The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly BulkeleyIn an interview with the New York Times on August 16, the visionary technologist Elon Musk described the grueling work schedule he forces himself to endure in order to achieve his goals. He rarely takes any significant time away from work, and when he does, it’s often for exotic vacations requiring long travels. Recently he has been working up to 120 hours a week at his Tesla automobile plant, never going outside the factory for days at a time. He keeps a sleeping bag in his office, and when he does decide to try getting some shut-eye, he apparently makes frequent use of strong sleep-inducing medications.

Musk is a very prominent public figure and a true leader in creating the technologies of the future.  As such, his words carry great weight and influence.  It matters when Elon Musk says that his professional success requires a chronic state of sleep deprivation.

The interview prompted the sleep advocate Arianna Huffington to post an open letter to Musk on her Thrive.com website on August 17.  Huffington praised Musk’s intellectual brilliance, and she appealed to that same scientific mentality to recognize that healthy sleep is a vital element in true creativity:

You’re a science and data-driven person. You’re obsessed with physics, engineering, with figuring out how things work. So apply that same passion for science not just to your products but to yourself. People are not machines. For machines — whether of the First or Fourth Industrial Revolution variety — downtime is a bug; for humans, downtime is a feature. The science is clear. And what it tells us is that there’s simply no way you can make good decisions and achieve your world-changing ambitions while running on empty. It doesn’t depend on how many hours you’re awake. Tesla — and the world (not to mention you and your beautiful children) — would be better off if you regularly built in time to refuel, recharge and reconnect with your exceptional reserves of creativity and your power to innovate. Working 120-hour weeks doesn’t leverage your unique qualities, it wastes them. You can’t simply power through — that’s just not how our bodies and our brains work. Nobody knows better than you that we can’t get to Mars by ignoring the laws of physics. Nor can we get where we want to go by ignoring scientific laws in our daily lives.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

This prompted Musk to respond on August 18 at 2:32 a.m. via Twitter:

Ford & Tesla are the only 2 American car companies to avoid bankruptcy. I just got home from the factory. You think this is an option. It is not.

The tweet was removed a few hours later, but Huffington saw it and responded in an interview on August 20 by trying again to appeal to his own highest ideals:

This is not [just] about sleep, or about slowing down, or about asking Elon to chill out under a mango tree. It’s about how we can unlock and sustain our peak performance, and see solutions and opportunities where others can’t.

Those are precisely the virtues that Musk takes pride in having—a capacity for peak performance and visionary problem-solving.  Huffington is gently but firmly suggesting that if he truly wants to strengthen those abilities, then he must give up the false heroism of denying his body’s need for sleep, rest, and recuperation.  Chronic sleep deprivation takes your mind and body in exactly the opposite direction, towards degraded functioning in our most important human faculties.  The empirical research on the negative effects of sleep deprivation is very clear on this point.  Yet Musk remains in thrall to an unscientific attitude about the need to sacrifice sleep as the price of success.

The False Heroism of Sleep Deprivation by Kelly Bulkeley

Is that too harsh a conclusion? Perhaps, but it seems more plausible following another article in the NYT, on August 28.  This one focused on the increasing number of problems at the Tesla factory, many of them caused by Musk’s own mercurial behavior.  More than 30 senior executives have left the company in recent years, citing his excessive micro-management, and the factory’s automated systems have suffered a never-ending stream of technical glitches, which he insists on fixing himself.  The Tesla factory was designed for maximal automation and minimal human involvement, and it seems that Musk is slowly but surely imposing that same design on himself.

Musk’s defense of his sleep-starved life highlights an often overlooked research finding that I believe has alarming implications for public health and civil society.  Below is an adapted quote from my 2016 book, Big Dreams. First, a general litany of the effects of sleep deprivation:

For humans the first signs of sleep deprivation are unpleasant feelings of fatigue, irritability, and difficulties concentrating. Then come problems with reading and speaking clearly, poor judgment, lower body temperature, and a considerable increase in appetite. If the deprivation continues, the worsening effects include disorientation, visual misperceptions, apathy, severe lethargy, and social withdrawal.

Now comes the lesser known and more worrisome impact:

Surprisingly, even with these worsening deficits, sleep-deprived humans can still perform remarkably well on tests for certain kinds of repetitive motor and cognitive skills.  These abilities remain functional even when people no longer have any imaginative spark or feel actively engaged with the world.  According to sleep researcher Michael H. Bonnet, “responses [to performance tests] during sleep loss may occur as rapidly as before, but those responses tend to be more stereotyped and less creative.” Another researcher, Jim Horne, put it like this: “in effect, progressive sleep loss turns us into automatons and, in losing the ability to think independently, conscious awareness of ourselves is impaired and we are no longer prescient. Nevertheless, we can still run on ‘auto-pilot’ and perform routine behavior and other well-rehearsed tasks and procedures.” According to Horne, “Recent findings with clinically oriented neuropsychological tests suggest that one night without sleep causes particular impairment to tasks requiring flexible thinking and the updating of plans in the light of new information… [S]leep deprivation led to more rigid thinking, increased perseverative errors, and marked difficulty in appreciating an updated situation.”

In other words, people who are chronically sleep deprived can still perform routine, automatic, stereotyped behaviors. But they lose the ability to be innovative, adaptive, flexible, and capable of learning. They become less like humans, and more like robots. They can remain functional workers, but they are no longer creative people.

Is that really the path we want to follow, as individuals and a society?

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Uncanny dreams and deathly sleep haunt the most famous lovers in literary history.

The woeful story of Juliet and her Romeo has several ominous references to beds, sleep, and dreams.  These nocturnal elements reflect the tension between the passionate yearnings of the young lovers and the tragic fate that awaits them.  As Friar Laurence vainly warns, “these violent delights have violent ends.” Romeo and Juliet discover both ecstatic delights and annihilating ends in the darkest, dreamiest realms of night.

