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How medicalization corrupted our mythic relationship with sleep and dreams


Fascinating reflections from “a psychologist specialising in sleep and dream medicine”:

Nyx and Hypnos were a dynamic duo of sorts — supernatural heroes who romanticised night and sleep. Nyx gave birth to sleep and created an aesthetic of darkness where Hypnos could flourish. And Hypnos loved sleep. Surrounded by fields of wild poppies on the River of Oblivion, his lair was a sanctuary — a cool, magical retreat open to all in celebration of the sensual, even sexy, mysteries of sleep.

Today, mother and son have been largely forgotten. Nyx has been in exile for well over a century as our night sky is eroded by light pollution. And Hypnos is remembered mainly by his namesakes, hypnosis and, surely to his chagrin, hypnotics. Sleep is no longer personal, transcendent and romantic — it is medical, mundane and pragmatic. . . .

The Industrial Revolution radically transformed our perception of sleep from a gracious, transcendent experience to a mechanistic, biomedical process. . . . In more recent decades, the domestication of sleep has given way to its medicalisation. Hypnos has been abducted and is being held captive in research labs, clinics and pharmacies. The field of sleep medicine has encouraged us to think of sleep as a complex biomedical process that lies outside of our awareness — a perspective that impedes our personal relationship with sleep. . . .

We are mired in a pre-Copernican-like, wake-centric era regarding consciousness. We presume waking to be the centre of the universe of consciousness, and we relegate sleeping and dreaming to secondary, subservient positions. . . . Medicalisation obscures sleep’s true nature — its breadth and depth and joy. It conceals the personal, transcendent and romantic dimensions of sleep. We are in dire need of restoring our sense of sleep’s mythic dimensions — of reimagining our personal experience of sleep. I believe this can be best accomplished through poetry, spirituality and, ultimately, personal investigation. . . .

Mythic perspectives suggest that there is something in the deep waters of sleep worth accessing, and invite us to personally investigate it. Metaphorically, they encourage us to practise our descent into the waters of sleep with our third eye open. . . .

Sleep loss, then, is not simply a medical problem; it is also a critical spiritual challenge. Our epic struggles with accessing deep sleep are, fundamentally, struggles with accessing deeper aspects of ourselves. As wakists, we presume that who we are is limited to our waking-world identity. Essential parts of who we are, however, are obscured by the glare of waking life. And these become more visible at night — in the deep waters of sleep and dreams.

FULL ARTICLE: “Falling for Sleep

Image: Sleep and Death Carrying Away Sarpedon of Lycia by Henry Fuseli, 1893 [Public domain ], via Wikimedia Commons


Myth, transmedia, and the alchemy of the self

Alchemist's laboratory, Hans Vredeman de Vries, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Alchemist’s laboratory, Hans Vredeman de Vries, 1595 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Teeming Brain columnist David Metcalfe attended DragonCon in Atlanta this past weekend to cover the well-established paranormal wing of the world’s biggest genre convention.  He will be publishing a full report here in the near future.

In the meantime, has published a partial transcript of a panel that David moderated at the convention. The title is “The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth.” The other two panelists are transmedia artist James Curcio and comics scholar and college philosophy instructor Damien Williams. The subject is the relationship between fiction and nonfiction, fact and myth, art and reality, as it runs through the act of storytelling in the modern media milieu. The conversation involves many references to specific cultural texts and prominent people (e.g., comics in general, Firefly, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore).

And the fascination-quotient is high, as indicated by these three represenative quotes from each participant. Note that they are here excerpted piecemeal from different parts of the conversation. In other words, they don’t represent a sequential exchange of ideas, but rather a cherry-picked selection of highlights.

DAVID METCALFE: In experiencing something like DragonCon, from the vantage point of covering it for the media, I find it really interesting that often the fantasy elements overtake any real life connections. It’s been rather surreal to be sitting at the hotel bar watching coverage of Syria, while people are eagerly searching for cosplayers to snap pictures of. To be honest it’s a bit eerie, as there is a great opportunity to use the energy garnered from these kinds of events to really speak to our current social conditions, with the interactive storytelling being a place where alternate solutions and dialogues can occur as vibrant thought experiments. I’m not sure how often this happens, however.

DAMIEN WILLIAMS: One of the things I try to teach my students, every semester, is that their perception is manipulated by narrative framing techniques, and to get them to recognize, understand, and utilize them, so that they won’t ever unwittingly fall prey to someone else’s myths. That includes teachers and politicians, alike, because the whole experience of politics — and by that I mean American politics, because I just don’t know enough about any other country — is a story sold to people to get them to buy into a system that then continues to sell them stories. Whether these stories bear any resemblance to “reality” doesn’t really matter; what matters, instead, is whether the stories motivate, animate, and compel the populace to believe in the narrator.

