Tuesday, 13 August 2019

A little pause

Sometimes in the process of waking there is a little pause — sleep has gone, but coherent thought has not begun. It is a curious half-void, a glimpse of aphasia; and although the person experiencing it may not know for that instant his own name or age or sex, he may be acutely conscious of depression or elation. It is the moment, as we say, before we “remember”.

Booth Tarkington - The Turmoil (1915)

Proust was also interested in those preliminary moments where reality assembles itself in our waking brains. What day is it? What time is it? What am I doing today? A cascade of questions answered with little in the way of conscious effort. It raises a number of wider questions too. For example – do we really wake up? It’s an interesting question in a world where being woke is the cool thing to be.

Obviously we do wake up in a conventional sense, but we are never fully aware of our surroundings because that wouldn’t make sense either. We have to focus and in so doing we have to ignore extraneous reality. As far as extraneous reality is concerned we don’t need to wake up so perhaps we are only selectively awake.

Imagine a dull meeting on a warm day, a meeting where your personal concerns are only peripheral. You are merely one of the regulars. By mid afternoon your attention has flagged to such a degree that you no longer hear what is being said. You are not actually asleep but in a sense you are asleep in that you are only imperfectly conscious of your immediate physical surroundings. In other words you are imperfectly conscious.

We see this in a less somnolent sense when people cannot pay attention to what is being said, as if they are not fully awake. In these cases we usually say they do not understand or are not interested in what is being said. In some cases that may be so but in others it doesn’t make sense because what is being said is easy to understand.

It is as if we can simply switch off when what we hear is not to our liking. Switching off – an old and perfectly familiar idea. As if the brain selectively falls asleep. Or maybe we could reverse that. Maybe we never really wake up but we are able to wake up selectively to tackle things of real importance.

We may experience this after driving to work, something we do so often and so regularly that it becomes automatic and when we get to work we cannot recall the journey at all. Yet we carried out a range of complex physical and visual functions which must be performed with great accuracy and timing.

Maybe in a world dominated by routines we do not need to be fully awake all the time. To sleepwalk through most of the day would be a more efficient use of our brains compared to constant wakeful observation. For example, Jeremy Corbyn never seems to be fully awake and as far as we can tell Caroline Lucas is not entirely conscious of the real world.

Meanwhile –



Sam Vega said...

"Switching off – an old and perfectly familiar idea."

Familiar to us, but I wonder how people described it before mass production of electrical equipment. Presumably they still experienced it; yet they would have had to put together a more creative and laborious description using a different metaphor. It doesn't seem to feature all that much in literature. My guess is that it was too difficult to write and talk about, and so it was largely ignored and unexplored.

Woodsy42 said...

Maybe we have to assemble our own reality before we can interact with anyone else's?

Sackerson said...

A moment of seeing reality before you put on your personality.

A K Haart said...

Sam - good point. Baruch Spinoza used dreaming as a similar metaphor but it isn't as powerful as the idea of switching off. To my mind it's one of the great attractions of modern language, it can be very powerful.

Woodsy - I'm sure that's right. I don't know if it is connected, but in my limited experience people with advanced dementia seem to wake up immediately, there seems to be no pause while the personality is assembled.

Sackers - yes and possibly a more basic reality, closer to our animal origins.