Romeo’s First Dream and Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” Speech

In one of the early scenes of the play (currently in production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, with Emily Ota as Juliet and William Thomas Hodgson as Romeo), a moment of witty banter suddenly turns into a long, weirdly unsettling monologue about the nature of dreaming.  It is, I believe, the most extensive treatment of dreams in all of Shakespeare’s works, and it encapsulates in a single surreal passage the inspiring-yet-terrifying energies of human dream experience.

At the start of Act I, scene iv, Romeo meets with his friends Mercutio and Benvolio on a street outside the family house of the Capulets, sworn enemies of Romeo’s family, the Montagues.  The Capulets are hosting a feast and masquerade ball, and Mercutio, Benvolio, and Romeo have decided to wear masks and sneak into the party.  Just before entering the house, however, Romeo abruptly stops and questions the wisdom of their plan.  Even though the woman he desperately loves, Rosaline, will be attending the festivities, he worries that something bad will happen if they go forth.  Mercutio demands that Romeo explain his sudden misgivings, and the following exchange ensues:

Romeo: I dreamt a dream tonight.

Mercutio: And so did I.

Romeo: Well, what was yours?

Mercutio: That dreamers often lie.

Romeo: In bed asleep, while they do dream things true.

(1.4.51-56)

Romeo believes his dream is warning him of danger in the future.  Mercutio is more interested in the party, however, and he tries to deflect Romeo’s gloomy prognostication with a sharp-edged jest: he lures Romeo into asking him if he really had a dream, and then calls into question the veracity of anyone who claims to have a dream to tell.  But Romeo has a strong feeling about the potential significance of his dream, and he tries to persuade Mercutio to take it seriously.

Romeo gets more than he bargained for.  Mercutio launches into an elaborate and fanciful speech that covers more than forty lines of text, starting with this:

Mercutio: O, then I see Queen Mab hath been with you. She is the fairies’ midwife, and she comes in shape no bigger than an agate stone…

(I.iv.57-59)

What follows is a strange, magical journey into the realm of the fairies and their nocturnal activities.  As he does at greater length in the romantic fantasy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” also written around this same time (1595-1596), Shakespeare draws upon popular folklore to envision a colorful world of tiny tricksters who, hovering just outside the range of our ordinary awareness, are busily influencing our lives in ways both fair and foul.  Despite her miniscule size and delicate nature, Queen Mab wields total power over us when we sleep and dream.  Mercutio goes on describe what happens when she visits various kinds of people in their slumber:

Mercutio: And in this state she gallops night by night through lovers’ brains, and then they dream of love; O’er courtiers knees, that dream on curtsies straight; O’er lawyers fingers, who straight dream on fees; O’er ladies’ lips, who straight on kisses dream.

(I.iv.74-78)

What Mercutio describes is quite similar to the continuity hypothesis of dreaming, which states that people tend to dream most frequently about things that emotionally concern them in waking life. Lovers dream of love, courtiers dream of kneeling in court, lawyers dream of receiving money from clients—whatever is most important in a person’s life, that’s what they’re most likely to dream about.  Mercutio describes other examples of Queen Mab’s dream-stimulating activities: she tickles a minister’s nose, and he dreams of a financially secure job; she drives over a soldier’s neck, and he dreams of cutting enemy throats.  The common thread throughout these examples is that dreams are personalized reflections of people’s current concerns and not, as Romeo assumes, prophecies about the future.  In this regard, Mercutio’s speech is a remarkable anticipation of a modern psychological theory about dreaming.

Queen Mab takes mischievous delight in causing chaos and disorder, a fairy trait she shares with Puck, Oberon, and Titania in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  As Mercutio continues his speech, this quality comes to the fore, and at a certain point Mercutio seems to lose control of his own story:

Mercutio: This is the very Mab that plaits the manes of horses in the night and bakes the elflocks in foul sluttish hairs, which once untangled much misfortune bodes. This is the hag, when maids lie on their backs, that presses them and learns them first to bear, making them women of good carriage. This is she—

(I.iv.92-98)

Here, Shakespeare condenses several folk-beliefs about the dark forces behind dreaming. Queen Mab morphs into a relentless incubus or night hag who tangles hair, presses on bodies, preys on fears, and forces sexual submission.  She is the embodiment of all the nightmarish powers set loose within our sleep, and she devotes especially malicious attention to the torments of “sluttish” young women.  The physiological effects described here could, in modern terms, be diagnosed as night terrors, with the sensation of pressure and feelings of overwhelming fear.  They could also be explained in terms of psychoanalytic theory: Queen Mab is the primal Id of the human unconscious, running wild through our dreams while the ego slumbers in blissful ignorance.

Most productions of the play have Mercutio delivering these final lines of his speech in a manic frenzy, as the fairies’ malevolent mayhem threatens to overwhelm him.  The OSF version, with the incandescent Sara Bruner as Mercutio, follows that traditional staging, but with an intriguing gender twist that gives the speech a deeper level of emotional resonance.

At this point, Mercutio has become so unhinged that Romeo steps forward to interrupt him and snap him out of the psychotic spell of his own words.  Now it’s Romeo’s turn to play down the significance of dreams, in an effort to calm his friend’s frazzled nerves:

Romeo: Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! Thou talk’st of nothing.

(I.iv.100-101)

Mercutio responds with another unexpected shift of tone and attitude:

Mercutio: True, I talk of dreams; which are the children of an idle brain, begot of nothing but vain fantasy; which is as thin of substance as the air, and more inconstant that the wind…

(I.iv.102-106)

After dwelling at such length on the wondrous exploits of Queen Mab and her fairy consorts, Mercutio abruptly concludes with a rejection of dreaming as a whole.  A modern materialist could not express any more eloquently the idea that dreams are sheer nonsense.  Here, Mercutio is anticipating the basic themes of neuroscientific reductionism, another strand of current thinking about dreams that treats them as the disordered and meaningless by-products of an “idle brain” during sleep.

