Category Archives: altered states

Too "Wired" to Sleep?


Whereas yesterday’s post dealt with getting back to sleep in the middle of the night, today’s topic is Getting to Sleep in the First Place. Brace yourselves. I am going to fly in the face of New Age holistic medicine here, and share the wisdom gleaned from years of Continuing Education seminars presented by molecular biologists. As they say in the UK, I’m going to “blind you with science.” [That’s not what happened to Lili. She’s posing as an insomniac.]

First, of course, we need an animal metaphor. Let’s go with twin ferrets. These well-meaning creatures inhabit our Autonomic Nervous System [a kind of auto-pilot, formerly believed to be unconscious and involuntary, which regulates stuff like heart rate, breathing, and speed of digestion]. One ferret, with the clunky name of Parasympathetic, just wants us to chillax, already, so he uses that ever-so-trendy neurotransmitter, serotonin, to slow down the beating of our heart. His [please don’t think of him as evil] twin, Sympathetic, is there to prevent us from flat-lining, and uses the much-maligned norepinephrine to jolt our heart back up to a life-sustaining rate [like a furry little pacemaker]. Though seeming to work at cross-purposes, they both want the same thing: homeostasis. Like Goldielocks, they want the rate of everything in the body to be Just Right.

So, now, have you ever noticed that on the nights when you are utterly shattered, whacked, whipped to the bone, and you figure it should be easy to fall asleep, what happens instead is a series of short dreams, in which you are falling, and from which you jerk awake, often with an audible gasp? Yeah, that’s the Twin Ferrets, just trying to keep you alive, man. “Paras” knows you need the rest, so he slows your heart rate way down [whence, the falling sensation]. Then “Sym” wigs out, for fear that your heart will stop altogether, and zaps you “back to life.” [The jerk.] [That’s what your body does. I’m not dissing “Sym,” here.] Eventually, these guys find a homeostatic heart rate and let you go to sleep; but the more fatigued you are, the more jactitation [jerking awake] you have to go through, to get there.

Back to Sleep Hygiene for a moment. Sleep is more easily initiated when the body’s core temperature is warm, but the room temperature is cool. One traditional way to warm your core is a hot bath; but who, other than little kids, has time for that at night? An even older strategy is a warming beverage. But which one? The traditional “nightcap” of high-proof alcohol doesn’t actually warm your body’s core [only the cockles of your heart], unless you go to the trouble of heating the liquid, itself, in which case, as long as you’re in the kitchen anyway, you might as well make the gold standard of soporific drinks, beloved by Europeans since the Explorers brought the main ingredient back from the New World: a cup of hot chocolate.

“No way!” I hear you object. “Chocolate has caffeine in it! That’ll just keep me up!” Obviously, you are only thinking about the agenda of “Paras.” “Sym” has a horse in this race, too, ya know. Here’s what the molecular biologists say. The milk and sugar contain tryptophan, which turns into serotonin [the sleepytime molecule] in the body, thus satisfying “Paras.” Also, the heat of the drink warms your core. But here’s the Beauty Part! The small amount of caffeine in the chocolate speeds up the heart just enough to mollify “Sym,” who can then hold off on delivering that jolting dose of norepinephrine.

Frequently Asked Questions: “How ’bout sugarfree cocoa mix?” That works, but add more milk, as your source of tryptophan. “How ’bout a glass of cold Nesquik?” Did you miss the part about warming the core? Now you’ll need to take a bath, just like a kid. “What if I can’t stand/am allergic to chocolate?” You can try a cuppa [hot tea with milk], but don’t try coffee, unless you make it weak and add lots of milk.

Final observation: Europeans consume far fewer pharmaceutical sleep-aids [per capita] than we do in the US; and they manage to get through their days & nights fairly well, non? There is a British watchdog of correct English usage who deplores the current fad of prefacing remarks with, “At the end of the day…” She declares, “The only correct use of that phrase is, ‘At the end of the day I drink a cup of hot chocolate.'” Nar’mean?

