The Strangers in My Sleep

I began experimenting with sleep hacking when, during my sailing studies, I learned about long distance solo sailors who slept only in twenty minute naps and still got along swimmingly (it turns out twenty minutes is about the time it takes for a sailboat to collide with a freighter just out of sight over the horizon). It was a seductive idea, that the quintessential “more hours in a day” could be had if one was simply willing to endure some sleep deprivation side effects for a period.

I first tried a segmented schedule, sleeping in two large chunks per day instead of one, and found that I was able to sleep less and also be more present when awake while segmented; a win win. Encouraged by this, I eventually tried a more radical schedule, sleeping only 3.5 hours at night with two 20 minute naps spaced throughout the day, requiring only 4 hours of sleep per day. This too was quite successful and, aside from sometimes oversleeping when my days involved long distance running or alcohol, I had at my disposal almost two extra waking days per week.

For this second schedule to be viable, I had to learn how to make the most of every twenty-minute nap slot. The key to falling asleep quickly, I learned, is to stop thinking actively and instead observe what I am thinking. I had to learn to take a step back.

When I switch into observation mode, I dismiss whatever thoughts flit into consciousness, and am eager to see what the next one will be. I never impose, but wait for ideas to arrive spontaneously. This shift to passiveness signals to my subconscious that my brain is free for use, and after a couple minutes, it indeed takes over and sleep begins. However, in addition to falling asleep on command, learning to observe my own thoughts provided a glimpse into what it is my subconscious actually does when it has the run of the place.

My subconscious is very interested in human faces. The early stages of my sleep usually involve a rapid slideshow of faces, three or four per second, with each face having some sort of visual similarity to the one before it. I remember one sequence of bearded faces that segued seamlessly to frowning faces to old faces. The sheer number of faces, hundreds per session, was surprising, but what I found eerie was that I didn’t recognize any of them. Who were these people?

Only a fraction of what my senses pick up during the day makes it to my waking mind but, for the case of faces at least, it seems the rest are quietly tucked away for processing the next chance my brain is free. These faces belonged to people I saw whom I didn’t know I saw, and were being combed through in hopes of gleaning some sort of information.

Pareidolia is the phenomenon of seeing human faces where there are no human faces. The man in the moon, the face on Mars; Jesus, Mary, and Elvis in all manner of oil sheens, tree barks, rocks, breakfast cereals, toast, etc. Humans are so good at parsing faces we are sometimes too good.

Our culture has negative connotations about judging people based on appearance, but the animal that can pick up on ill will sooner than his peers will have an evolutionary advantage. Likewise for the ability to recognize pleas, sincerity, attraction, and the entire array of human intent. And if we have all evolved to devote so much processing power to facial recognition, it suggests the strategy has paid off more than once in our histories. What’s interesting is that we do this subconsciously. I mention faces here because I didn’t expect them in such numbers in my naps, and because I fall asleep before remembering much else, but there must be so many more signals that we gather unknowingly throughout the day and process in sleep.

Hunches, when we have a strong desire towards a course of action, are not failures in logic. They are rare instances when the vast computing power of our subconsciouses break the surface, when our dreamworlds, so often happy to let us call the shots, feel so strongly about the waking situation that they must say something.

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