We left off on our brainstem’s foibles in it’s sleep induced regulation over our bodies. We are merely slaves to the humble pons — our brainstem’s envoy in charge of applying the break to our motor neurons when necessary. Sometimes, the pons gets a little overzealous. I can relate.
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon experienced for centuries and gave rise to the word nightmare itself. Before we ever had an inkling about the squishy pink mass in our skull and the functions it may control, this inability to move upon waking was attributed to demons. Reasonable, right? Of course, demons.
These demons put the “mare” in “nightmare.” And they were not any ol’ demon coming to haunt and torment one in the vulnerability of sleep. These night visitations, by the Succubus and Incubus, were for one thing — sex. These demons had come to straddle your chest and take advantage of your human body while you lay helpless to their demonic desires.
Puts your most horrific sex dream to shame, really.
It is much more likely that your brain has been distracted by your dreams and failed to take its foot off the break than it is for a demon consort to be visiting you for some sexual deviancy and demon baby making.
Drifting away from demon babies and back into the murky contents of your brain, we find that your usual dreams are just as bizarre as these folklore visitations. Such strange and curious images conjured up from the depths of our brain.
We have all had dreams that range from the horrifying, to the bizarre, to the downright embarrassing.
And for the sake of the narrative, I guess I will divulge a few of my own.
In one recent disturbing dream of mine, I came across the eviscerated body of someone known to me (I blame my Netflix binge of Hannibal episodes). Before that, I dreamt I had a steamy secret rendezvous in a hotel room — twisting in white sheets with a delectable individual (A scenario I will never experience in my waking life). Most recently, I dreamt I was an electron bouncing around in the electron transport chain, sacrificing myself for oxidative phosphorylation and the synthesis of ATP.
The latter was the most disturbing of the three, I must admit.
In short, our dreams tend to be messed up. It’s the nature of them. Your brain, floating inside it’s secluded dark home, is generating fantastical images conjured from bits and pieces it finds stuck in its darkened corners.
When we dream, an area of our brain linked to our visual cortex — the occipital lobes’ extrastriate cortex — lights up in a wild fire of activity. During this light show our primary visual cortex, where we interpret visual stimuli, is oddly quiet. This strange pattern of activity suggests to us that the brain believes it is seeing something.
This something is, quite eerily, internally generated.
Dreams tend to get your stomaching turning and your palms a little sweaty. You can thank your emotional and often hysterical limbic system for that uneasy queasy feeling. All the emotional players in the game are highly active during your dreamy state. Usually, emotional responses are routed to the frontal lobe for us to assess. In our waking life, our rational frontal lobe helps us attribute meaning and context to those gut-wrenching feelings. While awake, we are often able to lesson or intensify emotional significance — depending on the situation.
When we dream, our frontal lobe — like our visual cortex — also appears to be on break from its general duties. This suggest that there’s limited interpretation of the visual information we are internally generating and the emotions they are provoking. This is the root cause for the sometimes terrifying, non-linear and incredibly bizarre movie projected nightly inside your skull.
If you awake from a dream that involved yourself in a compromising position with an impossible individual or one that involved you riding a tricycle down a hallway in your underwear — rest assured you are not alone in your brain’s freakish, fetish visuals. It’s simply a collection of found images pasted together by your extrastriate cortex with the emotional soundtrack courtesy of your limbic system.
But, now we come to the strangest part — what happens to our brain when we can’t sleep?
“The last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority to the sleeping world.”
Insomnia — the word itself has a dreaded weight to it. Insomnia can be a chronic condition or a fleeting one. We can go through periods of insomnia when we are stressed, anxious or have ingested too many stimulating substances. Our autonomic nervous system betrays us — ramping up our sympathetic response — trapping us in a hyper-aroused state. For others, insomnia can be more familiar; a shadowy companion constantly with us
Insomnia, like most sleep related conditions, is still fraught with mystery when it comes to its mechanism and its origins. One insomniac may have difficulty falling into the depths of sleep while another has no problem relaxing into her open arms. For the latter, insomnia creeps in shortly after to rip them from sleep’s embrace — leaving them to spend the many remaining hours staring at a shadowed ceiling.
We can’t last too long without sleep and we are not alone. Experimental rats, kept awake by a rotating platform, quickly loose ability to regulate their body temperature. Despite consistent food intake, our furry rodent friends lose massive amounts of body weight before succumbing to death — roughly a month after they stopped sleeping.
A whole new take on the phrase “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”.
This is not all that different from the horrific (yet intriguing) prion disease, Fatal Familia Insomnia. FFI rises from a genetic mutation resulting in misfolding proteins within the brain. In FFI’s case, the area of the brain affected is our mighty thalamus— our stoic sleep regulator.
Like a bomb, hidden in the brain — ready to let loose a cascade of terror and tragedy — these proteins will eventually mutate and wreck havoc. They decimate the brain and lead to progressive sleep loss, stupor and atrophy.
I have thought of worse ways to die and I have not been able to find one more horrifying than these neurodegenerative harbingers of death. Hemorrhagic viruses may be a close second, but I morbidly digress.
The onset of FFI is insidious and usually occurs around an affected individual’s fiftieth year of life. The afflicted’s pupils constrict to pin points and they begin to profusely sweat. Increased salivation, heart rate and blood pressure follow suit. They are no longer able to reach the depths of sleep they need — instead falling into a catatonic like stupor. Slowly they lose control over their bodies and succumb to their fate, less than a year after onset.
For those of us who experience a milder affliction of sleeplessness, the symptoms and consequences may not lead to our horrifying end, but they can be detrimental to our health and well being.
Being sleep deficient puts us on edge. It makes us emotionally labile. It impairs our memory and reduces our ability to preform cognitively complex tasks.
