In France, I spent many nights awake, staring at candles, contemplating everything and nothing. And getting to sleep late.
It’s nearly 4am, and I am still not asleep.
I suspect that it’s because there is so much to know, that I don’t really want to stop.
Perhaps this entry, more than most, will be reflective of my blog’s subtitle: “Things That Keep Me Up At Night”.
I once characterized sleep as a thief, robbing me of useful hours in which I could be doing something useful. I’m not the first to have called it that — I’m sure that Shakespeare had something to say about the matter in at least one of his plays — but it is a sentiment to which I often return.
I am a night owl, by nature. For whatever cruel reason, I find myself more awake at night, when I am precisely supposed to be going to sleep, than I am during the normal hours of wakefulness. I am often at my most pensive, most creative, most energized and focussed when I am struggling to fall asleep. It is as though the normal noise of the day were silenced, and my brain is suddenly able to fully focus.
I’ve tried just about every piece of advice to get to sleep. Sit and meditate (can’t make the thoughts go away!). Read from a book (never had a book that bored me enough to want to go to sleep, even if my eyes are burning!). Drink some warm milk (made me hungry!). Listen to quiet, calming music (if you’ve ever heard CAFFEEN!, you know that I love that kind of music!).
One of the things that has helped lately is to listen to recordings of thunderstorms. I have a theory on this: it has something to do with a combination of random, disruptive sound (thunder) amongst a white-noise steady rhythm (rain). So, my mind focusses on the steady rain, gets occupied with it, and just when it has settled in to a stable predictive pattern, BAM! — thunder disrupts it. My mind is occupied trying to piece together the pattern, when there is no pattern. Thus occupied, it has a hard time bringing up the other thoughts, and I can sleep.
I’ve noticed this type of fixation in other spaces. I can happily play hours and hours of Carcassonne on my iPhone. The game has enough randomness to keep me on my toes, but enough strategy that I can dominate it most of the time. (Tonight’s fascination was in beating all the AI opponents one-on-one in a duel; I finished that tonight.)
I also find myself sitting at the computer reading RSS feeds quite a bit. This, too, is a similar pattern: a fixation on the steady-state (the flow of articles in my RSS reader), but the interruption of it with surprising content. When truly fixated, however, I have noticed that I will skip over longer pieces, and simply mark them as unread, for later consumption. I’m skimming, and because I’m avoiding the major disruptions, I am locked into this pattern, and sometimes have to disrupt it manually.
The Internet is a big place, however, and the supply of new information practically endless. Thus, the danger of distraction by absorption into the steady-state flow of information. I won’t diminish it by calling it trivial — I’ve already set up filters and organization so that most of what I’m looking at is somehow relevant to me. But it isn’t precisely what I need to be reading.
Speaking of reading, I tried tonight to use reading as my soporific. I’ve been trying this year to really dig more into reading, and for the first four months of the year, was quite successful, having completed 9 or more books before slowing down (mostly because I “forget” to read). I have tried to make the presence of books more disruptive, however, by making them more present: putting them by my bedside table, carrying them with me, leaving them in places where I’ll be forced to at least acknowledge and interact with them, such as on my desk in front of my keyboard or on my chair.
(It’s rather amusing the tricks I play on myself to remember things. It’s a little disturbing, too, to realize that I forget so many things that I am forced to do these things to remind myself..)
The current book is “Universe on a T-Shirt” by Dan Falk. It’s about a decade old, purchased (as many of my books have been) on a whim, when it was seen, and then promptly placed on my bookshelf or in a box somewhere. I knew that I would enjoy the book, and I knew I would want to read it, but relying upon a list of books to purchase and read later has proven to be folly. (I have numerous lists, half-started and spread throughout every technological and physical device I have. I forget I created them, never reference them again, and stumble across them from time to time..)
The book is very well written, very engaging and has engrossed me entirely. I’ve tried other such books — I have an unfinished copy of Carl Sagan’s COSMOS that I tried to read last year, and a barely-touched copy of Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, not to mention the audiobook version of A History of Reason and others — but this one has hooked me. Now that I have the grounding it offers, I may be able to read the rest of those; I certainly intend to try.
But as for helping me sleep, this is an utter failure. I’m currently on my third thunderstorm (instead of relaxing, I’m finding it invigorating!), and finished the chapter on Einstein and his theories of special and general relativity, having only stopped before starting the quantum theory chapter because I didn’t want to stay up all night!
So, finally, I turned to my blog, this neglected font of what I won’t deign to call wisdom. Finally, perhaps, a thousand words in, I may find sufficient sleepiness to get to sleep.
It is now a quarter past 4am.
And I can only wonder what will keep me up at night tomorrow..