By Ian C Dunican
“Blessed are the sleepy ones, for they shall soon drop off” Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche
For countless millennia humans have witnessed death, pondered their dreams, and tried to make sense of life through faith in deities and demons. This led to the construction and transmission of stories and tales throughout generations. Were these just fanciful stories to make sense of our existence and to provide meaning and purpose? Over time, statements and myriad relations have been drawn cross-culturally between mortality, sleep, deities, and demons; what we can state with anything regarding objective certainty leaves much to be desired.
As a scientist, I am drawn to the objective, the rationale, and the empirical, but as a human and an everyday citizen of the earth, I am drawn to the unknown, the awe, the wonder, and the mystery. Like every human, I seek to understand the purpose of our existence for our brief period on this rotating rock circumnavigating a ball of fire known as the Sun. The Sun, its light, gives us life, and its absence promotes sleep. Sleep is a unique state of consciousness whereby we lack awareness of what is happening in the world, but the brain is still active. Although there is much we know about life on this earth, we still need to learn more about human consciousness. Human consciousness is considered a black box; we do not know where it resides or how it precisely functions. We don’t know if we are living in a simulation like Neo in the Matrix, plugged into a network or controlled by an evil God as described by the Gnostics. In this essay, I will attempt to braid scientific understanding with some conjecture from mythology, folklore, and theology to delve into the more mysterious aspects of the human condition related to death, dreams, and divinity.
Humans are diurnal animals. We have lived by this planet’s light and dark cycles for hundreds of thousands of years. We have hunted and gathered food during the day, lived on the land and looked to the night sky. This must have been and still is an awe-inspiring site. Going into the desert or the open and looking up to the night sky with no surrounding light evokes a sense of awe and wonder and is one that captives the human mind still to this day. We have been doing this for hundreds of thousands of years. Homosapiens first appeared 300,000 years ago in Africa, with brains as large or larger than ours today. They were followed by anatomically modern Homosapiens at least 200,000 years ago, and brain shape became essentially modern at least 100,000 years ago, highlighting that little has changed in our brain since then. Much has been written about how we hunted, gathered, and lived on this planet, but not much has been said about when we turn our brain from conscious daytime activity to the night-time activity of sleep. We dream when we sleep; dreams have been a central component of many cultures. But what do we know about dreams?
To understand dreams, we must understand sleep itself. It was not until 1952 that Eugene Aserinsky placed electroencephalogram (EEG) electrodes near the eyes of a child whilst they slept and observed regular bursts of electrical activity . This led Aserinsky and his co-researcher Kleitman to coin the phrase Rapid Eye Movement (REM), which was considered the “time for dreaming”, with REM periods occurring on average every 90 minutes but more predominately in the back end of the sleep period between 03:00-07:00, during which time the brain was believed to become active [2, 3]. This discovery led to the development of sleep stages by Rechtschaffen & Kales. They categorised sleep into distinct phases known as REM and non-REM (NREM). The precise reason humans sleep is still unknown; yes, you read that right. Sleep research and dreams are in their infancy . However, many theories of the purpose of sleep have been developed. Much of our understanding of the physiological and psychological processes that occur during sleep comes from research into deprivation of sleep. Sleep loss and lack of sleep significantly impact cognition, physical performance, metabolism, growth hormone function and memory consolidation [5-7]. We know that REM sleep, or this “dreaming sleep “, is vital for cognitive performance the next day.
What is of interest is that REM sleep is similar to being awake. When observing EEG traces during REM, we have muscle atonia measured by Electromyography (EMG) and slow rolling eye movements measured by Electrooculography (EOG) which are electrodes placed beside the eyes. If we did not have muscle atonia, we would act out dreams, known as REM behaviour disorder [8, 9], and potentially cause harm to ourselves or others. Whilst we do not know where we go when we sleep, why we come back, or what the true purpose of dreaming is whilst we are asleep. Many theories have been presented over the years.
