Tuesday, April 05, 2011

To sleep, perchance to dream

What is more gentle than a wind in summer?
What is more soothing than a pretty hummer
That stays one moment in an open flower,
And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?
What is more tranquil than a musk-rose blowing
In a green island, far from all men's knowing?
More healthful than the leafiness of dales?
More secret than a nest of nightingales?
What indeed?

The poet Keats answers his own questions: Sleep. Soft closer of our eyes.

I've reached an age when I find myself occasionally nodding off in the middle of the day, an open book flopped on my chest. Also, more lying awake in the dark hours of the night, re-running the tapes of the day. And, in the fragile moments of nighttime unconsciousness, dreaming dreams that reach all the way back to my childhood.

I've read the books about sleep and dreaming. There has been lots of research, but not much consensus about why we sleep or dream. Sleep seems to be pretty universal among animals. Who knows whether animals dream. Do we sleep to restore the soma? To knit the raveled sleeve of care? Process memories? Find safety from predators? After 50 years of work, the sleep researcher William Dement opined: "As far as I know, the only reason we need to sleep that is really, really solid is because we get sleepy."

The Latin poet Martial supposed that sleep "makes darkness brief," a worry-free way to get through the scary hours of the night when wolves howl at the mouth of the cave (and goblins stir under the bed). That hardly explains my dropping off after lunch into a dreamless stupor that I neither desire nor welcome.
Low murmurer of tender lullabies!
Light hoverer around our happy pillows!
Wreather of poppy buds, and weeping willows!
Not quite! There are the nightmares too. The tossing and turning. The hoo-has.

But enough of this idle speculation. I'm getting sleepy.