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.

Sleep Labs of the Soviet Empire

[Image: A “garden suburb” outside Moscow. Via Cabinet Magazine].

In the new issue of Cabinet, we read how, following the implementation of Stalin’s first Five-Year Plan – and in the wake of food rationing and extended work hours – “the shock-troops of Communism were edging perilously close to physical and mental exhaustion: what they needed was rest.”
Soviet authorities thus “announced a competition to design a garden suburb outside Moscow, where workers could be sent to recuperate from the strains of factory labor.”
Without getting into specifics – for that, be sure to pick up a copy of the magazine, issue #24 – one detail about the garden suburb that I particularly love, and that the article’s author specifically highlights, was a sort of colosseum of slumber. A dream academy.
Designed by Konstantin Melnikov, the building was a purpose-built structure referred to as the “Sonata of Sleep.”

[Image: Konstantin Melnikov’s “Sonata of Sleep.” Via Cabinet Magazine].

Specifically, we’re told, “the building consisted of two large dormitories either side of a central block,” and the dormitories each “had sloping floors.”
This would “obviate the need for pillows.”
Even more amazing – or is it absurd? – we read:

At either end of the long buildings were to be situated control booths, where technicians would command instruments to regulate the temperature, humidity, and air pressure, as well as to waft salubrious scents and “rarefied condensed air” through the halls. Nor would sound be left unorganized. Specialists working “according to scientific facts” would transmit from the control centre a range of sounds gauged to intensify the process of slumber. The rustle of leaves, the cooing of nightingales, or the soft murmur of waves would instantly relax the most overwrought veteran of the metropolis. Should these fail, the mechanized beds would then begin gently to rock until consciousness was lost.

While all this certainly sounds ambitious enough, apparently “Melnikov’s original impulse had been much more far-reaching.”
His original dream had been to create an Institute for Changing the Form of Man.
The whole article is awesome, frankly, encompassing the resurrection of the dead, a house designed by Melnikov in which residents felt as if they “were floating in thick golden air,” and further thoughts about how Melnikov “recombined industrial iconography into a series of spatial adventures,” most notably with a building that was “a delirium of gigantic stairways and roller bearings.”

[Image: Konstantin Melnikov’s “Leningrad Pravda” tower, as modelled by R. Notrott].

While I’m on the subject, though, don’t miss this page full of Melnikov’s other architectural projects, including the tower, pictured above, where “each floor should turn around the central core,” and this outrageous parking garage, to be constructed as a bridge in Paris, over the Seine. Note the bronze, Oscar-like statues holding up either end of the structure.

(Thanks to Leah Beeferman for emailing me the first two images, hot off the press from Cabinet).