part has information pertinent to both dream yoga and sleep yoga.

There are some graphics in the book including photos, line drawings, and tables. Most of these aren’t essential, but some make it easier to imagine what the author is describing (e.g. when he discusses sleeping positions.) The book has a glossary and bibliography. The former is useful, and the latter doesn’t hurt (but it’s only one page and offers only a handful of citations.) The glossary is mostly of foreign terms, but includes English terms specific to the religious traditions discussed. It offers both Tibetan and Sanskrit variants of the word if they exist, which is a nice feature. There is also an appendix which summarizes the crucial practices elaborated upon in the book.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in developing a lucid dreaming practice. I will say that it may not be the best first book to read on the subject, unless you are a practitioner of Bön or intend to be. (For that, I would recommend Charlie Morley’s “Lucid Dreaming: A Beginner’s Guide…” which I recently reviewed.) However, this book makes an excellent follow-up once one has read a book that is couched in simpler terms (i.e. not specific to a certain spiritual tradition) and which reports on the science. I found that the book gave me a number of new ideas, and—in fact—offered some insightful ideas.

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POEM: Thar Be Dragons

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

 

Where dunes are whisked in wisps down the valleys

Quiet as midnight in pitch black alleys

Thar be dragons

Where boxes tumble into churning seas

Submerging with the ease of a sea breeze

Thar be dragons

When you twitch into the deeps of sleep

Amid the bleating of counted sheep

Thar be dragons

BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming: A Very Short Introduction by J. Allan Hobson

Dreaming: A Very Short IntroductionDreaming: A Very Short Introduction by J. Allan Hobson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Dreaming is one of the most interesting and ill-understood activities of human existence. Many of us don’t remember most of our dreams—to the extent that a number of people don’t think they even have dreams (while not completely conclusive, the scientific evidence suggests that all of us dream every night—except people who live on RedBull and 2 hours / night until they tragically die young.) However, when we do remember a dream, it’s often a vivid and profound experience. Some people dream lucidly (are aware they are inside a dream as it occurs), and a few people have lucid dreams on a regular basis. This has led people to draw all sorts of conclusions about dreams existing in a realm beyond the physical, and what not.

While there remains a lot that we still don’t know about dreams, a great deal of science has been advanced in recent decades—enough to take dreamland out of the realm of spiritual mumbo-jumbo and even away from the weak (and largely wrong) science of Freud, and into the realm of legitimate science. This book summarizes much of that science in a concise package. The “A Very Short Introduction” (VSI) series from Oxford University Press offers this type of guide for many subjects. They’re usually about 100 pages long, and give a quick and gritty rundown of the subject at hand.

This book is organized into eleven chapters covering: What is dreaming? Why the Freudian approach (and earlier dream interpretation schemes) failed? How the brain is activated during sleep? What is happening at the level of neurochemistry? Why we dream? What can go wrong with dreams? (i.e. sleepwalking, night-terrors, etc.), How dreaming relates to delirium and mental illness? (i.e. it is, after all, a state of hallucination in which we take often bizarre imagery for granted.) There’s a discussion of the new psychology of dreaming which is based in neuroscience and not on an Austrian with a pipe suggesting that it all comes down to penises and vaginas. (Hobson isn’t anti-Freud, though he does want to make clear that the psychology pioneer was quite wrong on this subject.) There’s a discussion of how learning and memory can (and can’t) be advanced through sleep. Hobson discusses the interaction of consciousness and dreams, e.g. lucid dreaming. And there’s a discussion of interpretation of dreams that is rooted in more modern thought.

An interesting feature of this guide is that the author uses his own dream diary entries as case studies to make points clear. That helps make this VSI guide a little less dry than they tend to be by their nature.

I do enjoy the VSI series. I’ve read quite a few of them, and find they are a good way to study up on a subject with a minimal of effort or pain. I also enjoyed this volume specifically. It’s certainly one of the most fascinating topics on which I’ve read a VSI, and the author doesn’t disappoint in bringing interesting facts and anecdotes to the table.

I’d recommend this book if you want to get up to speed on dreaming in a little over a hundred pages.

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BOOK REVIEW: Night School by Richard Wiseman

Night School: Wake up to the power of sleepNight School: Wake up to the power of sleep by Richard Wiseman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book is a two-in-one. It’s a pop sci book covering the science of sleep. However, it’s arranged as a self-help guide to teach one how to get the most from one’s sleep life. It covers a wide range of sleep related issues from how to minimize jet lag to how to master lucid dreaming. It also describes the sometimes dire effects of not getting enough quality sleep. Along the way one also learns about interesting anecdotes and research that may not change your quality of sleep, but could prove interesting or useful nonetheless—such as the research that shows a strong correlation between the position in which one usually sleeps and one’s personality.

The meat of the book is divided up into eight sections (called “Lessons” in accord with the theme of “Night School.”) The first few lessons begin with general background on sleep and sleep deprivation, and cover how much sleep one needs and how one can achieve the best possible sleep life. Then the book delves into more specialized topics such as night terrors, sleepwalking, “power napping,” and the question of whether one can really learn in one’s sleep. The last couple chapters deal with dreaming (normal and lucid.)

Along with the eight lessons, there are also eight assignments. Most of these assignments are surveys that help the reader understand what will work for them best specifically—as not all sleep advice is one-size-fits-all. However, there are other assignments like a mid-course recap exam, a call to attempt interpreting one’s own dreams (as opposed to relying on the generic dream interpretation guides which the science suggests are bunk,) and a suggestion to start a dream diary—with instructions for how to go about it.