JAMES CURCIO: I think the very ideas of ‘fiction’ vs ‘nonfiction,’ or myth as untruth are major barriers in creating honest mythic work. Myths don’t begin as “myths”. They begin as something that genuinely speaks to us. Narratives directly affect our nervous system. . . .

The myth, as media, is alchemy. In simple terms, alchemy was supposedly about turning lead to gold, right? Or, in general, the transmutation of matter. So people often look at it as a sort of rudimentary, or ill-conceived attempt at chemistry. But instead, the “matter” is the self. I think one of Jung’s biggest contributions was this one insight: that alchemy — and the occult as well — pertains to the psyche. So if you look at it that way, you can immediately see two sides: as a creator, you conduct alchemy through media and transmute your personal experience, both psychologically and by turning it from private to public experience. On the flip side, as a so-called audience member, when you engage with media, it’s not nearly as passive as it seems on the surface. When you look at two frames of a sequential story — a comic — your brain is inventing the motion, and on a larger scale, the narrative. When you read a story, you are transmuting symbols into life. Carl Sagan, in his Cosmos series, said something like, “Books break the shackles of time — proof that humans can work magic.” I think that’s true in a very real way.

MORE: “The Transmedia of Tomorrow: The Art That Lies To Tell The Truth

C. S. Lewis, Narnia, and mythic truth: “Stories are mirrors that show us our soul”


From a splendid essay by young adult novelist Zu Vincent and creative writing teacher Kiara Koenig, published in Through the Wardrobe: Your Favorite Authors on C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (2010), about the exquisite philosophical-spiritual value of finding solace, solitude, and authentic meaning in fictional stories amid our contemporary culture of scientistic disenchantment and digital distraction:

We don’t live in a reader-friendly world. There are few quiet corners in which to curl up and open a good book. Even fewer moments when we can just be alone and think. It’s often easier to not think too deeply, to instead watch a movie, play a video game, or surf the net. And it’s hard to hear the voices of stories, which are softer than the rustle of pages, over the ring tones of incoming text messages.

Or maybe you have someone nagging you to “get your nose out of that book” and do something. As if reading were something we needed to outgrow along with naps, stuffed animals, and imaginary friends.

But a story, unlike cell phone minutes, is never ending. Because they are more than the sum of their plot, stories don’t lose their ability to make us laugh once we know the punch line or to spark our curiosity even after we know “whodunit.” Like the best dessert in the world, the more you have, the more you want. But unlike the Witch’s enchanted Turkish Delight, stories nourish us as we read.

They’re gateways, and the further up and further in we go, the richer the tale, the realer the world, the more intense the experience. Stories ask us to come inside and do half the work of making them come alive if we want to feel their full magic. A magic that takes us deep into the core of what makes us human.

. . . To see clearly, story takes us back to a time when the whole world spoke to us. When the constellations were our palm readers and even the stones could warn us of the coming of our fate. Today’s science describes the stars as novas, supernovas, and galaxies, and locates them by their relative distance from our solar system. But this practical information brings us only so close to true understanding.

“In our world . . . a star is a huge ball of flaming gas,” Eustace tells the “retired star” Ramandu in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Ramandu replies, “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

Stories do not just describe the world, they teach us what it really is. And, like Lucy and Susan, what we’re really made of.

. . . In the end, the world is more than an objective description of its continents, weather patterns, and animal populations, just as each of us is more than our height, weight, and hair color. If we get distracted by the surface, we can forget this truth.

. . . So the next time someone tells you to put down that book, remind him that, as Lewis points out, it’s our own humanity we rediscover, our tendency toward “good and evil, our endless perils, our anguish, and our joys.” Stories are mirrors that show us our soul.

FULL ESSAY: “Mind the Gap(Available until August 14, 2013)

Recommended Reading 29

This week, we bring you a roundup of readings spanning a rainbow of trends and topics, from the collapsing economy to the destruction of modern sociopolitical and cultural myths to the imaginal realm of shamanism, creativity, and mythic descents to the underworld.

More specifically, we have: a report on the U.S. Army’s stated criteria for recognizing potential terrorists, and why you and your coworkers probably meet one or more of them; an indictment of the Baby Boomers for destroying America (economically, ecologically) and leaving the wreckage to their children; a deep analysis of the current crack-up in the presiding Western myth of liberal individualism as bequeathed to us all by Adam Smith; an examination of the raging crisis in Western secularism as the implicit religiosity lying beneath the veneer of the secular mind is drawn to the surface; a paean to the lost joys of reading aloud; a scornful take on neuroscientific “discoveries” about the value of reading and the meanings of art; a first-person account of and reflection upon the imaginal and alchemical experience of descending into the underworld for death and reconstitution; and a brilliant exposition of the supreme value of poetic metaphor in the context of the deep linkage between shamanism and creativity. Read the rest of this entry