Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Dissolution of Dreams 

The Piranesian rec room of my dreams.

I've never been someone for whom sleep comes easily, though I'm not an insomniac either. Once I get to sleep, I'm fine. My natural rhythm, discovered years ago at university, is to fall asleep somewhere between 1 AM and 2 AM and wake around 8:30 - 9 AM. I imagine I get about 6 to 6-1/2 hours of sleep and I know that more than 8 hours of sleep can lead directly to a headache. A bit less sleep leaves me feeling drugged by the afternoon and the only cure is a nap. Too much sleep can lead to a migraine. The only reason I can see this being called "unhealthy" is because it doesn't fit within societal norms.

The other night, I was uncomfortable due to back pain, so I took an over-the-counter muscle relaxant that I know also happens to make me drowsy so I usually wait until bedtime to assess whether I'll take it or not. As I usually wake up with an alarm, I don't often remember my dreams. I think in general, you tend to remember dreams if you awaken either during or just after you were in REM sleep, so you're more susceptible to remembering dreams when you wake up naturally. For me, it's typical to remember my dreams on Saturdays or Sundays when I sleep in.

On this particular night, I had a weirdly detailed dream of staying at a friend's house and finding a doorway that led down to an immense underground concourse full of stairways, landings, rooms, and levels that were open to a very high glass ceiling. Imagine a space similar to a shopping mall that is open and looks down to lower levels. There were many spaces, all in some 1970s style of concrete and rust-coloured carpeting that were full of people doing various things like playing foosball or ping-pong, relaxing with a drink, watching TV or with older people gathered together doing crafts or even one "room" of older women grooming their enormous cats. I eventually found my way back up to my friend's house and when he asked where I'd been I asked him about this enormous (and surprisingly bright) Piranesian space. He answered matter of factly that all the homes in the neighbourhood shared this communal basement, like a big shared rec room and that I was just seeing his neighbours who all live nearby.

When I awoke I was determined to remember this dream and I wondered if it was in some way aided by the pill I took before bed. Lately, I’ve been depending on the magic of THC to carry me to Slumberland. For some time I’ve noticed that sleep aided by THC is a dreamless one. Now I have the data. For a short time, I started wearing my smartwatch to bed to better track my sleep. What I suspected appeared to be backed up by the sleep-tracking data. The evenings I didn't take THC, I didn't get to sleep as easily but I did have about 90 minutes of REM sleep (which is the typical time of dream sleep you should expect). On nights I took THC, I slept longer and more deeply but with perhaps only 20-30 minutes of REM sleep.

Is too little REM sleep a bad thing?

I'm never really sure of the value of advice from health professionals for things like how much sleep you should get. Really, all they are telling you is that because, on aggregation, most people sleep about 8 hours and have a certain amount of time waking, lightly sleeping, deeply sleeping and in REM sleep, then you should too. I'd prefer to compare myself to my cohort of chronotypes. How do I fare compared to people who are more of the late-nighters than the early risers? Of course, I haven't really researched this other than what journalists report and I'm not sure what to trust from a core of professionals who confidently reported that candy (dark chocolate) or moderate alcohol consumption were good for you. We now consider any alcohol, a carcinogen, or candy as not part of a healthy diet. I'm also not sure how much I trust my Apple Watch which on occasion told me I had only slept 4 hours which seemed a bit off. Similarly, it tells me that my V02 Max numbers are either "below average" or "above average" despite no real change in my activity. Yet, at the very least, I can see that on nights I took THC, I had about a third of the REM sleep as when I didn't take THC.

I'm still not sure if the sleep I get on THC is healthy, but it does tend to dampen the vibrato of your mind. Rather than your consciousness fossicking at a pile of worries like a bird pecking the ground, or winding an imaginary clock, I find on THC I'm far more interested in the strangeness of a word like, "fossick" or simply how funny it sounds. Do I have to surrender my dreams to get a good night's sleep? I hope not.

I can improve my diet by choosing to eat better, or exercise more by making time for it but improving my sleep isn’t that simple. I can’t just change my blood type by deciding to and some days my chronotype, the kind of sleeper I am, feels very much part of my DNA, as if only a therapeutic intervention like CRISPR would make me sleep better. The real surprise from my smartwatch data is how wonky it seems. There were days I felt fine when my watch only recorded 4-5 hours of sleep, which seemed absurd. On one hand, it verifies the nights when I did or didn’t seem to have memorable dreams but on the other, it would say I fell asleep 1-2 hours later than I thought I did, which seems like too big of a delta to believe. Then again, my waking times, respiratory rate and even heart rate suggest I’m less likely to actually have sleep apnea than my snoring would suggest. Who to trust? In the end, I’ll be the judge of what I feel and for now, I’d trade a good night’s sleep for dreams any day of the week. There’s plenty of time for dreaming but when you have to sleep, there are only so many hours in a day.

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