Interesting theories and stories are presented in mythology relating to sleep disorders and problems. One such disorder is sleep paralysis . Sleep paralysis is when there is a loss of muscle control, known as atonia, accompanied by hallucinations. It is a blend of two states of consciousness whereby the brain is awake and active, but the body cannot move and is still asleep. People who experience sleep paralysis report seeing creatures, demons, and entities in this state or even being abducted by aliens . Many cultures have tried to make sense of this phenomenon; one such place is Newfoundland, where the “The Hag” visits people in their sleep. The Hag is the name that people from Newfoundland put on this creature of the night. It is thought the Hag comes to see you in the night whilst you are sleeping and that she is responsible for sitting on you whilst asleep and pins you down so you cannot move. This Hag creature is depicted in the famous painting “The Nightmare” by Johann Heinrich Füssli in 1781, which hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Whilst this is known as the Hag in the Canadian province of Newfoundland, on the Caribbean Island of St Lucia, the creature is also known as the Kokma; in Sardinian culture, it is known as Ammuntadore, a creature that mounts on the people’s chest during their sleep to give them nightmares. In Italy, it is a witch called Pandafeche, and in the United States, it is sometimes interpreted as alien abduction [11, 12]. This creature or demon of the night is often thought of as an old witch, fairy, black lady, or shapeshifter. It is also believed that this may be the Succubus. A Succubus is a demon or supernatural entity in a female form that appears in dreams to seduce men, usually through sexual activity. The opposite occurs with females, whereby an Incubus, a demon in male form, visits females at night. According to mythological and legendary traditions, he lies upon sleeping women to engage in sexual activity with them. Some traditions hold that repeated sexual activity with an Incubus or Succubus may result in health deterioration, impaired mental state, or even death. In popular culture, a form of this demon is depicted in the CBS show entitled “Evil”. In the show, the main character Dr Kristen Bouchard, a psychologist working with a trainee priest of the Catholic Church, is visited on multiple nights by a demon called George whilst she is asleep; he is a representation of the Incubus.
The most bizarre interpretation and severe outcome of sleep paralysis is Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome (SUNDS). It was first described 100 years ago in the Philippines in 1917, a Tagalog word meaning “to rise and moan in sleep”. It is also referred to in Laos as “Lai” and represents a loud groan occurring during sleep or a loud noise made while frightened, and in Japan, it is known as “Pokkuri”, meaning suddenly and unexpectedly, which is medically known as Pokkuri Death Syndrome (PDS) with an unknown cause . Since 1977, more than 100 people from various Southeast Asian ethnic groups have died mysteriously. The community most severely affected was immigrant Laotian Hmong men. These men, in relatively good health with a median age of 33, were dying at a rate of 92/100,000 from SUNDS. Since the discovery of the high prevalence of SUNDS among this group, a link between sleep paralysis (at two to four times higher in this community compared to typical prevalence rates in society). This community believes that this is a demon called the dab tsog, a crushing nightmare spirit that sits on the chest and ‘took their breath’, resulting in death. In Thailand, most cases of SUNDS were in the North-eastern region of Thailand. Half died between midnight and 06:00, with a peak time at 02:00, and the death rate was relatively higher in May and June. In the 35 years since SUNDS was first identified among the Hmong people, the Centre for Disease Control’s initial statement on the cause still holds. As a result, a definitive cause [of death] remains unknown.
This leads us to ask if there is a link between dreams, sleep, and death, and if so, how might they interact? One of the earliest people to investigate such a relationship was William F. Barrett. Born in 1844 in Kingston, Jamaica, William F Barrett became a Professor of Experimental Physics at the Royal College of Science for Ireland in 1873. He had a keen interest in the paranormal and investigated poltergeists. He published preliminary accounts of his work in the prestigious journal Nature in 1881; the journal is still published today and is the number one scientific journal in the world. During his 50 years of psychical research, he observed many phenomena . He published his work in the book “Deathbed Visions” in 1926 with accounts of a spiritual world, contact with loved ones, and visions of dead friends and family before their death . He was no fraud or scammer and collaborated with William James, the founding member and vice president of the American Society for Psychical Research. William James is known as the founder of modern-day Psychology and was highly interested in the field of study associated with contacting the dead.
