‘Why We Sleep’ and Memory

I’ve recently been reading Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep, and will probably be recommending it to everyone for a while. Walker summarises the current scientific literature on sleep, both in terms of of what it does, its health benefits, and the risks of sleep deprivation. He suggests that modern industrial and post-industrial society consistently devalues and disrupts sleep, and advocates for action on every scale to remedy this.

I was prompted to read the book after hearing it mentioned in Andrew Holocek’s exploration of dream yoga with Michael Taft on DY. Holocek draws on both Buddhist and Western thought on dreams, and discusses the potential of lucid and intentional dreaming to enrich a meditation practice. I heard a brief introductory talk on dream yoga by Khandro Déchen at my first Aro retreat back in June, and was intrigued by the idea that you could treat lucid dreams (which often occur naturally for long-term meditators) as an opportunity to practice. I had some knowledge of the topic from checking out the r/LucidDreaming community at one point, but the focus there is mostly on fantasy and wish fulfilment. I like Holocek’s angle that just as a meditation practice is about becoming more lucid and aware in your waking life, it would make sense to extend that lucidity to sleep as well.

The very idea of lucid dreaming may prompt a natural skepticism for some, but Walker actually devotes a few pages to it in Why We Sleep, and discusses an intriguing study that strongly suggests its veracity. The researchers used MRI scanners to observe the waking brains of participants while clenching their right and left hands. During REM (rapid eye movement) dream sleep the body remains motionless, but the eyes move; hence the name. Using pre-arranged eye movements, participants were able to indicate they had achieved dream control. They then signalled an intent to dream about clenching their left and right hands, and the MRI scans showed up with a corresponding image to that seen while awake. I can’t say that I’ve had the opportunity to experiment with this myself yet, but it’s good to be reassured that I wouldn’t be attempting the impossible!

Another aspect of the book that interested me was the relationship between sleep and memory. The contrast between the four progressively deeper stages of NREM sleep (non-rapid eye movement) and REM seems to hold the key to how the brain processes memories. The brain cycles between these two kinds of sleep during the night in roughly 90 minute blocks, with a broader pattern of more NREM sleep at the beginning of the night and more REM later on. The slow waves of NREM sleep pulse from the front to the back of the brain, with bursts of higher activity at the end of each wave, known as ‘sleep spindles’, which seem to shield the sleeper from external noises. It seems that one result of this kind of sleep is transferring memories from a sort of short-term storage in the hippocampus to more long-term storage in the cortex. REM (dream) sleep on the other hand is a bit more complicated, although much better theorised and understood in recent years. It currently looks like its main role is of integrating the memories which have been received while awake and stored in NREM sleep, bouncing them off each other in novel and creative ways.

It would be very interesting to know what kind of effects meditation practice might have on memory, with the caveat that it would probably depend on the type of practice, the type of memory, and the intentions of the subject. The main Aro meditation practice is Shi-nè, in which, if I’ve understood it correctly, the aim is not to grasp at feelings and discursive thoughts, but to allow them to play out in spacious awareness. I’ve found several times that in the minutes immediately after practice, my mind seems to make spontaneous connections between the thoughts and ideas that have been rolling round my head. I’ve heard it said anecdotally that people who meditate a lot don’t need as much sleep, so I do wonder if meditation and sleep have some potential overlap in their effect on the mind-body complex.

Following on the heels of Why We Sleep, I listened to Andy Matuschak on the Venture Stories podcast, discussing with Erik Torenberg the fact that people often remember very little of what they read, even when they believe it’s important and worth remembering. Matuschak is an advocate of spaced-repetition systems like Anki for learning and retaining knowledge, and suggests that the non-fiction book needs a new technological paradigm which deliberately combines ‘reading’ with ‘understanding’. The principle of Anki is that if you truly want to remember something, you need to repeatedly recall it at particular intervals, and it seems that this system does actually dramatically increase your ability to remember. For a brief while there was a tongue-in-cheek war of words on Twitter between advocates of this sort of memory work, characterised as ‘first brainers’, in opposition to ‘second brainers’, a term derived from Tiago Forte’s ‘Building a Second Brain’, which focuses on building up a resource base of knowledge in the form of notes. Cf. Walker, it seems pretty obvious that your original meat-brain does its best to both retain and synthesise memories while you sleep, so it would only make sense to work on enhancing both capabilities in your daylight hours. The only difficulty is deciding what’s truly important in our information saturated world, and the best way to work with it.img_1213.jpeg


Other recent reading: Iain Sinclair’s Lights out for the Territory, a brilliant collection of discursive, digressive and polemical essays on London, and Ali Smith’s wonderful Winter, her seasons quartet being the best thing to come out of Brexit so far.

