Sleep and the sound of waves
Script: Richard Lewis
Music: Richard Lewis
Producer: Oliver Feldman
When I was three I had some difficultly getting off to sleep. It was due in part to being sent to bed earlier than anyone else in my family. The inflammatory arousal of anger created a barrier to rest. The sun was still up, I could hear children outside, their cries rebounding of the brutalist seventies brickwork in short summer echoes. My brother and sister were still awake downstairs, monopolising our parents, watching TV shows I was not allowed to see. It didn’t seem to be a just world at all.
Then there was the cumulative effect of the day’s overstimulation. At that age a huge percentage of what you encounter each day is brand new information and processing it can cause cognitive overwhelm. That overwhelm had a physical and an emotional feel for me and I remember it well. I remember lying there, trying to calm the chatter of the day’s voices, which were all still gabbling away, the way grown-ups do about this that and everything, imprinted on my flash memory in near-audio fidelity like a primitive brass rubbing.
Sleep would have been a real sanctuary, but I didn’t know it and it was hard to get there because my brain was buzzing. I would jerk suddenly out of sleep, as though galvanised by an electric voltage. Sometimes that shock had a sound, like the metal sprung door stop on our neighbour’s door, that I got told off for playing with. This scared and troubled me but I was forbidden from coming out of my room, so I dealt with it alone. I made up all kinds of stories for the strange things that happened on the fringes of sleep. Some of those stories were comforting, some not so much.
Sometimes I would feel like I was falling from on high into a void and would pull myself out, terrified, and the whole process of trying to resign myself to calm and to sleep would begin again. One such early evening, irritated by the sounds of other kids playing games out in the street, I pulled away my orange blankets, got up from my bed, opened the curtain and peeped out of my window. And down in the road in front of our house, right on the intersection, I saw something unusual.
There was a man wearing something like a space helmet, sitting on a futuristic motorbike. The bike was like something out of this world, all clean white and sleek lines. It looked like nothing on the roads in 1974, a space bike, like something from Doctor Who, or Space 1999, or The Tomorrow People, the shows my brother watched about the future. I was transfixed. The man seemed to see me, his helmet tilted towards me and he lifted a gloved hand. Thumbs up. It felt in the moment like the space bike man was on my side. I smiled back. He turned his space bike around and drove away.
Looking back I describe it as an unusual thing to experience, but back then, pretty much everything I saw was unusual. Every day something happened that I did not know could happen; processing all of that was partly what was keeping me awake when others thought I should sleep. It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me. It only seemed new and cool. The family watched TV shows all the time about time travel, space travel and people from the future. I didn’t have proof at that stage that these weren’t documentaries. I got back into bed and fell asleep, thinking about space bikes.
A human with an average life span will spend something like 26 years asleep. But getting off can be a challenge at all ages. Reading eventually saved me from anxiety at the edge of sleep, to the degree that I don’t have it at all any more. I remember forcing myself through a Blackberry Farm book, each word taking an agonising amount of time. R a b b i t. Rabbit! But the euphoric triumph of parsing symbols into stories, the ability to get new information for myself — effectively witnessing the creation of my own intelligence algorithms — was a revelation. The work was a worthy channel for the popping and sparking of excess cognitive energy. The electricity that had been pooling in my brain was discharged into One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish. The rhymes and riddles worked their magic on my imagination. Afterwards I had little trouble falling asleep. Stories are powerful. Stories are powerful bridges between the conscious and the unconscious.
We tend to think of our life story as the part when we are awake in the world of things. When the eyes are open. But there’s another life that is lived in sleep. We tend to think of our identity as being alive only when the sensors are on, when our motors are whirring and we are moving. When we feel the daylight on our eyelids in the morning and our eyes flicker open, we boot up. It takes a while to come online. There’s a delay, a kind of blissful state, before the ego connects and we remember our identity, the constraints, the challenges, the joys and sadnesses of our waking life. This life, it’s important to remember, this is only two thirds of our existence.
When we lie in bed at night, and close our eyes, a fight breaks out between our sensory life, the life of ego and things, and our sleep life, the life of the id and of not-things. The general theory is that to process what have have lived in our waking hours, we have to shut the external sensors and motors down. The part of us whose identity lives in waking life, our ego, does not want to go. Hence the struggle.
Since the invention of the the electroencephalograph (or EEG), a machine that maps electrical activity in the brain, we’ve been able to visualise that struggle. Pre 1953, Scientists used to believe that brain activity shut down when we slept. But the EEG shows us that the brain is in fact incredibly active when we sleep.