Another nice feature of the book are its boxed discussions of relevant research on such topics as segmented sleep (instead of sleeping through the night), narcolepsy, snoring, children’s sleep issues, etc. There’s also a Conclusion that reviews key information from the book in the form of a refutation of the common myths that abound on the subject of sleep, as well as a “manifesto” that repeats key elements of advice on good sleep. It’s a scholarly work, and so it include source citations.

I learned a lot from this book. Granted a lot of the advice is commonsense (e.g. sleep in a dark, cool, and quiet place), but there are plenty of not so obvious tidbits as well (e.g. red light is okay, but blue light will keep one from sleeping.) There are also a lot of fascinating stories in the book to keep one interested.

I’d recommend the book for anyone who wants to learn to improve their sleep lives.

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READING REVIEW: April 24, 2015

I completed three books this week. The first was Richard Wiseman’s Night School. I wrote a lot about this book in my last Reading Report. Night School examines what happens when we sleep, what happens when we don’t, and a host of events that happen in and around our sleeping life (i.e. nightmares, night terrors, sleep walking, etc.)  The notion that dreams and nightmares are our subconscious working out waking life problems is well established, but there was some interesting discussion of how to change one’s dreamscape (i.e. lucid dreaming) that was fascinating.

NightSchool

 

 

The second book I finished was Sam Harris’s Free Will. I had high hopes for this book, but they didn’t pan out.   It’s a very short book (less than 100 pages) on the subject of free will–or the lack thereof. There’s a well-established scientific literature supporting the notion that free will is an illusion. This conclusion was reached by observing that subconscious parts of the brain involved with decision-making light up well in advance of the conscious parts of the brain. The most illuminating example offered is an experiment in which participants were asked to press a button to select a letter or number of their choosing from among a string of rotating letters / numbers. Some subjects became convinced that the scientists had mastered precognition (a class III impossibility according to physicists–i.e. impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them.)  What was really happening was an exploitation of the lag between when the individual’s subconscious decided and when they became aware of their decision.

While I’m normally a big fan of brevity, Harris could have put some more pages to good use. First, he barely mentions a couple of the neuroscience experiments, and expects that the reader will treat this all as law. That is, we are to accept that always and everywhere people’s subconscious minds decide some measure before their conscious minds. Harris also scoffs at the suggestion that perhaps the conscious can overrule the subconscious. He seems to deem this as not worthy of study because it would just be the subconscious making a second decision. So we learn about a couple of studies in which a.) the decision-maker has no stake in the decision (is it possible the mind treats decisions about picking a spouse or a house differently than picking a letter or number in which there is no more costly outcome?) b.) those studied are a random sample of individuals who have no particular expertise with their minds. (If I drew a random sample of people and asked each to lift 300 lbs over his or her head. If no one could do it, would I be safe in concluding that lifting 300 lbs was something forever beyond the capacity of every member of the human race? In other words, what if exercising conscious control over decision-making requires training and expertise with the mind.) Maybe all of this has been studied (e.g. high stakes cases and cases with monks and meditators), and we can safely conclude that free will is always and everywhere an illusion–but Harris didn’t make this point. He concludes we will take it as a given just as he has. (Much like he suggests that anyone who truly studied their mind would understand this point already. Would it surprise Mr. Harris to learn that there are people who have spent far longer alone with their minds than he, who have concluded quite the opposite?)

Second, if the conscious mind is just a Matrix Revolutions-style (and Rube Goldberg-style) machine for tricking us into thinking we have choice and control over the direction of our lives (what happened to evolution not over-engineering?), what guides all of these “decisions?” Given that they produce, I might point out, a fairly orderly world. Harris doesn’t answer this. One might guess that he would point to Dawkinesque suggestion that it’s all about genes advancing their own agenda. (A proposition that seems to me has trouble explaining a corporeal who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades.) I shouldn’t put words in the author’s mouth. Quite frankly, I have no idea whether he believes there are rules or some guide to these subconscious decisions, because he doesn’t tell us. (Maybe he thinks they are random neuronal firings, but I doubt it.) From what I’ve heard of his other books, he doesn’t think it’s a god making these decisions–a sentiment I share. However, there must be something underlying these decisions, and an author writing about this topic should at least make some effort to address it. Black boxes aren’t persuasive.

FreeWill

 

The final book I finished this week is entitled The Sensual Body. This is a book that discusses a number of systems of movement and bodily activity as means to increase bodily awareness. Among the systems included are Tai chi, Eutony, Kum Nye, running, Aikido, and massage. It’s an interesting overview, but without sufficient detail of anything in particular to be of practical value. It’s the kind of book one might read to see what kind of classes one should take or what more focused books would be of benefit.

 

Besides the aforementioned books, I spent most of my reading time on two books that look at two very different subjects from the viewpoint of neuroscience. The first is Wired for Story, and it’s a how-to book for writers that sets itself apart by explaining how humans are hardwired by evolution to love stories. Just as a few notes produce an infinite variety of music. There is an inherent limiting / shaping structure to stories that is ignored at the writer’s peril. Much of the advice offered isn’t that different from other books on writing or storytelling, but one gets insight into which advice one should really treat as inviolable because it touches upon something fundamental to our human nature.

 

 


Wired for Story

 

The other book is the only book I purchased this week. It’s entitled Brainwashing: The Science of Thought Control and is by Kathleen Taylor. So far the book is intriguing. The chapters I’ve read so far provide an overview of brainwashing and cults. The middle section of the book delves into the neuroscience behind brainwashing, and the final section gets into practical matters such as how one can make oneself resistant to thought control techniques.

 

Brainwashing_Taylor