04 February 2006

To fall asleep.

Last night I fell asleep then suddenly I was clawing and scratching my way up, up out of a dream or something else, terrified, thinking, no, KNOWING: I will die. I finally woke up enough to know that I was not going to die right then, but the thought lingered, "you will die someday". My heart was racing and I could barely catch my breath. Death is such a hard concept to deal with, since all we know is life, but life will end, everything that we know will end. Despair.

I am quite familiar with this dream or whatever it is, as it happens with some regularity when I first fall asleep. Jarred awake, eventually I am able to sort out my normal rational state and get back to sleep. But sometimes I think that this is why people have trouble falling asleep, that to fall into a state of sleep we have to get past some sort of barrier, perhaps "go through a door", perhaps our subconscious shows a dark monster grabbing us, pulling us through; sometimes we wake up just as we are grabbed. To fall asleep is to let go of life as we know it, we enter a different realm over which we have no control. Sleep is a sort of death.

Biology and Human Behavior, The Neurological Origins of Individuality, by Robert Sapolsky, is my current Teaching Company CD course. I highly recommend it. Early in the course he discusses connections between the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the cortex. The cortex is where our rational thoughts occur, the ANS controls our breathing, heartrate, all that stuff. The cortex can regulate the ANS in a way that is fairly unique to primates, in that cortical "projections" are sent to the limbic system to activate the ANS.

So what is Sapolsky's example of cortical regulation of the ANS? His words: "Think about the fact that you are going to die. The ANS is activated and your heart beats faster, your blood pressure rises, you breathe fast and begin to sweat."



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