Electrical activity in the brain is measured in waves. Just like musical notes, these waves have a frequency range — measured in hertz — and an amplitude, measured in volts. Amplitude means the amount of electricity generated, but it’s handy to think of it as volume. High-frequency waves display as waves bunched closely together. In other words repetitions of the wave are more frequent. Low frequency waves are farther apart. The higher the peaks and troughs, the more voltage, or the “louder” the wave.
Brainwaves occupy a number of distinct bandwidths, each with different frequencies and characteristic stages of consciousness. As we move from waking life to sleep life, our brain activity progresses down through these bandwidths. They are not entirely mutually exclusive and they often overlap as we move down through them.
Typically, when we are awake, alert, attentive or aroused, such as talking, working something out, or getting excited, our brain activity is dominated by beta waves. These are rapid and shallow waves. Muscle tone is active here and progressively tensed as we move up beta. And as we go higher, we feel more “wired,” excited, or stressed-out. Right at the top of beta, we see fight or flight responses. It takes a lot of energy to run in beta, which is why excessive beta activity can make us feel drained, and burned out.
The next set of frequencies down from beta is the alpha bandwidth. Alpha is the brain’s resting state. When we close our eyes we can help induce alpha. Muscle tone relaxes. We’re receptive, suggestible. When we watch TV, listen to music we are at the higher end of alpha. At the lower end, we drift into reverie. The alpha bandwidth is associated with relaxation, light meditative states, light hypnosis, daydreaming, and pre-sleep states. When we practice mindfulness, we are in alpha. When we lie down in bed and close our eyes we are inducing alpha, so we can begin to get to sleep. Gentle repetitive motion can induce alpha, such as walking, washing dishes, showering. We’re easily roused from alpha by external stimuli and active cognition. That’s why closing the eyes can help stay in alpha, as we reduce the stimuli coming in from the eyes.
If you have ever been driving and suddenly realise you don’t remember consciously driving the last couple of miles, then you’ve been in the deeper parts of the alpha state. Awake, motors running, sensors idling, but without the need for active cognition. The processes you use for driving have been automated, you don’t need to learn them in the moment. Your mind is free to wander. Typically, you’ll be aroused from this alpha state by some new information you need to process: a crossroads, junction, or road activity requiring a decision.
Stage one sleep
The alpha bandwidth is also seen in the onset of stage one sleep, a drowsy light sleep. We can drift in and out of stage one sleep. We are easily woken by external stimuli, such as noise outside, and if so we will swear we were never asleep. In stage one sleep our eyes may roll slowly and our muscle tone will relax. People in a hypnotic trance may also display that eye roll, if their eyes are open. It is here that we see some of the struggle between waking life and sleeping life start to occur. We may experience hypnic jerks, sleep starts: muscle spasms, that may be accompanied by the sensation of an electric sound inside our head. We may feel as if we are physically falling and the part of our brain that is still trying to be awake and in control may pull us out of sleep and back into an aroused beta state. Whereupon we have to begin again.
As we progress down through the alpha bandwidth and approach the next level down we approach what artists refer to as the flow state. Theta waves are slower and louder than alpha waves. Here we start to have access to the stores of the subconscious, the stuff we keep away from sight. Vivid imagery, metaphor and memory. If sudden memories come back to you while you are absorbed in an activity, they have likely travelled to your waking state from the theta wave. This is also where we hold our secret fears, dreams, hurts and urges we don’t talk about. It’s also where imagination lives and creates.
We associate the theta bandwidth with creativity, with deep meditative states, deep reverie or deep hypnosis and stage two sleep. It is possible to achieve theta while not sleeping. If people have to rouse you out of happy daydreams back to the land of the living in boring meetings, you probably got down to theta.
Archimedes had his revelation when he got into the bath. He’d burned out in in beta, working on his problem until he ran out of bandwidth. But relaxing through alpha into theta allowed his mind to create connections in theta and solve his problem through unconscious learning. Or unconscious cognition. Or … intuition. What if they are all the same thing?
Stage two sleep
Theta waves dominate in stage two sleep. If stage one is the edge of sleep, by stage two we have properly fallen. The slow eye rolling will stop, our heart rate will begin to slow and our breathing will become deeper and slower, our body temperature will cool. Correspondingly, our brain activity will slow. Theta waves are not only slower than alpha but louder. It’s much harder to rouse someone from stage two sleep, they are cut off from external stimuli to a much greater extent. But not wholly.