In recent years Dr Christopher Kerr, in his research and book “Death is but a Dream”, discusses the relationship between death and dreams or rather the dreams and visions before death. His work presents interesting data collected from palliative care patients over many years . The research collected end-of-life dreams and visions in the weeks before the patients died. As death approached, for many, the frequency of the occurrence of these visions and dreams increased, as did their levels of comfort associated with them. However, some people reported traumatic dreams and visions before death. Are these dreams and visions a type of audit or review of one’s life, or are the traumatic experiences more prevalent in those who were not so kind throughout their lives? This was certainly the case in the observations from Dr Kerr’s research, as numerous patients who may not have led a virtuous life had several traumatic visions and dreams before they passed on.
Is it possible that these visions and dreams may be a transition state to death? In Tibetan Buddhism, “The Tibetan Book of the Dead” describes the six states of Bardo. These states can be ascribed to the process of living, dying and rebirth. This book describes the Bardos and the process of guiding a deceased person through these stages. Traditionally, they are referred to as the six states of Bardo that cover life and death. They are (i) Bardo of this Life, (ii) Bardo of Meditation, (iii) Bardo of Dream, (iv) Bardo of Dying, (v) Bardo of Dharmata and (vi) Bardo of Rebirth. Of interest here is that the Bardo of dream proceeds with the Bardo of dying, a central theme of Dr Kerr’s work.
Let us shed some light on daylight, the opposite of night and see if we can find some insights in the light. It is of vital importance for humans to be exposed to natural light during the day. Natural light synchronises our body clock over a 24-hr day, known as a circadian rhythm. The word “Circadian” comes from the Latin words “Circa”, meaning about, and “Día”, meaning a day and describes our internal biological rhythms, which oscillate on a near 24-hr cycle . The endogenous pacemaker responsible for its regulation is the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN). It is located at the base of the hypothalamus in the brain . The SCN is often referred to as the body’s master clock, which coordinates the rhythmic fluctuations of many physiological and behavioural processes.
The word light has permeated our culture for thousands of years. If we look to the English standard version (ESV) of the Bible, we see in Genesis 1:3, it is written, “God said, Let there be light, and there was light“. The word light is mentioned ninety-five times in the New Testament and is in seventy-six verses. This frequent allusion to light in one of the foundational texts of Western civilisation suggests an understanding of its importance long before science came along, thus predating our scientific knowledge of sleep and wake.
The pineal gland has a unique relationship with the SCN and our relationship to light. The pineal gland is a small, pea-shaped gland in the brain. Its function is not fully understood. We do know that it produces and regulates some hormones, including melatonin. Melatonin is best known for the role it plays in regulating sleep patterns. However, during the day, an inhibitory signal is sent to the pineal gland from the SCN, informing the pineal gland not to produce melatonin. In the seventeenth century, the philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the pineal gland, a small pinecone-shaped organ located deep in the brain’s centre, was the seat of the soul. Rene Descartes is often referred to as the originator of modern-day science for using numbers and data in the scientific method we use today. Descartes was famous for “Cogito ergo sum” or “I think, therefore I am”. However, Descartes’ use of numbers in science resulted from a visit from an Angel from God who gave him this instruction. This Angel came to Descartes and said,
“Conquest of nature is to be achieved through number and measure”.
In today’s materialistic, rationalist world, it is somewhat ironic that an Angel visited him with this information. If a scientific researcher made this claim in a conference or a scientific paper today, they would be laughed out of a room, never mind having an academic position. Maybe we humans have lost the ability to dream and engage in the collective consciousness, just as Descartes may have. Perhaps we should laugh at ourselves as we are the ones who may have lost this connection.