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The Sandman Cometh


Here is Solipsistic Seamus Sleeping Supine on a Chicago Sofa. [Say that 3 times, fast.] The topic is Getting Enough Shuteye (without further enriching the fat cats @ Big Pharma). He is your role model, not I. My expertise on this subject comes as much from personal experience, as from all the Sleep Hygiene lectures & literature I have absorbed over the decades, since I inherited the tendency for insomnia from the gent who also brought me Non-linear Thinking: my father.

Thus, I know that “better lifestyle choices,” while helpful, are not the complete solution. Unlike my father [for large parts of his life], I neither drink distilled spirits, nor smoke tobacco–both of which interfere with the brain’s natural circadian rhythm. Where I can control my nighttime environment [at home, not in hotels], I go for dark, cool & quiet. If quiet isn’t an option, I go for white noise [like a fan]. After you live in a big city for awhile, though, you become so used to the soundtrack of “the lullaby of Broadway” [emergency vehicle sirens, mostly], that it becomes the white noise; whereas those suburban or rural crickets make an infernal, sleep disturbing, racket. My family moved to Tarrytown, NY in 1953, just as the Tappan Zee Bridge was being built; and our white noise was the bang-bang-bang of steam pile drivers. On the rare days when work was suspended, “the silence was deafening,” and nobody could get to sleep.

But now for a little myth-busting. Contrary to what sleep-aid vendors would have you believe, mankind was not meant to sleep “8 uninterrupted hours.” There is meant to be a brief intermission in the middle of the night, for a bit of a walkabout: to do the needful (see to the children, visit the loo, stoke the fire, ward off ravening beasts). It is not so much this interval, but the sleeper’s negative response to it, that leads to most of the inconvenient [not awful] amygdalar arousal [known in the Sleep Hygiene biz as Subjective Insomnia]. We got fear: “Oh no! I’ll never be able to get back to sleep, and I’ll be useless tomorrow!” [Notice that this line of thinking occurs most often on a week night?] We got intrusion: “Gordon Bennet! Your snoring/that commotion in the street/my hypervigilant-not-to-say-paranoid dog just woke me up from a sound sleep!” [But your own alarm clock? Not always…] And we got the pain & suffering of just lying there [or prowling around in the dark, stubbing your toe, or worse], feeling all alone [even in a crowded house], and trying not to dwell on Dark Thoughts.

Well, here’s what I do about the Dark Thoughts. I have someone read me a bedtime story. Low-fidelity cassette tape players cost about $20 tops these days; and the public library is full of Books on Tape. I try to choose a narrator whose voice is pleasant, and a story that is distracting enough to derail my train of Dark Thoughts [but not so riveting that it keeps me up nights, ya know?]. I made a big mistake with a this week’s selection: the late Frank McCourt reading his own last book, Teacher Man. It’s wonderful [yet triste] to hear his voice again, but it’s too compelling; and I fought falling back to sleep [even though I knew I had the option of rewinding the tape in the morning and listening to it again in daylight]. This is rather ironic, since the main point of the book is McCourt’s career-long quest to hold the interest of his public high school students. [Well, he got mine.] I got about 3 hours’ sleep the night of Teacher Man; but, lo! I was still able to drive adequately, to scamper through the woods with Lili, to do hours of clinical paperwork, and [tra-la] to write this blog. [I loaded up a duller Book on Tape for the next night, though.]

More on sleep anon. Meanwhile, try out Seamus’ new yoga position: Flaked-Out Ginger Cat.

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"Why don’t you come with me, little girl…?"


How long did you think it was gonna take, for me to quote a Steppenwolf song in this blog? For those of you born yesterday, this is the tag line to “Magic Carpet Ride.” Cynics will insist the invitation is to take a drug trip; but a close examination of the lyrics will reveal it to be a perfect trance induction–an invitation to go into Alpha, because “…you don’t know what we can find.”

We’re off on our own not-quite-magic-carpet-ride (on Southwest Airlines) this week, to visit the offspring, so Lili and the Cats are off to the Ashram, where they will be lovingly looked after (and perhaps shown the way to Enlightenment). I think they spend most of the time in Alpha–especially the cats. Lili stands down from her mission to guard us (since we’re not there) and “her” property (since she’s not there…she’s offsight); and it is reported that she becomes a carefree, gregarious pack member under those circumstances.