ICYMI: I put out a mix of ‘party’ tunes last week.

Photos from last week’s chilly walk around Malham Cove in the Yorkshire Dales.

‘Finding Our Sea Legs’ by Will Buckingham

Over Christmas I finally got round to re-reading Will Buckingham’s Finding Our Sea Legs, a rather unusual book of ethical philosophy which I first read in 2016, and which has been knocking about in the back of my head ever since. I’ve enjoyed Will’s writing for several years now, first through his (now archived) blog thinkBuddha.org, which is well worth a browse. His work moves deftly between philosophy, fiction, travel, and children’s writing, and I am particularly enamoured with a book of his which deserves a much wider audience in my opinion, a collection of short stories entitled Sixty-Four Chance Pieces. Taking the ancient Chinese divinatory text, the I Ching as a basis, he transforms and elaborates each of its sixty-four hexagrams into a short story, by turns surprising and hilarious, and often very moving. For more recent work, visit Will’s personal website. What follows is more of a summary of Sea Legs than a review, as I’m partly attempting to work out for myself what the book means.

In Finding Our Sea Legs, Buckingham starts from the premise that the goal of most Western philosophy has been to use reason to find a place of solid ground – a set of definite propositions about the world – which might supply a basis for our lives, and in particular our ethical lives. He suggests that this project has demonstrably failed – that we are hopelessly lost navigators in the ocean of ethical quandaries, forever dreaming of dry land (and sometimes believing we’re on the way there), but never quite finding it. He takes this powerful metaphor, originally made by Aristotle, and combines it with another from the 10th century Indian text, the Kathāsaritsāgara, that of the ‘Sea of Stories’. Fans of Salman Rushdie may recall the ‘Ocean of the Sea of Stories’ from Haroun and the Sea of Stories, a beautiful (and partly allegorical) book written in the wake of the fatwa against Rushdie.

These metaphors remain as undercurrents throughout the book, in which Buckingham nests his own stories within stories, as well as drawing on the work of Walter Benjamin, Franz Rosenzweig, Immanuel Kant, Søren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas, always gently ribbing the often rather dour canon of ethical philosophy. Suggesting that we renounce the possibility of finding dry land, at least for the duration of reading, he casts off into the world of storytelling, investigating the rich seam of writing about everyday experience in Benjamin and Rosenzweig. From the premise that experience is inherently liquid and unstable, Buckingham weaves the notion of ethics itself as a kind of experience, felt in the body rather than reasoned through by the mind. For Buckingham, even speech and writing are best construed as physical acts, with a particularity and individuality to their expression. He goes on to explore the work of the twentieth century phenomenologists, and in particular that of Levinas, whose internment in a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War may have heightened his sensitivity to the underlying strangeness that belies an encounter with an ‘other’. Levinas concludes that we are infinitely responsible for others, a slightly alarming thought, but that this responsibility ultimately creates a kind of freedom, at least from self-concern. However, Buckingham points out that despite the philosopher’s avowed anti-storytelling stance when it comes to writing phenomenology, his notion of the ‘other’  seems (ironically) bound up with a sort of ‘tragic hero’ narrative, in which the demand to help others becomes a constantly receding horizon. But the kernel of Levinas’ ethical thought remains immensely useful: namely, the call to investigate the ‘what is it like?’ of ethics.

The rest of the book attempts to sketch out some further avenues for exploring this ‘what is it like’. Via a discussion of the sort of stories that create a physical ‘shudder’, and remain with us long after the telling (borrowing Kierkegaard’s example of Abraham and Isaac), Buckingham suggests that this same shudder can often be found in our response to the world, particularly when we are faced with the sort of choices that seem to intersect with ethics. The next few chapters consider how we can deal with this shudder, first by a consideration of the multiple frames that often surround stories, and how these might create a particular sense of space or time, with the understanding that these can often be multiple and overlapping. He then returns to Levinas’ notion of otherness with this new toolkit, concluding that stories are indispensible for thinking through our relationship with others – be they human beings, or mysterious talking fish with profound messages from other worlds. In the last chapter he quotes Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’, on the city of Euphemia, where stories are told and exchanged, so that whatever stories you enter with, ‘your wolf will have become another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles’. For Buckingham this illustrates the patchwork and multiple nature of stories and ourselves – that we change the world and each other through the telling of stories. It is tempting to try fix these stories, with either a positive or negative transcendence of the ethical mire we find ourselves in, but this is a false hope. Nevertheless, he concludes that the tools we have at our disposable are adequate for the task at hand – ‘moving within and between stories, moving between and within uncertainties, with all the kindness, patience and care that we can muster’.