In the context of the play and this particular scene, Mercutio’s claim is not very persuasive, since he just spent several minutes giving a highly detailed account of the meaningful connections between people’s dreams and their waking lives.  Indeed, his belated rejection of dreaming seems more like a desperate attempt to deny what he has just openly acknowledged to be real and true.  He’s trying to put the lid back on the magic box, but it’s too late.  The fairies have already escaped.

Benvolio finally draws their attention back to the matter at hand, and on they go to the party.  But Romeo has been deeply rattled.  More than ever, he feels a prophetic sense of darkening gloom ahead and the inescapable prospect of “untimely death.”

So this is Romeo’s frame of mind when he puts on his mask and walks into the party at the Capulets.  He is deeply depressed about his unrequited love for Rosaline; he just had a very worrisome dream portending some future ill; and his friend nearly goes mad talking about the supernatural powers of malicious mischief set loose in our dreams.  Plus, he knows that if his true identity is discovered, he will likely be killed.  By entering the party, Romeo is entering a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Juliet’s Merging of Beds, Sleep, and Death

We do not know what Juliet dreams about.  We only know what she does not dream about.  In her first appearance, Juliet’s mother calls for her to discuss an important question:

Capulet’s wife: Tell me, daughter Juliet, how stands your disposition to be married?

Juliet: It is an honor that I dream not of.

(I.iii.68-70)

Juliet’s reply is both modest and diplomatic.  As an obedient and virtuous daughter, she accepts that her parents will decide when, where, and to whom she will be pledged in the sacred bond of marriage.  Until that time, the topic is the farthest thing from her mind, something that does not even appear in her dreams.  Her reply also includes a subtle degree of reluctance to think about marriage at this stage of life.  Her nurse has just given a long and rambling speech, the upshot of which is that Juliet is not yet 14 years of age, barely past childhood.  But Juliet’s mother insists that other “ladies of esteem” in Verona are married by this age and already bearing children, as did she when she first married Juliet’s father.

This is preamble to dramatic news.  Her mother says that a well-regarded gentleman by the name of Paris has shown marital interest in Juliet (he “seeks you for his love”), and he has come to their house that very evening to win her hand.  Juliet’s mother gives her virtually no time to react—“speak briefly, can you like of Paris’ love?” Juliet dutifully answers that she will try to like him, but no more than her mother says she should. The nurse shows no such reluctance, as she makes abundantly clear the sexual implications of this sudden turn of events: “Women grow by men… Go, girl, seek happy nights to happy days.”

Juliet speaks very few lines in this scene, which is fitting since she really has no say in any of these choices or decisions.  She dreams of none of this because she has no agency, no creative investment in any of it; it all happens to her, by decree of her parents, leaving her imagination no reason to wonder about alternative possibilities.

So this is Juliet’s frame of mind when she puts on her mask and joins her family’s feast.  After dwelling on the fact that she is currently 13 years old, she is informed by her mother that she has reached a marrying age, that a particular gentleman has already expressed his romantic interest in her, and that said gentleman is present in their home right now, ready to secure her affections.  Thanks to the nurse’s bawdy commentary, she cannot avoid the reality that she will be expected to engage in sexual relations with him.  Thus when she goes to the party, Juliet enters a perilous, uncertain, and potentially transformative space.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

And once there, she meets Romeo.  Their magical first encounter surprises them both; this is not what they were expecting when they walked into the party.  Completely forgetting the people they were supposed to seek (Rosaline for Romeo, Paris for Juliet), they almost instantly fall in love with a masked stranger, in a moment of mysteriously intense romance.

When the gathering ends, Juliet anxiously begs the nurse:

Juliet: Go ask his name.—If he be married, my grave is like to be my wedding bed.

(I.v.73-74)

This is the first of many instances in which Juliet and other characters make symbolic connections between beds, sleep, and death.  These references are also intertwined with the bed as a physical space for passion, love, and the creation of new life.  The grave and the wedding bed—they occupy opposite ends of an existential spectrum, and yet in this story they inexorably draw towards each other and finally merge into a tragic unity.

The early references are the happiest.  As Romeo stands beneath Juliet’s balcony exchanging vows of love, he marvels at the incredible magic of the moment:

Romeo: O blessed, blessed night! I am afeard, being in night, all this is but a dream, too flattering-sweet to be substantial.

(II.ii147-149)

A few moments later he bids a final farewell to Juliet at her balcony:

Romeo: Sleep dwell upon thine eyes, peace in thy breast! Would I were sleep and peace, so sweet to rest!

(II.ii.202-203)

After the friar performs their secret wedding, Juliet eagerly anticipates her first opportunity to be alone with her husband:

Juliet: Come, night; come, Romeo; come, thou day in night; for thou wilt lie upon the wings of night whiter than new snow upon a raven’s back. Come, gentle night; come, loving, black-browed night; give me my Romeo…

(III.ii.17-21)

Romeo and Juliet finally get to celebrate their marriage with a “love-performing night” together in her bed (III.v), and they lament the coming of the day (Romeo says, “I must be gone and live, or stay and die”).

Now everything darkens, and fate closes in on the young couple.  After they part, Juliet learns that she will soon be wedded to Paris, while Romeo finds he has been exiled from Verona for the killing of Juliet’s brother Tybalt in a street brawl.  With the friar’s help, Juliet decides to take a sleeping potion that will “wrought on her the form of death”:

Friar Laurence: And in this borrowed likeness of shrunk death thou shalt continue two and forty hours, and then awake as from a pleasant sleep. Now, when the bridegroom [Paris] in the morning comes to rouse thee from thy bed, there art thou dead.

(IV.i.106-110)

Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

The friar promises to tell Romeo to go to Juliet in the Capulet tomb after she has revived, so they can secretly escape the city together.  Alas, the plan goes badly awry.  Paris gets to the tomb first, and mourns at what he believes to be the dead Juliet’s side:

Paris: Sweet flower, with flowers thy bridal bed I strew—O woe! Thy canopy is dust and stones.

