My recent pattern seems to be waking in the middle of the night, doing little things to stay awake but not too alert, and then stealing one or two more hours of sleep before morning. None of that is especially novel, especially for one entering his seventh decade. What I find interesting, however, is the type of dreaming that happens in that last hour or two of sleep. On more than one occasion I can recall feeling I had not yet returned to sleep, so rather than dream what I was thinking was the product of my conscious mind, only to find when waking up that it clearly wasn't.
Last night, really I mean early this morning, I was having a dream that I don't recall having before. But how would I know? How does anyone know whether theirs is a new dream or an encore performance? There are fragments that seem to be there upon awakening, but they soon disappear, like holding dry sand in one's hands, it slips through the fingers. The only thing I'm sure of is that before I opened my eyes, I was dreaming.
What role dreams play in relationship to conscious thought I will leave to the psychologists. It is enough for me as an economist to note they are complements. After those nights where I struggle to get to sleep the first time or don't find that second wind later, not only do I feel frazzled in the morning, I also feel I've got almost no gas in my tank when trying to come up with something to write about. Other times, when I'm more refreshed, the ideas just seem to flow.
Recently, via a discussion group with some of my students from last semester, I've become aware of how little sleep some of them get (and here I'm including their peers, since they seem to know many people in the same boat). Indiscretions of youth are frequently offset by the vitality that only is found early in life. Yet it gets me to ask, might they learn more and in a deeper way if they got more sleep?
Memory too is part of the mix and as I've come to learn recently that memories follow their own trajectories one wonders what drives them to morph over time. This piece by P.J. O'Rourke from several years ago came to mind in thinking about how our imaginations have become more limited. I remembered him as saying we have become a society of dullards. But the word dullard doesn't appear in the piece. And maybe Disney, the object of the piece, is not the best entry point in which to entertain the validity of that proposition. Teaching college students may be a better place from which to look. For me, it leads largely to the same conclusion.
Back when I was in college I read Huxley's The Doors of Perception, then a favorite of the drug culture. What I recall of it now is this bit. As young children we are overwhelmed with sense experience. There is too much to take in and process. So we learn to filter and ignore much of what is in front of us. Much of becoming an adult is producing expertise at filtering. It is necessary for survival. Yet it means many possibilities are precluded before the fact. Even the concepts themselves are blocked. This happens not out of a sinister form of censorship, but rather out of ordinary habit.
The conscious limiting of sleep to be more productive (more hours awake) may be the ultimate form of filtering. Our imaginations are taking a beating.
Why do that when you are young? Know it will happen eventually, for other reasons. Young adults should relish their imagination. That's the most potent thing in their grasp, if only they learn to use it.