A Spatial History of Sleep

[Image: Fish preserved in the eternal ocean of a closed jar at the American Museum of Natural History; old Instagram by Geoff Manaugh].

Although this is a classic example of something I am totally unqualified to talk about, a recent report over at ScienceNews caught my eye, about the spatial origins of REM sleep.

In a nutshell, the paper suggests that “sleep may have originated underwater 450 million years ago,” which is apparently when “the cells that kick off REM sleep” first evolved in fish. “During REM or paradoxical sleep,” we read, “the brain lights up with activity almost like it’s awake. But the muscles are paralyzed (except for rapid twitching of the eyes) and the heart beats erratically.”

Dreaming, it’s as if ancient fish learned to pass into a different kind of ocean, a fully immersive neural environment coextensive with the one they physically swam within.

What’s so interesting about this—at least for me—is the implication that REM sleep, and, thus, by extension, the very possibility of animals dreaming, was made possible by immersion in an all-encompassing spatial environment such as the sea. In other words, it took the vast black depths of the ocean to facilitate the kind of uninterrupted, meditative stillness in which REM sleep could best occur. Those ancestral cells then survived into our own mammalian brains, and, by dreaming, it’s perhaps a bit like we retreat back into some lost experience of the oceanic.

[Image: “Sleeping Beauty” by Hans Zatzka].

In any case, the study’s authors are probably rolling their eyes at this point, but so much comes to mind here—everything from H.P. Lovecraft’s marine-horror stories and their alien call of the deep—such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”—to the speculative idea that there might be other spatial environments, comparable to the ocean, that, after long-enough exposure, could inspire unique neurological processes otherwise impossible in traditional environments.

I’m thinking of Jeremy Narby’s strange book, Cosmic Serpent: DNA and the Origins of Knowledge, about human culture amidst the impenetrable rain forests of the Americas, or even the long-running sci-fi trope of the human mind expanding in a psychedelic encounter with deep space.

In fact, this makes me wonder about the landscapes of other planets, and whether crushingly powerful gravitational regimes in alien superstorms or bizarre swirling ecosystems deep inside liquid rock might affect the neurological development of species that live there. What other kinds of sleep are environmentally possible? Does every planet come with a different kind of dreaming? Can the design or formation of new kinds of space catalyze new forms of sleep? Are there deeper or higher levels of the brain, so to speak, waiting to appear in radically different spatial environments?

We already have astrobiology, astrogeology, even astrolinguistics, but I wonder what it would look like to study sleep on other worlds. Exosomnology.


[Image: Sunrise, via PublicDomainPictures.net].

A short item in The Economist last month suggested that town planners could simply bypass their own aesthetic responses to a landscape and turn instead to an algorithm to design “scenic” locales.

Researchers at the Warwick Business School, we read, “have adapted a computer program called Places to recognize beautiful landscapes, whether natural or artificial, using the criteria that a human beholder would employ.” Acting as a kind of sentient Hallmark card, Places has been “optimized to recognize geographical features. [Head researcher Chanuki Seresinhe] and her team taught the program to identify such things as mountains, beaches and fields, and various sorts of buildings, in pictures presented to it.”

Most of the results are not surprising. Lakes and horizons scored well. So did valleys and snowy mountains. In artificial landscapes castles, churches and cottages were seen as scenic. Hospitals, garages and motels not so much. Ms. Seresinhe’s analysis did, however, confirm one important but non-obvious finding from her previous study. Green spaces are not, in and of themselves, scenic. To be so they need to involve contours and trees.

While this sounds ridiculous on its face, suggesting a saccharine world of endless Viagra ad backdrops, the article includes an unexpected detail at the end that makes the whole thing seem much stranger.

There, The Economist points our attention briefly to “an idea promulgated 30 years ago by Edward Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard University. He suggested that the sorts of landscapes people prefer—and which they sculpt their parks and gardens to resemble—are those that echo the African savannahs in which Homo sapiens evolved. Gently undulating ground with a mixture of trees, shrubs and open spaces, in other words (though, ideally, without the accompanying dangerous wild animals).”

This newfangled computer program, then, could be accused of simply repeating the observational landscape prejudices of our own pre-human ancestors. It’s as if we have been carefully stewarding into existence a world of thinking machines and semi-autonomous neural networks—only to find that they don’t think like envoys of the future, like inscrutable alien subjectivities set loose inside silicon.

Rather, they are earlier versions of ourselves, like a patient hospitalized for dementia becoming more childlike as they age. Not after, but before. Paleoalgorithmica.