Meanwhile, a couple of pointers for how to use Alpha, once you reach the destination of your choice. To lessen your perception of various kinds of pain, you might want to think in terms of dreamwork, and construct a plotline that “accounts” for the unpleasant sensation, but tones it way down. Thus, instead of the “ravening wolf” of a root canal procedure, I transform the experience into a brisk canter on Owen the Hanoverian, on a cool Michigan morning, where sucking in the cold air creates a mild tingling sensation in all my teeth. Seriously. A magic carpet ride on my beloved horse is what I “take,” instead of whatever anesthetic the dentist is offering. I’ve had to convince all my dentists since 1978, that I will be just fine, they need not worry…but they can’t seem to stop themselves from blurting out, “Boy, that’s gotta hurt! Doesn’t it?”

But, what about the lads in Keele, and our friend Herb Malinoff, who insist that the pain center’s message must be acknowledged, or it will just “turn up the volume”? I haven’t found this to be a problem, personally; but I would be prepared to say a mental “Roger that,” (or “F&#* that!”)–to “thank my amygdalar dog” for warning me of danger–and then I’m going to “climb aboard Owen,” and take that “magic carpet ride.”

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Filed under altered states, limbic system, pain reduction

"Your eyelids are getting heavy…"


First the boring scientific stuff. When we are wide awake, our brain is emitting Beta waves (14 to 100 hz). When we are fast asleep, Delta waves (< 4 hz) are produced. Theta waves(4 to 8 hz) combine external stimuli with internal mental images—creating Boogeymen and other monsters under the bed. But the most wonderful, useful state of mind is available when the brain puts out Alpha waves (8 to 13 hz).

This is variously referred to as “enchantment,” “hypnotic trance,” “meditation,” or (especially when playing sports) “being in the zone.” As those who work with sports psychologists will attest, being in Alpha during a tennis match (or a baseball game) seems to slow the ball down, making it much easier to hit. Everyone who has taken a car journey has been in Alpha, even the person driving! (It’s sometimes called “white-line fever,” since the repetitive dotted white lines on the highway can “entrance” a person, until the sign for his exit appears; and he jolts back into Beta, wondering “Have I been asleep at the wheel?”) Fortunately, the answer is usually “no, unless you were also intoxicated or exhausted.” One thing to notice, is that when a car swoops in front of you, requiring you to brake, you are able to do so; but often with a slight feeling of vertigo. Abrupt switches between brainwave frequencies [states of consciousness] can cause that, so when you are “going into Alpha” on purpose, it’s a good idea to plan enough time for a gradual transition back to Beta.

Back in the (surprisingly cool) 70s, the Navy sent me and my 4 fellow Clinical Psychologists @ USNA on a course to learn how to do “medical hypnosis” (as opposed to “Stage Hypnosis,” in which volunteers from the audience end up quacking like a duck). The thought was, it would be good to teach Midshipmen how to manage test anxiety, cope with pain, and…well…play sports better. In the required Intro Psych course, most of us did a little class demonstration, using a volunteer subject (for absolutely no extra credit), but inviting the skeptics in the back of the room to follow along with the suggested steps for inducing a trance. Inevitably, while the volunteer subject was able to “feel” the loft of a (pretend) helium balloon “tied” to his wrist, and let his arm float up a few inches, there was at least one Mid in the back, practically levitating off the floor, who became the most enthusiastic convert to the powers of Alpha.

When I was back @ USNA in the new millennium (as a humble civil servant), my favorite two days of each year were I-Day and I-Day-Minus-One (when roughly 1000 Young Ones were shorn, accoutered, and given a physical which included comprehensive blood work). There was usually about a 1 in 10 “hard stick” rate (as our team of phlebotomists called it), where the kid either keeled over in mid-blood-draw, or no viable vein could be found from a sitting position. Their code phrase to me was, “Doc, this one needs to go to the beach,” at which point the candidate was escorted to one of several cots, and I did my 2-minute send-you-to-the-beach trance-induction patter. In less hurried circumstances, I usually let the subject pre-select a “happy place” destination, towards which the slowed-down breathing, progressive muscle-relaxation, and “smooth descent on an escalator” leads. These kids had joined the Navy. Their choices about most things were going to be restricted in a few hours (once they were sworn in), so they all “went to the beach.” Once there, they “lay under a palm tree, with one arm out of the shade, in direct sunlight.” And, lo, the veins of the “sunlit” arm would swell up like ropes. Occasionally, the phlebotomist would need to finish the draw from the other arm; and so the first arm would be “put in the shade,” while the other would “get some sun.” Magic! The veins in the second arm would engorge.

