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Sunday, September 26, 2021

Column: Living, asleep

Memory

Not too long ago, I decided to stop sleeping. I needed to get more stuff done.

The recent flood of midterms and papers had something to do with it. But more than that, I was rebelling against the seven-day segments that dictate our waking consciousness.

When I did sleep, I wasn’t waiting until tomorrow’s light. I was collapsing involuntarily, whether it was appropriate or not. These indiscriminate naps made being awake seem as odd as being asleep.

Lunchtime slumber made the morning feel like yesterday. I ate tacos for what must have been breakfast, at 2 p.m. At one point I was working from 9 to 5 — the other 9 to 5.

I was doing more, though maybe not doing better. I marveled at the effort it took to form sentences aloud, as did friends I met on campus.

In any event, I was certainly processing memories of my daily experience differently.

If sleep is a punctuation of our daily lives, then my own frantic existence must have been something like Morse code.

I was not rested, which made me feel unprepared, which made me anxious, which made me more unlikely to sleep. Though, this did lead to some memorable dreams.

Consider the following premise:

You are sitting, inconspicuously, in the back of class when your professor singles you out. Your responses on the written exam are without precedent.

She thrusts her hand, clenched tightly about your blue book, high above her head. This work is peerless, she exaggerates loudly. No one should be capable of this.

Faceless heads turn slowly toward you. You sheepishly arrange your features in a way you hope conveys modesty. You quietly congratulate yourself.

Your professor continues, about how in all her years and all that, she has never read anything quite like it. She harangues the class on the proper methods of studying, of diving into the material. You know, really getting into it.

Following more ceremony, your professor hands you your test. The corner of the blue book tells you, in big red numbers, why you are without equal. Your grade is less than zero percent.

Your written answers are so vile, so repugnant, and so absolutely wrong that they merit negative points. You must be dreaming. You are.

Thankfully, the test had not happened yet. I still had time to study — and I made damn sure I did. I made sure I slept too.

These familiar nightmares often deliver a message about our waking world, easily decoded through some amateur psychoanalysis. But maybe they can say more.

Dreams like these are anomalous — they stay with us. They’re so bizarre, or frightening, or otherwise remarkable that we remember them. Most other dreams fade soon after waking, or seem not to have happened at all.

It seems forgetting dreams is a necessary aspect of resting the mind. Deep, dreamless sleep establishes a neat boundary between the real and unreal, between days of the week, between light and darkness.

Trading this organization of our thoughts and memories for insomnia may lead to having tacos for breakfast at 2 p.m. That was a confusing, if delicious meal.

The very funny Dick Cavett once noted that we don’t really create our dreams either. Everything in them is new and surprising. This might be what makes nightmares so disruptive. We are not in control of the stories we live while asleep.

What we do control, to the extent our work allows us, is when we go to bed each night. It seems logical that anxiety and restlessness in the waking world lead to nightmares in sleep. We can avoid these interruptions by resting on a regular schedule.

Routine sleep offsets a very real cost of walking around half-awake. A recent study by Harvard found that sleep-deprived employees cost American companies approximately $63.2 billion per year. Putting in long hours may be working dumb, not working hard.

The waking world can be a challenging place. But spending too much time here may hurt us more than help us. It had me worried I got an F-minus on my geology exam. We have to acknowledge the obvious fact that taking a break is necessary. With that, I’m going to close my eyes.

SEAN LENEHAN still doesn’t know what he got on his exam. He can be reached at splenehan@ucdavis.edu.

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