Why we sleep

An article in today’s New York Times reported a research result that has been circling recently: Researchers believe they have figured out why we sleep. In scientific circles this has long been a puzzlement, given that for much of our recent evolutionary history, sleep would seem to be the worst of all possible Darwinian survival traits. After all, when you’re passed out and snoring on the veldt, you’re pretty much prime snackage for the nearest saber toothed tiger.

So what evolutionary advantage is conferred by those mysterious eight or so hours of thanatomorphism? The latest empirical evidence indicates that sleep is the occasion for flushing out the dead cells and accreted chemical poisons that we generate in the course of a day’s thinking. Night time, my friends, seems to be the right time for Mother Nature to dump our mental chamber pot.

But what if they have it all wrong? I mean, the major impetus for this research is the burning mystery of why we sleep at all, and why such odd behavior didn’t make us all die out thirty five centuries ago in equatorial Africa.

Let’s turn it around. What is the singular trait of human beings? It is our oddly cerebral way of dealing with the world. Other species have all sorts of intelligence, but we seem to be the only ones who survive by making elaborate and logistically intricate plans.

But as we now know, intelligence comes in many forms, and most of it is not quite at the conscious level. Haven’t you ever been stuck on a crossword puzzle, and then you woke up the next morning and simply knew the answers?

Maybe when we dream, we’re a lot smarter than we are when we are awake. Maybe Slumberland is where we actually solve the problems that need solving in order for us to survive. Perhaps the major survival function of our conscious selves is to take credit for solutions we’ve already worked out in our sleep, and for which our conscious mind then basks in undeserved applause.

“But I usually can’t remember my dreams!” you object. Of course you can’t. That symphony you wrote last night when you were dead asleep, that triple integral you solved, that sublime spiritual awakening to the vast and perfectly connected oneness of the Universe, you can’t remember these things because you’re not smart enough. Your waking brain simply doesn’t have the capacity.

Don’t worry about it. Go and get some sleep.

One Response to “Why we sleep”

  1. Vladimir says:

    Beautiful hypothesis, Ken. Reminds me some ideas of Milton Erickson. He insisted that we have to trust our unconscious, because it is far smarter than our conscious.

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