Hypnic Awe

Yesterday’s long periods involving very heavy rain have stretched into a new day. Brilliant blue skies look at me through a trio of large windows. The monitor of my new computer, a  27-inch beast, blocks part of the view, but I can see the outside world just fine if I tilt my body the left and lower my head and neck just right. Options like that are abundant in my life. I have the remarkable good fortune of being able to select from multiple choices, in crafting my experience, from moment to moment. Millions, and perhaps billions, of people do not live with the luxuries and the choices available to me. Though I did not personally, deliberately, or willingly ensure the deprivation of those millions or billions, I feel more than a tinge of guilt. What did I do to deserve my unnecessary mental and physical comfort? Why do I merit freedom from the horrors that I could have faced? Pure luck. Unearned good fortune. A shameless willingness to accept comforts, even with the knowledge that my comfort may contrast with their starvation; their agony; their ceaseless, overwhelming challenges?


I read an article this morning about hypnic jerks. I knew of hypnic jerks thanks to a piece I heard, several years ago, on National Pubic Radio (NPR). My late wife and I were travelling toward Houston on I-45 when the term was mentioned on the car radio. The program may have broadcast a snippet from a TED Talk; I used to listen to what memory tells me was called the TED Radio Hour. At any rate, I remember hearing a discussion of hypnic jerks, a phenomenon about which I was intimately familiar, but for which I had no term to describe. Hearing that program, though, gave me a term for the phenomenon I knew quite well from personal experience. A search of my blog posts this morning revealed that I have used the term in two posts; this post makes three. The piece I read this morning, on CNN.com, used another term, as well: sleep starts. Whatever one calls them, they are sudden, jerky motions of parts of one’s body that may take place as a person is falling asleep; the motions can be strong enough to rouse a person from the process of falling asleep.

Odd, methinks, that an experience from at least ten or fifteen years ago—one that lasted no more than a few minutes—has somehow been imprinted in my brain. The brain’s ability to either recall or recreate such insignificant memories amazes me. I was in a conversation yesterday during which we both marveled at the mind’s ability to both create mental experiences and to recall their substance in the form of dreams. Do all our dreams already exist—hyper-condensed into tiny fragments of highly-specialized nerve impulses—or do we actually manufacture them on the fly during sleep? If the latter, how does our brain create artificial experiences that include such remarkably intricate details? There are various scientific explanations for dreams (and for hypnic jerks); but regardless of reliable scientific descriptions of such processes, I laud and applaud the magic inherent in science. Awe. Wonder. Amazement. When I ponder about the incredible capabilities of the human brain, I experience those emotions…assuming they are emotions, and not just the visual representations of emotions. If not the actual emotions, though, what are they? Another thing to ponder.


Time to scramble; get dressed and drive to my Thursday morning coffee with a clot of geezers like me.

About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes
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