(V.iii.12-13)

Then Romeo enters the tomb.  Paris draws his sword and attacks; Romeo kills him.  He then goes to Juliet’s motionless body and falls for the deception, too: he thinks she is truly dead.  Unable to distinguish death from sleep, Romeo decides to join her in death.  Immediately upon his doing so, Juliet awakens.  The friar arrives at this point, and he urges Juliet to leave at once:

Friar Laurence: I hear some noise. Lady, come from that nest of death, contagion, and unnatural sleep.

(V.iii.156-157)

Juliet refuses.  Instead, she decides to join her beloved Romeo in eternal slumber.  After a final kiss, she takes his dagger and presses its point against her chest:

Juliet: This is thy sheath; there rest, and let me die.

(V.iii.175)

Romeo’s Joyful Dream

The agonizing conclusion to the story makes it all the more peculiar that, just before he learns of Juliet’s apparent death, Romeo awakens with a happy dream.  His speech at the start of Act V is a final beam of light in the gathering darkness:

Romeo: If I may trust the flattering truth of sleep, my dreams presage some joyful news at hand. My bosom’s lord sits lightly in his throne, and all this day an unaccustomed spirit lifts me above the ground with cheerful thoughts. I dreamt my lady came and found me dead (strange dream that gives a dead man leave to think!) and breathed such life with kisses in my lips that I revived and was an emperor. Ah me! How sweet is love itself possessed, when but love’s shadows are so rich in joy!

(V.i.1-11)

What are we to make of this dream?  At one level it seems horribly misleading—Romeo is about to receive absolutely terrible news about Juliet, and death will soon consume them both.  The dream seems like a cruel hoax, and a painfully ironic example of why we should not “trust the flattering truth of sleep.”

But at another level, perhaps the dream is leading Romeo towards an awareness of a different realm of union with Juliet, a transcendent realm where he will be “an emperor,” and where life will conquer death.  For the truth is, there is no hope in the present waking world for him and Juliet, not with their families’ violent hatred of each other.  Romeo’s dream offers him an alternative way of understanding what the future is about to bring.  Their love is, by its very existence, a miraculous triumph over the rigid constraints that govern their lives.  They have successfully defied the social authorities and asserted their own desires for romantic fulfillment.  Their kisses have the power to transport them beyond the petty feuds of this world to a beautiful and joyful world all their own.

Romeo notes the strange element in his dream of a dead man thinking living thoughts.  Today we might call this a variation on metacognition in dreaming, a type of “thinking about thinking.”  Here, it’s Romeo thinking about what he would be thinking if he were dead.  This seems impossible from a conventional waking perspective, just as it’s impossible that he could ever actually become an emperor in the waking world.  But these things are possible in the realm of dreaming, and this suggests an expansion of normal awareness, a dissolving of ordinary boundaries, and the discovery of new potentials beyond the limits of the present.  That does seem to be the tangible effect of the dream on Romeo once he awakens.  It breaks through his fears, lifts his spirits, and stimulates a welcoming attitude towards the future. For one last moment he feels pure lightness and joy, and he revels in the wonders of his love for Juliet.

Is that a cruel deception, or a profoundly truthful vision?

Earlier in the play, Mercutio gives a variety of reasons why we should ignore dreams: dreamers lie, the fairies manipulate people’s minds, and anyway it’s all nonsense from the sleep-addled brain.  But by the end of the play the references to dreams shift towards an emphasis on their accuracy in reflecting reality.  After killing Paris in the Capulet tomb, Romeo briefly wonders about something his servant, Balthasar, said to him on the way to the tomb:

Romeo: I think he told me Paris should have married Juliet: Said he not so? Or did I dream it so?

(V.iii.78-79)

Balthasar probably did say so, but for Romeo it could equally have been a dream; all are one in his mind now.

A few moments later, Friar Laurence encounters Balthasar outside the tomb.  Romeo had told Balthasar to wait for him, and under no circumstances to follow him into the tomb.  Now Balthasar anxiously tells the friar he fears something terrible has happened:

Balthasar: As I did sleep under this yew-tree here, I dreamt my master and another fought, and that my master slew him.

(V.iii.141-143)

The staging of the scene leaves Balthasar’s exact position unclear (“I’ll hide me hereabout”), so we don’t know if he saw or heard Romeo and Paris while they were fighting; either way, Balthasar’s dream accurately reflects what did in fact happen in the tomb.

In both instances during this final climactic scene of the play, the distinction has dissolved between dreaming and waking reality.  Dreams have become transparent to the actuality of what’s happening in this world.  That is the final, spiritually illuminating context for Romeo’s joyful dream and its flattering truth about the eternal love he shares with Juliet.

 

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Dreams and Shakespeare: Romeo and Juliet by Kelly Bulkeley

Yew tree photo is from Roi.dagobert

 

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello by Kelly BulkeleyShakespeare’s most cunning villain turns sleep and dreaming against his enemies.

At the center of Shakespeare’s dark tragedy is the cruel dynamic between Othello, a magnificent warrior and heroic leader, and Iago, his resentful subordinate. (In the current production at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Chris Butler performs in the title role, and Iago is played by Danforth Comins). Despite being a dark-skinned Moor, Othello has earned the trust of the white Christians of Venice because of his military valor and success in defending their city.  But Iago secretly hates Othello, and he launches a devilish plan to ruin, humiliate, and destroy him, all while pretending to be Othello’s most faithful servant.  A subtle weapon in Iago’s arsenal is his malicious manipulation of people’s perceptions of sleep, beds, and dreaming.