Individuals vary as to their ability to achieve trance “on demand,” like that, although being highly motivated obviously helps. Many researchers contend that purposely “going into Alpha” is a uniquely human skill; but I doubt it. “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan talks about the “migration mode,” in which a pack of dogs can travel great distances, following the Alpha dog, expending the least amount of physical and emotional energy–just trusting the leader to walk point for them. I say that’s purposely “going into Alpha (wave, not power position).”

I also say, get yourself an entrancing book, or CD, or zen master that you trust–that you would be willing to follow–and let yourself be guided into Alpha. It only takes one “guided tour,” before you can get back there by yourself, whenever you want.

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Filed under altered states, leading a pack, pain reduction, secret code

Glienicke Breucke: "Bridge of Spies"


Hands up, if you remember the Cold War…or have read any spy novels by John Le Carre or Len Deighton…or maybe saw the movie Funeral in Berlin, starring Michael Caine. In fact and fiction, the little bridge, spanning the Havel River between Potsdam & Berlin, has been the venue for several spy swaps between the Soviet Union and the US, under cloak of darkness. First, Gary Powers, the downed U-2 pilot [no, not part of the Irish band, you Young Ones], in 1962. [Followed by the fictional “Harry Palmer” in 1966.] Then in 1985 the US got back 23 agents in exchange for 4 Soviet agents [such a deal!]; and finally, a 4 (of ours) for 5 (of theirs) swap in 1986.

If you keep in mind that these exchanges happened at night, between warring factions, the metaphor I’m about to lay on you will work better. As a Young One, myself, in the UK of 1960, I used to fall asleep listening to Radio Luxembourg play the latest English & American hit tunes…only to wake up with a shriek @ midnight, when the station switched over to broadcasting Voice of America “information,” only to be promptly and cacophonously jammed by transmitters in the USSR. What a racket! What a rude awakening! What an apt analogy for Freud’s theory of the interpretation of dreams!

Initially, he thought the purpose of dreams was two-fold. They serve to preserve sleep. C’mon, admit it. Have you never concocted an elaborate dream which “accounts” for the sound of your alarm clock, transforming it into something else entirely, just to allow you a bit more shut-eye? Secondly [pace Walt Disney], Freud opined that “A dream is a wish your heart makes, when you’re fast asleep.” His example of this is the sad story of a man whose child has died, for whom he is now sitting shivah. He falls asleep and dreams that he and his child are walking together through a field, with the warm sun beating down on them…until finally, the smell of burning cloth intrudes on his reverie, and he wakes up, to discover that a candle has fallen over onto the dead child’s bedding and set it on fire. While it lasted, this Restoration dream fulfilled the wish that his child had not died; and, for a time, it “accounted” for the heat & light of the fire [transforming it into a sunny day], thereby postponing the mourning father’s rude awakening.

“Oh, really?” said the skeptics of his time, “Do you mean to tell me that the nightmare I had last night was a wish?” Stand by for a large loophole. The language of dreams is Primary Process (more of an Indie film than a conventional Disney narrative); and the way you express “not” in a dream is to begin a scene and then “yell ‘Cut!'” before its logical conclusion. Always? Not always. Just when the dream makes more sense as a wish, with a “not” thrown in.