Stage two sleep is where we see some real proof of the battle between wake and sleep. Looking at the EEG in stage two sleep we see two phenomena: sleep spindles and K-complexes. Sleep spindles are rapid frequency bursts that appear to represent a transfer of information from short term memory to long term memory. Spindles appear to shut down any other kind of mental processing, in order to hold us asleep while this important transfer happens. We know that when new skills and activities have been learned in the beta hours, we see increased spindles during stage two theta.
That’s why you shouldn’t stay up all night before an exam cramming — if you don’t get to stage two sleep, the information will not get transferred and will not be available to you to recall correctly. So something you were sure you knew at 2 am is gone by 10 am. Sleep on it, however, and it comes back.
K-complexes are slower, louder waves that appear in response to external stimuli, such as noise or activity in the room or outside. Their job appears to be to hold us in stage two sleep and prevent us from waking. We spend about half the night in stage two sleep. However the most important part of the night for our wellbeing happens in stage three sleep. This is when the delta wave dominates our brain activity.
Delta waves are slow and penetrating and define stage three sleep. This our deepest sleep, from which waking is unlikely. We know little about our deepest sleep, but we do know that while we are in this stage three sleep our body and immune system restore themselves. This is the state of healing and regeneration. Delta waves suspend our awareness of external stimuli, we are wholly absorbed by our inner world. Delta sleep is also when we sleepwalk, when we sleep talk, when we experience night terrors.
The fourth and final sleep stage is called REM sleep. Like the band. REM stands for rapid eye movement. During this sleep stage our eyes dart rapidly from side to side, our muscles are disabled so we cannot move. This is when we do our most vivid dreaming. As little as 30 years ago, when I first started to study psychology, it was believed that REM was the only stage of sleep when dreams occur. Now we know that dreaming happens throughout sleep, but that REM is the most intense. It was also thought that REM deprivation caused mental health problems. More recent studies show that REM deprivation can alleviate some instances of depression.
In the average night without disturbances you will cycle through the sleep stages three or four times. The lengths of each stage vary but your organism will try to get you a long stretch of healing delta sleep early on, at the expense of REM. As the night progresses, the cycles will feature shorter stage three phases and longer phases in REM, with the longest REM phase happening just before we awake in the morning.
We’re invited by popular consensus to view our dream life as the time when our subconscious processes the material we’ve given it in waking life. But I wonder if we have that the right way around.
The psychologist Carl Jung posited individual consciousness as being composed of two concentric circles. Like a target. The small inner circle contains the ego, our conscious sense of our own agency and identity. A much wider circle that Jung called “self” contains and surrounds the ego. That wider circle also contains the subconscious self. Jung hypothesised that infants have access to the whole circle but as they grow, a separate ego consciousness develops and dominates.
Our subconscious knows things our “ego” cannot or will not see. It shows Archimedes how to measure the density of a crown using displacement in water. It stores the facts we forget, makes connections, has intelligence that goes beyond our frazzled beta cognition. It is able to tell us things. If we are able to listen.
When we get an odd sense of foreshadowing, or a strange sense of connection — when our senses start tingling for some reason that we can’t quite parse — then something is happening with our intuition, something is coming to us from our subconscious. And whether you believe that this is sparking up from the delta wave, in some hidden part of our Freudian selves, or whether you believe it is part of an interconnected Jungian network of everyone and everything, or whether you believe it is simply the bacterial flora in our intestines communicating a “gut feeling”, what is hard to deny is that something is happening.
Instead of sleep being the rest we need to keep living our waking lives, could it be the reverse? That our waking life is merely the data capture needed to feed the collective consciousness that connects in sleep? Is this consciousness the place from which we receive our intuitive and empathic feelings?
That sense of seeing or feeling connections that don’t tie up in the physical realm, Klaus Conrad called it apophenia — a delusional disorder — while Jung called it synchronicity. Jung thought that just as everything in the universe was connected by a measurable causality … where one thing leads to another and can be proven as such … things could also be connected by meaning; that such meaningful connections went beyond mere coincidence, beyond the stochasticity of a random universe.
Jung felt that this accounted for what we think of as extra-sensory perception and was demonstrative of a collective unconscious. Science has generally looked askance at Jungian synchronicity, but recently some work in quantum mechanics sheds new twilight on the matter. It has been discovered that — in the sub-atomic realm at least — some particles are instantly connected no matter how far apart they are and move in synchronisation. Known as quantum entanglement, some theoretical physicists say the phenomenon points to the existence of a “unified field” that is somehow present before physical reality.