The play opens with an overwrought gentleman, Roderigo, furiously accusing Iago of betrayal.  Roderigo is in love with Desdemona (played in the OSF production by Alejandra Escalante), a Senator’s daughter, and he has been paying Iago for help in wooing her. Now comes the shocking news that Desdemona has already married Othello, and Roderigo demands to know how Iago could have let this happen.  These are Iago’s first words of the play:

“’Sblood, but you’ll not hear me. If ever I did dream of such a matter, abhor me.” (I.i.4-5)

Iago tells Roderigo his suspicions are no more credible than the fleeting whimsies of a dream.  He relies on a kind of proverbial phrasing that equates dreams with something as far as possible from the conscious mind.  He’s telling Roderigo: Not only did I not know about this, but it was not even in the furthest reaches of my awareness.

In fact, Iago did know about it, and he may well have dreamed about it, too (more on that below).  He already knows about Desdemona, and he already has a plan for using her against the Moor.  While he and Roderigo have been talking about their mutual hatred of Othello, Iago has been steering them through the dark nighttime streets of Venice, straight to the home of Desdemona and her family. Their yelling brings Brabantio, Desdemona’s father, to the window. Prodded by Iago, Roderigo informs the Senator that his daughter has secretly married Othello (Iago puts it in more inflammatory terms: “your daughter and the Moor are now making the beast with two backs” (I.i.115-116)).  Brabantio urgently calls for all the servants of his house to awaken, light candles, and search for his daughter.  For a moment he pauses to reflect:

“This accident is not unlike my dream, belief of it oppresses me already.” (I.i.141-142)

Iago slinks into the night before Brabantio confirms that Desdemona is missing, but his dastardly work is done.  Brabantio has awakened to his worst fear—the dishonoring of his daughter—and Iago has insured that all his paternalistic rage will be aimed straight at Othello.

It seems unlikely that Iago knew Brabantio was dreaming right before he awoke, but it certainly works to the villain’s advantage.  In a way, Iago both creates Brabantio’s dream and interprets it.  If he and Roderigo had not caused a noisy uproar, Brabantio would have kept sleeping, and might not have remembered this dream at all.  Once Brabantio is awake, if he had not been immediately confronted with the shocking news of his daughter’s betrayal, he might have associated the dream with something else in his life.  Although he seems slightly ambivalent about the dream’s relevance to the situation with his daughter (they are “not unlike”), it takes no time for the two to become fused emotionally in his mind (“it oppresses me already”).  This is just as Iago would want.  Iago has manipulated Brabantio into using the energies of his dreams to fuel his vendetta against Othello.

From Brabantio’s perspective, everything in the play turns out just as badly as he feared it would.  In that regard, his dream could be regarded as an accurate prophecy of the doomed future.  Even though he’s wrong about Desdemona’s virtue and integrity, he’s right about the danger to her posed by the Moor.  Iago is the interpretive agent of this realization, and he turns Brabantio’s insight into a weapon aimed straight at Othello’s heart.

Alas, the shot has no effect.  Brabantio cannot persuade the leaders of Venice to act against Othello, given their overriding need of his military protection, plus Desdemona’s sincere declarations of love for him.

Thus Iago must devise a new plan to destroy Othello.  In the final lines of Act I Iago is onstage alone, pondering the question “How? How?” In a burst of malevolent inspiration, he envisions an intricate plot using people’s fears and biases against them, all leading to a single violent end.  Iago revels in his own nightmarish brilliance:

“I have’t, it is engend’red: Hell and Night must bring this monstrous birth to the world’s light.” (I.iii.410-411)

Later, just before a key piece of action begins, Iago refers again to the nocturnal provenance of his plan:

“But here they come: if consequence do but approve my dream, my boat sails freely, both with wind and stream.” (II.iii.61-62)

He likens his scheme to a prophetic dream that predicts the future.  At one level this is quite ironic, since Iago is anything but superstitious.  His behavior reflects a pure form of willful, defiant individualism; he is determined to create his own chosen future, not wait passively for his fate.

But at another level this comment appears as an honest self-recognition of his unusual powers of imagination.  Iago’s “dream” is a detailed prediction about what will happen if certain people’s emotions are stimulated in specific ways and channeled towards certain other people.  He has set this dream in motion, and he can accurately foresee where it will lead.  He knows that Othello’s downfall will begin with the destruction of his sleep:

“Not Poppy, nor Mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world, shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep which thou ow’dst yesterday.” (III.iii.320-323)

While he steals the sweet sleep of Othello, Iago adds bitter falsehoods to the sleep of the Moor’s top military assistant, Cassio.  To persuade Othello that Cassio has illicit desires for Desdemona, Iago tells the following story:

“I lay with Cassio lately, and being troubled with a raging tooth, I could not sleep. There are a kind of men so loose of soul that in their sleeps will mutter their affairs: one of this kind is Cassio. In sleep I heard him say, ‘Sweet Desdemona, let us be wary, let us hide our loves.’ And then, Sir, would he gripe, and wring my hand, cry ‘Oh sweet creature,’ and then kiss me hard, as if he pluck’d up kisses by the roots that grew upon my lips; laid his leg o’er my thigh, and sigh’d and kiss’d, and then cried, ‘Cursed fate, that gave thee to the Moor.’” (III.iii.403-415)

This story serves Iago’s cause in several ways.  Because of the nature of the circumstances (it’s night, they’re asleep), it cannot be checked or verified.  It appears to be a special, unguarded insight into Cassio’s true character, and it fits with other clues Iago has laid before the Moor.  It allows Iago to insert the most blatantly sexual and jealousy-stimulating images into Othello’s mind, but from a source that can easily be dismissed as trivial and foolish.  Indeed, Iago bolsters his own credibility when he feigns skepticism about the waking-world significance of Cassio’s strange sleeping behavior:

“Nay, this was but his dream.”  (III.iii.416)

As Iago intends, Othello replies by insisting that he shall decide for himself what to think about Cassio:

“But this denoted a foregone conclusion: ‘tis a shrewd doubt, though it be but a dream.” (III.iii.417-418)

From here, Iago immediately pivots to the topic of the precious handkerchief that Othello gave as a present to Desdemona, and that Iago has stolen and is about to plant in Cassio’s possession.  Iago thereby weaves together “proofs” from various sources, each one small in itself but together forming a larger pattern of meaning, a pattern that, unbeknownst to Othello, has been predetermined to drive him mad.  The mighty warrior is no match for his malevolent servant’s interpretive reasoning.