Enough quibbling, already. Let’s cut to the chase [scene]. There is an “Iron Curtain” between the Unconscious [where dreams are produced] and the Conscious [where they are shown, shared with friends, underappreaciated…]. Like the Soviets who jammed the Voice of America signal, there is (in most individuals) an intra-psychic “censor,” whose job it is to filter, spin, and otherwise obfuscate the message from the Unconscious. How come? Because the censor thinks “The Conscious can’t handle the truth!” Maybe the truth is inconvenient to the current regime. It might incite the dreamer to challenge the status quo, rock the boat, do something wild & crazy. The more “buttoned-down” an individual, the more powerful his censor is; and fewer of his dreams make it across the Glienicke bridge.

Here’s where the “tradecraft”–the cloak & dagger passing of secrets, as described in the novels of le Carre & Deighton–comes in. The message has a better chance of slipping past the censor if it is encrypted. Freud described two common forms of encryption: displacement & condensation. In dreams, actors rarely appear as themselves [except, like Hitchcock, for brief cameos]. So where do the characters come from? And, for that matter, where do the plotlines come from? Often, from current events, mass media, and the dreamer’s daily routine. Freud called this Day Residue. In his dream decoding algorithm, Day Residue is “subtracted” from the Manifest Content of the dream; and the remaining images (especially the odd ones) are assumed to be displacements or condensations of two (or more) images, which need to be deconstructed, for the dream’s Latent Content to be discovered. Got all that?

Let’s use a dream I had in graduate school, to practice decryption. “I have just come out of the 72nd Street subway station and am waiting to cross to the East, but there is traffic from both Broadway & Amsterdam Avenue. I don’t have time to wait for a ‘walk’ sign, so I intend to jay-walk, when there is a lull in traffic. Here comes a furry limousine, moving very slowly. I could definitely dart across in front of it…but I feel the need to reach out and touch it as it passes by.”

Day residue: That’s my real-life subway stop, my etoile of streets to cross, and my typical late-for-a-very-important-date mindset. What’s left, if we take that away?

Odd image: “Furry limousine, moving very slowly.” My free association: “Looked like a Cadillac. Hate them! Make me carsick. Grandparents always drove them. Why furry? This is Springtime. Who wears fur in the Spring? My maternal grandmother wears those weasels biting each other around her neck, even in mild weather. Why moving slowly? Like a hearse? ‘Reach out, reach out and touch someone’ is the current jingle for Bell long distance telephone.”

Latent content: I wish to call my grandmother, before she dies.

“BFD!” I hear you say. But, for complex tribal and power subtext reasons, I had been estranged from my grandmother for about 5 years. Still, having deconstructed a possible meaning for the dream, I went ahead and enacted the “latent wish,” and called her. [She mistook me for my sister, and mentioned she was feeling her end was nye; but when she realized she was talking to me, she back-peddled and hung up.] And, verily, she died later that week. No, I didn’t cause her death, or even really predict it. [She was in her 80s, after all.] I did allow a coded message from my Unconscious to affect my behavior regarding her; and I am very grateful that I did.

Next time you remember one of your dreams, why not see if you can decode it? You are not obliged to enact every “wish your heart makes”; but dreamwork (like wolf-work) often provides valuable “inside information,” to those brave enough to undertake it.

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Filed under altered states, Freud meant..., power subtext, secret code, semiotics

Of Clydesdales & Kangaroos


For years I have used this animal metaphor to discuss issues arising from linear vs. non-linear thinking; and we will get there anon, but not before some digressions. [Guess whether my cognitive style is linear or non-linear.] A news item, posted on the BBC on 25 June 09, might have escaped your notice, so I will give you the website [news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/2/hi/asia-pacific/8118257.stm], and the title: “Stoned wallabies make crop circles.” Funny story. True story. “Australian wallabies are eating opium poppies and creating crop circles as they hop around ‘as high as a kite,’ a government official has said.” Turns out Australia is the source of “50% of the world’s legally-grown opium used to make morphine and other painkillers.” It’s a small world, after all.

As you may know, a wallaby is the slightly smaller, “sports model” of a kangaroo. Likewise, one might consider Hanoverian Warmblood horses the “sports models” of draft horses [such as Clydesdales]..except for this 18 hh individual, pictured with my 5’8″ self. “Owen” was his barn name [what we, his owners, called him]. Since his was the grandson of Bolero, and therefore in the “B-line” of German-bred Hanoverians, his birthname had to begin with “B.” Having run out of all the cool International-sounding names, like Brentano and Brentina, his German breeders saddled him with the dorky name, “Be Happy.” [If you want to look him up in the Studbook, his number is 254. But don’t get any ideas. Like this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, he came to us a gelding.]