Cognitive psychology dislikes synchronicity and talks instead about confirmation bias — the supposed tendency to interpret new information in ways that support and confirm our preconceptions. Proof of the existence of confirmation bias abounds. Less so for synchronicity. Indeed, Jung was a great believer in the paranormal and felt that synchronicity was evidence. Itself, perhaps, a demonstration of confirmation bias. Or perhaps just different words for the same truth.
What about my own abandoned narrative? We last saw it unravelling in a Paris café. I had joined dots that should never have been joined, I’d connected … a school trip at age fifteen to a random lighthouse in a forest with a game in a shop window, some theory on quantum mechanics and an old peeling photograph I’d found and convinced myself there was a thread there. I proceeded to follow that thread from chance meeting to chance meeting until an elaborately-constructed pointillist picture emerged, which I then convinced myself had significance. Carrying it around like a touchstone — fuelling my forward motion with a constant sense that something was meant to happen, a story was meant to be told.
I then rationalised and persuaded myself that these things were purely random coincidence. And yet, when I looked into the eyes of my baby daughter on the day she was born and she looked back, there seemed to be nothing random at all. I felt I had known her, been travelling towards her forever.
At the time, I had no idea why I dropped my psychology place to study English and French. It seemed a random choice but it also seemed like the right one. Later, in London, I started working as a journalist. Again for no real reason, it had never been an ambition. Life presented me with a series of doors and I went through whichever one my intuition told me I should.
I carried on in this way and in so doing I made a series of choices that I didn’t much understand at the time. Strange and questionable to some, many more disapproved of them. Nevertheless, they led me inexorably to a point in Paris where I had a child to protect from a manipulative religious cult. A group that had hurt the woman I loved, had organised to split up my family and would think nothing of causing my child psychological harm to suit their ends. I had to act quickly.
And here’s the thing. As a result of choices that did not feel rational, logical, causal, at the time I made them, I found myself with precisely the skills and experience necessary to research, tease out in interview and collect documentary evidence — in French — and present a coherent argument to a French court along with my dossier. A piece of journalistic evidence credible and well-sourced enough to give the court pause and help me protect my child. Which they did.
That was … what? Just lucky? Or was it prescient?
What if we stop thinking of time as linear? What if we weren’t dealing with a series of causative events going from A to Z. What if time folds against itself? Like a wave. What if we can stand on point Z and look back down the ripples? What if we could construct some sort of four-dimensional tesseract and connect them. Like a cocktail stick through folds of thinly sliced ham. If that were the case, things wouldn’t happen one after the other but simultaneously at all similar points in the wave. The events would be entangled, synchronised.
If that were the case, we could look at the mess we got into at point Z and the version of ourselves at point A would have access to that knowledge. It would mean the man who needs to protect a child in France and the boy who needs to decide what course to study at university could be entangled, at the same point on a wave, just beats apart. They would move synchronously.
Perhaps there is a conception of the universe in which the school trip, the lighthouse, the quantum theory and the game in a shop window that triggered a change in degree choices are not random but entangled events that move together in such a way across time, that, when the last piece is finally fit into place, the basket falls down and traps the rat. And I walk away from court, secure in the knowledge that the rat cannot get close to my daughter.
And I suppose that instead of saying, “how lucky that I somehow chose to learn French and journalism giving me the skills to protect my child,” perhaps I can edit the story and say “my mission was always to protect this incredible child, which is why I made the choices I did”. Whether or not the science stacks up, it’s a reframing of my narrative that makes a lot of sense to me. Especially when it comes to healing myself from the trauma surrounding these events.
After I left Paris and moved back to the UK I set off on my brand-new white Vespa scooter to find the old park I visited with my gran. I realised there that my memory of it was imperfect, that I had somehow kept the meaning but not the physical details. On the way back, I took a turn on a whim and went to look at my old house, where I had lived until I was five. It was an odd sensation — the houses looked much smaller and the vehicles were so different. The cars today all looked space-aged compared to the old Capris and Beetles that used to line this street when I was little.
And there was the house. My scooter engine idling softly at the intersection, I looked up at my old bedroom window and was transported back, in memory. I thought: kid, get some sleep, you’ve got a long mission ahead. I raised a gloved hand, gave the three year-old phase of myself a thumbs-up and turned the scooter around. I knew I could count on him.