For the most part, Iago acts as a mere assistant, letting Othello feel like he is in charge of determining what his wife has been doing and how he should respond.  But at one crucial moment Iago gives the Moor a shocking directive.  Othello has just decided he must kill Desdemona for her infidelity, and he asks Iago to get him some poison.  Iago replies:

“Do it not with poison, strangle her in her bed, even the bed she hath contaminated.”  (IV.i.214-215)

Iago makes this horrifying proposal because he knows that Othello’s rage is also mixed with sadness (“but yet the pity of it, Iago”) and might distract him from carrying out his deadly intentions.  By demanding that he kill Desdemona in their marital bed, Iago helps Othello perceive it as a heroic act with an epic meaning, a violent but noble triumph in the cause of restoring moral order to the universe.  Othello replies:

“Good, good, the justice of it pleases; very good.” (IV.i.216)

Iago has persuaded Othello to think of murdering his wife in their bed as pleasing, as “good, good… very good.”  This line is chilling testimony to Iago’s success in warping Othello’s soul.

This is the same bed that Desdemona, just a few scenes earlier, has playfully described as a “school” where she hopes to teach her husband about empathy and compassion for others (III.iii.24).  She is planning to devote herself to expanding his emotional self-awareness, but she never gets the chance.  The bed where she wants to cultivate their relationship in new directions becomes the place where he, in a single-minded rage, will destroy it.

Othello likes to think of himself in larger-than-life terms, as a legendary hero bursting forth from a realm of mythic dreams.  Desdemona loves him for his adventurous spirit, but she is also trying to temper his warrior instincts and bring out a fuller human being.  Iago, however, feeds his grandiosity, stokes his reflexive aggression, and encourages his naïve assumptions.  Othello, the proud and courageous veteran of so many fearsome battles, chooses, at this decisive moment in his life, to follow the easier, cowardly path.  Death and destruction for all is the result.

Dreams and Shakespeare: Othello by Kelly Bulkeley

A Festival of Dreams

A Festival of Dreams by Kelly BulkeleySeveral hundred people from all over the world gathered in Scottsdale, Arizona this week to discuss the latest findings and methods in dream research.  The 35th annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams  featured five days of panels, workshops, and artistic events.  A lively mix of academic symposium, spiritual retreat, and collective self-experiment, the IASD conference offers a stimulating variety of approaches to the nature and meaning of dreams.

Here are several highlights from the sessions I attended.

Remington Mallet, a doctoral student in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Texas, Austin, described exciting new research on “the ability to communicate in real-time between sleeping and waking.”  This theme has been explored in fictional form in various movies and television shows, from “Inception” and “The Matrix” to “Dream Corp. LLC.” Mallet analyzed the sleeping-waking communications portrayed in these popular media in relation to current scientific knowledge about what is and isn’t possible.  Mallet concluded that the media portrayals are far ahead of the actual science, but new technologies are moving quickly in the very same directions envisioned by the movies and television shows.

Sharon Pastore and Tzivia Gover of the Institute for Dream Studies gave a moving presentation on the common themes in the dreams of those who care for people with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.  Building on research on dreams and bereavement, they described how simple methods of exploring dreams can be helpful for the caregivers, whether professionals, friends, or family members: “Dreamwork can guide decisions in the care and communication with loved ones, as well as coping/healing.”  In additional to academic research, Pastore and Gover drew on personal experiences of caring for a parent with dementia to illuminate the value of dreams for the caregiving process.

Robert Stickgold, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, gave a fascinating keynote address on the role of sleep and dreaming in memory formation.  This has been a controversial topic in the field, with some researchers questioning the connection between sleep, dreams, and memory.  Stickgold granted that dreams rarely include episodic memories (i.e., direct, unmodified re-playings of a waking event).  But he laid out extensive evidence to support the idea that different stages of the sleep cycle are important for memory stabilization.  Sleep seems to help people better remember the emotionally relevant aspects of a waking experience.  He didn’t talk a lot about dreams, but he did note some studies “demonstrating the explicit incorporation of waking learning experiences into dream content… [S]uch incorporation is accompanied by enhanced sleep-dependent consolidation of the learning task.”  In other words, the more people dreamed about the learning task, the better they remembered it the next day.  The best part of Stickgold’s address, from my perspective, was his willingness to admit he does not have an easy answer to the “hard question” of how to relate the psychological experience of dreaming with the neurophysiological processes of sleep.  It was a refreshing statement of epistemological humility, and quite a contrast to the views of his predecessor at the Harvard lab, J. Allan Hobson, who had no doubt about the right answer to the hard question.

Linda Mastrangelo, a psychotherapist with a private practice in the San Francisco Bay Area, explored in detail a series of her own dreams in which she found unexpected connections with her family heritage, ancestral roots, and places of origin.  She combined psychology, myth, art, and sacred geography to trace out a map of her dreaming landscapes.  The frequency of certain places in her dreams inspired her to learn more about her own spiritual grounding in special features of the land, and to deepen her awareness of the wisdom traditions and ecological teachings that have grown around these places over the ages.  As Mastrangelo made clear, this is a process that anyone can pursue in exploring their own symbolic connections between dreaming and place.

