Friday, May 27, 2011

Dreaming of Insomnia

Dozens of scientific studies by a wide array of experts have shown that 4 out of every 3 Americans have occasional or frequent bouts of insomnia, a condition that can lead to depression, memory problems, weight loss or gain, stress, mental disorders, and an inability to properly calculate the number of Americans who struggle with insomnia.

Very broadly speaking, insomnia comes in three categories: sleep-onset insomnia, in which the sufferer has trouble falling asleep; nocturnal awakenings, in which the sufferer has difficulty remaining asleep through the night; and terminal insomnia, which fortunately doesn’t use “terminal” to mean “deadly,”1 but rather to indicate that the sufferer’s night of sleep terminates too early. While these categories are distinct, they are by no means mutually exclusive—lucky insomniacs can mix-and-match from all three kinds, alternating them successively or even experiencing all at the same time.

If this is you, being sleepy is far from your biggest problem.
Causes of insomnia, when they can be identified at all, vary widely, and can include but are not limited to:
excessive use of caffeine, alcohol, or drugs (prescribed and illicit); excessive noise or silence; too much or not enough exercise; the neighbors’ insufferably noisy dog; softly dripping faucets; wondering if there’s anything good in the fridge; and the beating of that old man’s hideous heart, buried under the floorboards.2

Potential cures for insomnia vary as well, and can include:
excessive use of caffeine, alcohol, or drugs (prescribed and illicit); noise; silence; warm milk; more or less exercise; your own insufferably noisy dog; finding something good to eat in the fridge; and murdering the old man with the creepy vulture eye.3

Given the frustratingly high degree of similarity between the causes of and cures for sleep loss, it’s hard to believe that there are subcategories of insomnia even less well-understood than the condition itself. However, researchers are only barely delving into a phenomenon they call sleep state misperception, which, although not nearly as bad as fatal familial insomnia (see notes, below), provides still more evidence to the sleep-deprived that, yes, their brains really do hate them and want them dead.
One suffering from sleep state misperception commonly underestimates (or, much more rarely, overestimates) the amount of sleep he or she gets. While observation and objective measurement would show a healthy seven or eight hours of sleep on a given night, that sleeper might mistakenly recall having been awake for, say, three or four of them. So despite being in good physical health, this poor jerk gets to feel as exhausted, cranky, and disconnected from reality as if he or she actually had slept like crap.

While the causes of sleep state misperception are unclear, it’s reasonable to assume that one of the top candidates is dreaming—specifically, dreaming of not being asleep.4

Certain dreams, of course, make it quite clear that you’re no longer in the real world. If you find yourself teaching John Lennon how to play guitar, or beating zombies to death with a pool cue in the halls of your old junior high,5 odds are good that (1) you’re dreaming and (2) you’ll realize you’re dreaming.

You mustn’t forget, though, that your brain is not only much smarter than you are but also trying to kill you, so a dream designed to look like a sleepless night will be much more difficult to detect. Even these, however, will contain understated nuances that, to the trained eye, will differentiate it from a frustrating but mundane sleepless night.

So in the interest of furthering knowledge, we humbly present the following examples of the subtle differences between the real world and a diabolically crafted insomnia dream. Included are our notes on the details that might otherwise escape the novice:

YOU COULD BE AWAKE: There’s a television in your room, but it’s broken. This is not necessarily at all out of the ordinary.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: there’s also TV repairman in the room . . . at 4:30 a.m. You don’t recall letting him in, and while you can’t be sure of this because the room is rather dark, you suspect he’s dressed as one of the Mario Brothers. And in the real world, of course, plumbers dress like this, not TV repairmen.

YOU COULD BE AWAKE: looking out of your window into the distance, you see a vast and overwhelming expanse of water. Potentially very normal for the several billion people that live in coastal areas.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: when you went to bed you were in Colorado, roughly one thousand miles from the nearest ocean. Also, the water outside your window is vertical—a tidal wave several hundred feet high, but completely motionless, hanging ominously in some sort of suspended animation. This hardly ever happens outside of shitty movies.

YOU COULD BE AWAKE: WNBA All-Star and former Colorado resident Becky Hammon is standing just outside the window, enthusiastically mooshing her boobs against the glass.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: when you went to bed, your room was on third floor of your hotel. Hammon, while a basketball player, is only about 5'6" tall, and thus would have an extremely difficult time staring into a third-floor window without a ladder or some sort of hovering skateboard, neither of which exist in real life. It’s this kind of subtle detail that allows the trained dream observer to separate the near-realistic dream from waking life.

We’ve never followed women’s basketball before, 
and can’t figure out why we’re suddenly interested.
YOU COULD BE AWAKE: When the alarm goes off at 5:00 a.m., you get out of bed surly and exhausted, just like normal.
. . . BUT YOU’RE PROBABLY ASLEEP: When the alarm goes off, the TV repairman, the tidal wave, the basketball player—and her boobs—all vanish at the same instant, leaving the room safer and quieter but considerably less interesting.

The drawback to this dream-analysis technique is that, if successful, you’ll be fully aware of your full night’s sleep, which means you’ll no longer be able to shuffle through your day in a blackhearted funk, snapping at everyone you encounter, floundering through eight fuzzy-headed and mistake-prone hours at your job, and sucking down caffeinated drinks like they were oxygen.

Well, sure, of course you can still do that, and knowing you, you probably will.6 But you won’t be able to blame it on your sleepless night. You’ll just have to admit that you’re kind of a jerk.

1. There is, however, a fatal form of insomnia. Appropriately named fatal familial insomnia, this extremely rare affliction affects a tiny handful of people—approximately 100 worldwide—and, upon its onset, involves a seven- to eighteen-month descent from normal life into total sleeplessness, insanity, catatonia, and death. If we were to pick the worst possible way to die, this would  be our choice.
2. It seems like a good idea to point out that this is an Edgar Allan Poe reference. We hope this keeps our more skittish readers from calling the police.
3. Relax, it’s just Poe again. Man, are you jumpy today.
4. Why would you dream of being awake all night? One reason only, as far as we can tell: your brain hates you, and wants you to die. If you have a better explanation in mind, we would love to hear it.
5. Question: is actually possible to beat zombies—the “undead”—to death? Discuss. Show your work for full credit.
6. We’ve talked to your coworkers. You’re known as Ms. Fussybritches.

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