All your senses are heightened at night; everything is amplified. When you hear rustling leaves, it is as if you can pick out each individual flutter. The scurrying of small mammals offers a complex, scratchboard choreography. Listen hard along an internal register, and you sometimes pick up the pounding thud of your heart, or a mysterious whooshing that swirls through your ears like a miniature mistral. The cognitive realms of insomnia frequently resemble the dippy altered states induced by psychotropic drugs. (And of course, like a bad trip, the night can be full of terror: hypnagogic hallucinations causing mysterious shadows to sway before your open eyes or inducing furniture to hulk and loom.)
Just as artists, writers and seekers have used drugs to expand their minds, so have many sleepless souls wondered at one time or other if the insomniac mind, pushed to its lateral limits, might not yield insights as well as torments. Might there be some small comfort amid the suffering?
After all, once in a while, an unexpectedly profound thought will suddenly coalesce out of the dying remnants of a dream — and then I chase it down, all my insomniac energy bent on its capture. Again, I am reminded of Nabokov, delighting in the way his insomnia would explode in a “sunburst,” filling his head with ideas and fancies to feed his creative soul. The challenge involved, as Walt Whitman saw it, is to “see the sparkles of starshine on the icy and pallid earth” and then “sweat the night into words,” as the poet Bernard Spencer more practically put it in his poem “Night-Time: Starting to Write.”
Maybe insomnia itself is a portal that encourages trafficking between the conscious and unconscious minds. On the one hand, as Alice Robb argues in her new book, “Why We Dream,” you can train yourself into lucid dreaming, exerting directorial control over the night brain’s filmic productions. Think of it, perhaps, as a form of scenario planning. Flip the direction of travel, though, and you become alert to the process Freud described when he wrote that during the day we “drive shafts” into our fresh chains of thought, and these shafts make contact with “dream thoughts.” This is how night and day fertilize each other. This — I’ve come to believe — is how creativity is born.
As ever, Freud’s grasp of the mind’s quirks proved prescient. Sleep scientists now speak of states in which the brain is neither awake nor sleeping, but both. According to Rubin Naiman at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, parts of the brain can drift into sleep during the day, effectively making sleepwalkers of us all, or shut down entirely, producing a flash sleep that endures for milliseconds and is experienced merely as a fractional slip of attention or momentary blackout. Perhaps, after all, sleep, not wakefulness, constitutes the mind’s default mode. And if that is the case, then perhaps insomnia is consciousness’s determined revenge.
Marina Benjamin (@marinab52) is the author, most recently, of “Insomnia.”
This content was originally published here.