We also have a tendency to lose our shaky grips on reality.
We have a propensity to hallucinate.
It’s a lot more common than one may think
“One does not see with the eyes; one sees with the brain”
Our brain is a master of filling in the blanks and connecting the dots. What we see, what our brain interprets and what is in front of us may all be very different. We are filling in gaps in our vision daily. Smack dab in the middle of our visual fields is our blind spot, a hole in our perception, where thick neuronal fibres exit our retina and send their electrical signals off for higher processing. Our brain fills in this void with what it expects and predicts will be there. And most often, it is correct. But not always.
Again, for the sake of narrative, I might as well tell a tale of my blind spot revelations.
One afternoon, while waiting to turn onto a highway from a side road, I looked out to my right and then to my left to survey for vehicles and assess the safety of my crossing. I could see for half a kilometer in both directions. All appeared to be clear to my right but, as I was about to begin my turn onto the highway, a vehicle suddenly appeared before me. The highway was clear only second earlier and yet a truck was suddenly a few feet away. Makes one question the accuracy of their perception. Is it congruent with reality?
Now, think about this with me for a moment and keep in mind I could be wrong. I can only make an education assumption that, at the time I gazed down the road, the vehicle in question had reached my blind spot ( Although, I’d be interested to see the statistical odds of that…). This would have attributed to my brain’s failure to add it into the interpretation. To my brain, it simply did not exist. My brain was not expecting that vehicle because it had no information to suggest that there was a vehicle to anticipate. It had missed the truck and failed to integrate it into the landscape. Once the vehicle had passed my blind spot that information was relayed through those thick neuronal tracts all the way back to my visual cortex. My brain was able to correctly identify the vehicle’s presence, but the continuity was off. It was as if the truck materialized out of a void.
This idea of the brain’s anticipation and interpretation of our surrounds also accounts for the additions to our visual and auditory survey of the world — the ever misunderstood hallucination.
“A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.”
Hallucinations are more common than one would be led to believe. Their existence does not signify a psychotic break from reality. Sleep deprivation and sensory deficits are among the common contributors to hallucinatory experiences. Charles Bonnet syndrome is common among the elderly population who have rapidly deteriorating vision. They experience vivid visual hallucinations without any contributing cognitive abnormality.
And I am talking vivid. Animals and people tromping around in bright coloured clothes in your kitchen, kind of hallucinations.
Now, visual hallucinations can be lumped into one of two unimaginative categories— simple or complex.
Simple hallucinations generally involve shadows in the periphery. These are flashes of light or things that take on no complicated shape or form. Complex visual hallucinations tend to be…well…complex. They have substance and shape — often taking forms of a human or animal.
I know an insomniac who has frequent visual hallucinations that become especially terrible when he goes days without a good night’s sleep.
Generally, his visual hallucinations come in the form of shadowy figures and bugs. Movement from the corner of his tired eyes has his brain conjure up flying insects or ones that skitter soundlessly by. Often, they are spiders crawling inwards from the periphery only to disappear when they draw too much attention.
Oliver Sacks, neurologist and beautiful human, once had a complex philosophical conversation with a spider in his kitchen. He was high as a kite and, in hindsight, recognized that spiders should not be so well versed in philosophy and certainly should not speak. Regardless, he was not phased by this event.
The thing that is so remarkable about visual hallucinations from sleep deprivation is that there are no drugs acting upon receptors and mucking about in the chemistry of your brain. It is simply you. Organic, GMO free hallucinations.
My friend, the hallucinator, can experience some fairly complex hallucinations if his sleep habits become horrendous.
He once saw a bear come to life from the side of a highway. It ran up the ditch to barrel down the road towards his vehicle. The ghostly bear evaporated upon impact.
(The bear was brown, in case you were wondering.)
Another time, he saw a woman materialize from the ground between two parked cars, wearing a dirty lacey shawl. She too faded into a vehicle.
In both cases my hallucinatory friend knew almost instantly that they were not real. It took him a minute to get over the fear of a bear in the road but, once it evaporated into the ether before him, it became clear what had occurred. Much like Dr. Sacks and his philosophical spider friend.
If we make ourselves vulnerable when we pull back the sheets — naked within their cool folds— to drift into blissful unconsciousness then it becomes astoundingly clear that we are just as vulnerable, if not more so, when we stay awake.
We can lose sight of ourselves — quickly and spectacularly.
Our brains can only keep the congruent narrative of our every day life going for so long before things start to unravel at the edges and split at the seams.
The ground begins to shift like we are walking across sand. Our emotions begin to slip from the control of our frontal lobe and become lost to the whims of our limbic system.
We have lapses in our judgment and flares of irrationality. Without the enveloping embrace of unconsciousness and the depths of sleep we begin to slip away — piece by piece, we erode like ground glass under the pressures of insomnia.
It’s little at first— broken down bit by bit. A chip away here, or a tatter there, until we are left as a fragment. A specter of the person we truly are. Becoming, I suppose, much like the ghost of another’s hallucination.
Not much is more important than sleep and yet nothing quite as eluding. For the chronic insomniac, sleep is much like a lost lover. One night she slipped out of bed, pulling the sheets around her thin frame, and floated out of the room leaving you awake. There you lay, blinking at the shadows that drift across the ceiling.
Sometimes, when the light is just right and the waking hours have slowly accumulated, the shadows of the ceiling may just blink back.
“A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.” Bertrand Russell
“One does not see with the eyes; one sees with the brain” – Oliver Sacks
“One does not see with the eyes; one sees with the brain” – Leonard Cohen
Neuroscience: Exploring the Brain, Fourth edition. M. F. Bear
Hallucinations Oliver Sacks