Before we had Lili the dog, we had Owen the Hanoverian; and before we had him, we had Dusk the QuarterHorse mare [who may feature in a future post]. Just as Owen’s height exceeded his parents’, so our elder daughter’s height exceeded ours; and there came a point where 16hh Dusk was no longer “a good fit” for her. [Later, alas, there came a point where the charismatic, sweet-natured, and talented Owen was no longer a good fit for our family budget, so he is currently inspiring a wealthier owner to Be Happy.]

So, do all these tangential excursions drive you crazy; or do they mirror your own stream-of-consciousness thought patterns? If the former, then you are more of a cognitive Clydesdale. [As tall as Owen, but wider-bodied and with shaggier feet.] Metaphorically, here’s what’s “good” about Clydesdales: they work well under harness with their teammates, obeying the commands of the driver, and get the job done in a timely manner. [They bring the beer.] Most school curricula are made by and for Clydesdales, as are many of society’s regulated activities [such as which side of the road to drive on, and how fast, and where it is permitted to park].

If, however, you routinely fail to “follow the rubric” for a school (or work) assignment [or even know that there is one], if you can always think of alot reasons why the rules of the road should not apply to you, if you prefer to zig & zag through life, rather than follow the arrow, then you–my friend and fellow traveler–are a cognitive Kangaroo [perhaps, even a Wallaby]. It’s not awful, folks–only highly inconvenient. [And you’d better believe that Albert Ellis, who coined that phrase, was a ‘Roo.] Isn’t it obvious what’s “good” about ‘Roos? They’re quick. [Okay, so sometimes they leap to conclusions without being able to “explain how the result was obtained.” It just came to me.] They’re curious [“Ooh…red flowers…down the hatch.”], and are therefore more likely to make off-the-wall discoveries. Their non-linear cognitive style is the basis for all humor; and (as they say on Coronation Street), “You’ve got to laugh, entcha?”

“All very well,” I hear a Clydesdale objecting, “but what has this to do with your so-called blog topic, The Wolf?” Glad you asked, you lovable, predictable beast of burden. Clydesdales who are the parents, teachers, or partners of Kangaroos are often angered by the intrusion of that”Ooh-ooh! Have-to-say-or-do-whatever-pops-into-my-mind, even-if-it-interrupts-others” thing. Particularly, the parents of ‘Roos [even if they are crypto-Roos, themselves], fear the consequences of their offspring’s impulsivity, which might cause pain & suffering for the child, the parents, and the general public. So, the parents, teachers, and partners of ‘Roos say humiliating things to the “Didn’t-d0-it-on-purpose-just-the-way-I-am” creatures, which in turn provokes anger in them [the ‘Roos, in case you’ve lost the thread, through all my zigs & zags].

Ways to improve relations between the two cognitive camps will be taken up in future posts. Meanwhile, a bit of self-disclosure. Although I am a life-long, purebred Kangaroo, I was never a Wallaby (a metaphorical poppy-eater). I figured my take on life was already weird enough, without the addition of mind-altering substances. I discovered the joys of wine and beer when I was 23, though, so I’m not a total Goody-Two-Shoes. (More of a ‘Fraidy-Cat.)

Incidentally, in my brief blog-blurb, I say I learned more about human nature @ acting school than grad school; and here’s an example of what I mean. In a class on “How to Get Hired As an Actor (Without Losing Your Soul),” we were told, “Know your type, and love your type.” So, if the role is for an ingenue, and you look, um, sadder-but-wiser, don’t waste your time at the “cattle call” for a naive heroine. Show up for auditions where they’re looking for “the Auntie Mame type.” If you know you’re a ‘Roo, don’t expect to be hired, when the job ad says “Only Clydesdales Need Apply.” [Unless you are a Very Good Actor, of which more later…]

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Filed under altered states, non-linear thinking, sharks and jets