Mark Blagrove, a professor of psychology and director of the sleep laboratory at Swansea University in the UK, proposed a theory of dream function that centered on the evolutionary value of empathy.  Drawing on the studies of Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley about fiction and empathy, Blagrove presented evidence in favor of a theory that telling dreams has the effect of eliciting greater empathy towards the dreamer, which strengthens interpersonal bonding and thus enhances reproductive fitness.  Blagrove made thought-provoking use of Mar and Oatley’s psychological analyses of fictional literature as a powerful means of simulating social experience and boosting our capacity to understand other people who are different from ourselves—that is, boosting our capacity for empathy.  After exploring the connections between empathy and dream-telling, Blagrove passed the microphone to Katja Valli, an assistant professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University of Skvode, Sweden, who agreed beforehand to offer constructive comments on the proposed theory.  This was an admirable exercise in scholarly dialogue, and a valuable opportunity for everyone in the audience to observe the kind of critical scrutiny that can help improve our ideas and sharpen our awareness.

Next year’s IASD conference will be held June 21-25 in the Netherlands, at the Rolduc Abbey conference facility in Kerkrade, about 200 kilometers south of Amsterdam.  The Abbey is a glorious 12th century structure where the IASD has hosted two previous conferences.  I can’t wait!

Note: this post first appeared on June 21, 2018 in Psychology Today.

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap

Four Reasons Why You Should Take a Nap by Kelly BulkeleyNaps are not an indulgence or a sign of laziness, but a simple way of rejuvenating your mental and physical well-being. 

Here are four reasons why you should find a time and place for a brief daytime snooze.

1. You probably need it.

Many people today are sleep deprived at moderate to severe levels.  Long work hours, busy personal lives, noisy urban environments, and the stimulation of various personal devices are all making it harder than ever to get as much sleep as our minds and bodies require. A quick siesta cannot make up for all the sleep you’ve lost, but taking a nap whenever you have the chance will protect your health and diminish the long-term effects of sleep deprivation.

2.  You may be a naturally polyphasic sleeper.

Millions of years ago, our primate ancestors lived in trees, and they were polyphasic sleepers, meaning they slept at multiple times across the day and night.  When our species emerged we came down from the trees and became mostly monophasic sleepers, with one major period of sleep during the night.  But some humans have always had a strong innate tendency toward a polyphasic sleep cycle, and this is true for some people today, too.  Such people naturally need to take naps at various points during the day.  They are not lazy or slothful, they just have biological constitutions that function best with polyphasic sleep.  Unfortunately, they often have to conform with the work schedules of a monophasic society, just as naturally left-handed people have to adapt to the architecture and design of a right-handed world.

 3. You can boost your performance with a well-timed nap.

The greatest athlete-napper in the world right now has to be Mikaela Shiffrin, the gold-medal winning alpine skier from the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.  She regularly naps between runs on race days, keeping her mind and body at maximal freshness.  Many top-level athletes also give themselves the opportunity to nap before a competition.  For example, the basketball player J.J. Reddick of the Philadelphia 76ers takes a nap between 2 and 4 pm every day before an evening game.  When he wakes up, he begins a pre-game routine that leads him right to tip-off.  These athletes know the power generated by healthful sleep, and they have learned to focus that power on optimizing their performance.  You can apply this same principle in your own life, by letting yourself nap before facing a major challenge or task that requires you to be at your best.

4. You can explore lucid dreaming.

Many people find it easier to enter into lucid dreaming during a nap than during a regular night’s sleep.  (A “lucid” dream is one in which you know you are dreaming within the dream).  During a nap the mind is still fairly close to waking consciousness, which allows for more cross-fertilization between different modes of awareness.  This is actually a widespread practice through history for people seeking creative insights and alternative perspectives towards waking life challenges.  Artists, scientists, and advanced meditators have all drawn inspiration from brief, lucid spells of daytime sleep that open new ways of looking at reality upon awakening.

 

This post first appeared in Psychology Today, May 7, 2018.

 

Why It’s So Hard to Sleep in the NBA

Why It's So Hard to Sleep in the NBA by Kelly BulkeleyPro basketball players and coaches suffer chronic sleep deprivation. Can they find help in their dreams?

On January 8, 1964, a 17-year old high school student named Randy Gardner set the world’s record for continual wakefulness: 264 hours, more than eleven straight days without sleep.  Gardner was helped in his effort by Dr. William Dement, a pioneer of sleep medicine who stayed with him round-the-clock to help him achieve his goal.  The worst times came during the wee hours of the night, when Gardner’s resolve faltered, but Dement said they found a sure-fire way to keep sleep at bay:

Fortunately, playing basketball always worked. We almost had to drag him out to the backyard, but once he was there and got moving, he was much better.” 

This little anecdote from the early history of sleep research illuminates a problem at the heart of the modern National Basketball Association.  Professional basketball players are virtually guaranteed to suffer chronic sleep deprivation. For months on end they stay up late into the night and engage in intense, highly stressful physical competitions held in brightly lit, hyper-stimulating arenas full of thousands of screaming people.  They must endure a constantly changing schedule of long-distance travel, shifting time zones, and unfamiliar food and lodging.  It would be hard to intentionally design a system more likely to disrupt the natural, healthy rhythms of sleep.

Fortunately, a new awareness of the importance of sleep is growing among the players, coaches, and even the league schedulers. Two of the league’s premier players, Lebron James and Kevin Durant, have made their views on the subject clear:

James: “Sleep is the most important thing when it comes to recovery.  And it’s very tough with our schedule. Our schedule keeps us up late at night, and most of the time it wakes us up early in the morning. … There’s no better recovery than sleep.”

Durant: “Of course, on the basketball side, you have to fine tune your skills.  But on the other side, you have to fine tune your body. There’s a lot of remedies you can use as a basketball player to get better, but the easiest thing you can do is go to sleep.”

Much of the credit for the recent burst of attention to sleep and basketball goes to Dr. Cheri Mah, whose 2011 study of the Stanford University men’s basketball team found that increased sleep led to measurably better shooting, faster sprinting, and a higher sense of physical and mental well-being.  Mah’s findings have inspired men’s and women’s teams at all levels to take sleep more seriously as an integral factor in overall player health and performance.

