The Architecture of Dreams

Unless you have narcolepsy (or a clinical case of carcolepsy like me), you’ll spend roughly ONE THIRD of your life sleeping.

Um. I have a follow-up question. Why does unconsciousness claim such a great portion of our lives?

Two theories take a crack at explaining this nightly time suck:
    1. Our circadian clocks keep us awake in daylight hours to hunt for food, and asleep at night to prevent us from becoming food.*
    2. Sleep “clarifies memory and sharpens skills,” ** both mental and physical. In sleep, we learn.

Most everyone shares similar sleep patterns, or “sleep architecture.” Indeed the graphs look like city skylines: we fall asleep as if from a tall skyscraper into the subway level of deep sleep, scale a high-rise into dream sleep, slip back down on the slow-wave F train, then cycle back up into cloudy dreamtime.

Mentally climbing these towers has a major restorative effect, and the second half of our sleep cycle looks more like jogging from the relaxed, street-level stage 2 sleep stage to hurdle dream and wakefulness states until the alarm sounds.

The sleep architecture of kids with autism sketches a different skyline though. There is talk of disorganized sleep patterns, longer sleep latencies (the time it takes to get to sleep), more periods of wakefulness, and more nightmares. Graphs show less actual dream time, and kids subjectively report dreaming about “fewer settings, objects, characters, social interactions, activities, and emotions.” ***

Sleep unplugs us completely from the external environment - the one that neurotypicals continuously filter in waking hours, and are free to recompose to their subconscious liking in dream states. But kids with autism are bombarded with the qualia of life - the anxiety-producing sensory details that assault their ears and eyes and flood their nervous systems on the daily.****

So it follows that Roman and I are two very different dream architects.

I’m over here hammering together a Baroque folly - vividly detailed in colors, sounds, plot, and packed with people - my subconscious setting the scene for something groundbreaking like executing the perfect comeback I rarely achieve in waking hours. An exercise in vanity.

But I like to imagine that the night shift finds Roman constructing a minimalist masterpiece in his mind. A tiny home. A solace. Quiet, spare, warm, and comforting, with songbirds, a porch swing, and a big yard to run around in with our dog.*****

Because every night - whether we remember or not - we create a new imaginary building. Most shifts we’re more like commercial architects, building the similar, prefab structures of recurring dreams. Every once in a while though, we make a highly unique and improbable edifice- unstable, temporary, and almost in ruins before we wake. These are the ones we cling to remember and struggle to interpret. These are the ones to follow.******

Yesterday, I woke up in a cold sweat, having just sold our actual house - after one day on the market. (<-- That part is true!) In my dream, we were driving off in 27 (rounded) square feet of aluminum. With no school, and two kids. For a year. That’s a folly that’s about to become real.

But as for skipping sleep? I wouldn’t dream of it.


* Suck it, dinosaurs!
** How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens, by Benedict Carey, Random House, New York, 2014, page 211.
*** Per a study entitled Dream Content Analysis in Persons with an Autism Spectrum Disorder.
**** Check out the Intense World Theory.
***** Nice!
****** Or not. As Mitch Hedberg said, "I'm sick of following my dreams. I'm just going to ask them where they're goin', and hook up with them later."

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