Descartes’s story is not an isolated one. Srinivasa Ramanujan Aiyangar was an Indian mathematician who studied at the University of Cambridge without a previous degree. When asked where he got his ground-breaking ideas in mathematics, he credited his family goddess Namagiri Thayar, an avatar of the God Vishnu in the Hindu tradition. He said he dreamt of blood drops symbolising this God; he also reported visions of scrolls of mathematics and stated:
“An equation had no meaning unless it expresses a thought from God.”
Although he died at only 32 years old in 1920, he published nearly 3,900 results of his mathematical work . Robert Kanigel wrote his story in 1991. It was later made into a movie titled “The man who knew infinity”. In the same religious tradition of Hinduism, one of the core Gods is Lord Shiva. Lord Shiva possesses a third eye at the centre of the forehead, which stands for spiritual knowledge and power. In pharaonic Egypt, the pineal gland was equated with the eye of Horus through various religious traditions, where it was considered the seat of the soul and the third eye. The picture of the eye of Horus has also been equated to a map of the location of the SCN and pineal gland within the base of the hypothalamus in the brain.
It has been suggested that Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) is secreted by the pineal gland at birth, during dreaming, and during near death to produce out-of-body experiences. However, scientific evidence in humans is currently not consistent with this. The studies that show DMT being released are only demonstrated in rodents. This substance DMT is found in plants and fungi and used in Ayahuasca ceremonies. Consuming DMT causes psychoactive experiences, out-body experiences, and communication with other beings commonly reported as elves. These experiences are often considered mini deaths by those who undergo these ceremonies.
One might say we go through a mini death when we sleep each night. How do we know we are the same person the next day when we wake up? This inevitably leads us to a fundamental question of existence: Where does our consciousness reside in us as humans, commonly called our “mind”? The answer is that we still do not know. Dr Iain McGilchrist addresses this in his book “The Matter with Things”. We might postulate that the mind is part of the brain as research has shown that when the mind undertakes a task and responds to a stimulus, this is observed in the brain through functional magnetic resonance imaging or EEG signals. Therefore, we might say that the mind is in the brain. Counter to this is that the mind can also impact the physical body; for example, people who feel sad, lonely, or isolated have more physical pain. However, what if the mind is not only located within us? What if we are part of something bigger? In Buddhism, a concept known as Indra’s net or jewel illustrates emptiness or formlessness. This net may be a collective network that houses our collective consciousness. The late Alan Watts describes Indra’s net as follows:
“Imagine a multidimensional spider’s web in the early morning covered with dew drops. And every dew drop contains the reflection of all the other dew drops. And, in each reflected dew drop, the reflections of all the other dew drops in that reflection. And so, ad infinitum. That is the Buddhist conception of the universe in an image.”
Much of our understanding of the physiological and psychological processes that occur during sleep comes from research into deprivation of sleep. Sleep loss and negative impacts are seen on next-day cognition and decision making with a long-term effect on physical performance, metabolism, growth hormone function and memory consolidation [5-7]. We know from this reductionist approach to sleep research that when we deprive people of REM sleep that the next day cognitive performance and decision-making are impacted negatively, as are physical repair, growth, and hormone secretion over time when NREM sleep is deprived. Physical repair requires the release of growth hormones, such as testosterone, a key component of skeletal muscle health. It is also vital for human physical health and well-being . These phases of sleep are clearly defined by EEG, which is a measure of brain activity.
Whilst these are rational, could there be other reasons? Reasons from the “eros” or life energy, a sense of awe and wonder, a connection with something else, a divine, another energy, a power? How do we know? We do not know; just because we cannot measure and manage it now does not mean it does not exist. Maybe we have limited our thinking as we move toward a nihilistic, hyper-scientific approach in today’s world. Is it time for a breakthrough, or is it time for an end to our over-reliance and extreme faith in the objective scientific method?
The relationship/s between dying, dreams and divinity are interesting and cross many cultures, are present in our modern understanding of science and provide meaning to people throughout and at the end of their life. However, whilst this essay inquired into this relationship, it stimulated more questions than answers and most likely frustrated you and me even further. There seem to be too many connections for coincidence and too little for a conclusion. Make what of this you may. For me, this is the start of a new line of inquiry.
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