Mah’s research has also spawned a method of predicting the winners of NBA games with alarmingly high accuracy.  ESPN writer Baxter Holmes has worked with Mah to devise a formula for evaluating how tired one team would be compared to another team on the night of a game against each other, especially on the second night of a back-to-back game.  Their formula takes many factors into account:

Whether the game is home or away, the time elapsed between tip-offs (including hours lost from flying east), how rested the opponent is from play or travel and whether it’s part of a longer run of four games in five nights, or five games in seven.

As Holmes reports, the formula has a success rate of about 75% in predicting the winner of a game when one team is likely to be very sleep deprived and the other team is likely to be very well-rested.  These predictions are made regardless of the team’s won/lost records, which is even more impressive in terms of identifying the direct competitive impact of healthy sleep.  If this formula were revised to include the won/lost records, it’s easy to imagine the success rate of the sleep-driven predictions rising to nearly 100%.

This season has also highlighted the sleep challenges of coaches as well as the players.  Two head coaches—Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers and Steve Clifford of the Charlotte Hornets—have been forced by health concerns to leave their teams for several weeks of recuperation.  In both cases, doctors identified chronic insomnia as an important causal factor.

What can be done to help NBA players and coaches improve their sleep?  The league is under growing pressure to eliminate back-to-back games, which would surely remove a major cause of disrupted sleep.  But there’s only so much flexibility when trying to craft a season of 82 games for each of 30 teams in a time frame of 6 months.  Even if back-to-backs are eliminated, the NBA’s regular season schedule will continue to put enormous pressure on everyone’s ability to get a healthy amount of sleep.

At this point, most teams have a sleep consultant of some kind, so players and coaches already have access to basic information about behavioral changes one can make for improving sleep.  Unfortunately, knowing what you should do is not as easy as actually doing it.  According to one coach quoted by David Aldridge at NBA.com,

“We’re all told what to do, but we don’t do it.  We’re all told we have to eat healthy, we have to exercise and we have to get our sleep. All of us. Every coach. This is not like, ‘oh, wow, I never thought of that.’ But it’s hard to do it.”

What else is there?  What other options exist for promoting better sleep, besides the standard methods of appealing to guilt and fear, focusing on behavioral markers, and relying on external authorities?

There is another approach, one that works well for some people and might work very well for NBA players and coaches.  This approach draws on a new source of motivation for getting as much good sleep as possible: Better sleep is important because it leads to better dreaming. 

When you sleep, your mind does not simply shut down.  Rather, it enters a different mode of functioning, a mode that can be described as a kind of play.  Liberated from the constraints of the external world, your sleeping mind is free to imagine, explore, and experiment.  Sometimes, during the phase known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which occurs four or five times a night for most people, your brain becomes intensely activated, as much as when you are wide awake. These complex bursts of neural activation are an automatic, hard-wired feature of your sleep cycle, and they stimulate the psychological process of dreaming.

But why should anyone, let alone those who play or coach professional basketball, care about dreams?  There are at least three reasons.

First, even if you never remember any of your dreams, the process of dreaming still contributes to your mental welfare in waking life.  Researchers have found that dreaming promotes more efficient learning, memory formation, and the emotional integration of new experiences.  The “bizarre” aspects of dreaming—strange settings, odd characters, impossible events—can be understood as playfully stretching your mind’s abilities, with the beneficial effect of increasing your mental flexibility and improving your readiness to deal with unexpected situations in waking life.  In this way, dreaming is like mental yoga.  It loosens the rigid boundaries of your waking ego, expands the range of your imagination, and keeps your mind open and alert to new possibilities.

This means that sleep is especially important for basketball players and coaches who are continuously trying to optimize their performance, because if they sleep well, their dreams will naturally boost their mental health and adaptive flexibility, whether or not they consciously remember any of them.

Second, chances are you that do remember at least a few of your dreams.  If you pay even a little attention to them, you’ll notice they often revolve around your current emotional concerns.  Whatever preoccupies you in waking life—whatever you care most about—is very likely to show up in your dreams. In this way, dreams offer a surprisingly honest mirror of how you’re feeling about the most important people, challenges, and conflicts in your waking life.  Every dream you remember is an opportunity to expand your self-awareness and strive for greater emotional balance.

For pro basketball players, good sleep can open the door to a valuable source of fresh information about how they’re playing, how their bodies are responding, and how they’re getting along with teammates, coaches, opponents, fans, and the media.  Dreams are a powerful tool for identifying hidden fears and emotional obstacles that get in the way of peak athletic performance.

Third, if you actively engage with your dreams by writing them in a journal, several things will happen.  Your recall will likely increase, as you become more consciously attuned to the rhythms of your sleeping mind.  Your sense of time will expand, as you understand more of your past and envision more of your future.  You will notice the emergence of creative insights and innovative ideas that offer new ways of problem-solving in waking life.  Eventually, your dreams will begin changing as you psychologically “level up,” discovering new challenges and new opportunities for growth. You may become “lucid” or self-aware in some of your dreams, and able to interact more intentionally with the characters and settings.  You can practice dream incubation, a method of formulating a question before sleep and then observing any subsequent dreams for possible responses to the question.

Looking at these potentials in a basketball context, good sleep combined with keeping a dream journal can set the stage for developing advanced forms of mental strength and clarity that will empower players to actualize their talents to the fullest.  Dreaming can be a path towards deeper mindfulness, as Hindu and Buddhist meditators have known for many centuries.  For NBA players and coaches, who need to keep their focus laser sharp despite constant distractions, a regular dialogue with their dreams can be a grounding practice that connects them with their core motivations and ultimate center of balance.

None of this is possible if the basic rhythms of one’s sleep cycle are badly out of sync.  But once you start making an active effort to improve your sleep, you will also be improving the conditions for your dreams.  And once you start actively exploring and cultivating the immense powers of your dreaming mind, the sky is the limit.

Note: this post was first published in Psychology Today, April 5, 2018.