“I rise again changed but the same”
— Jakob Bernoulli
I often wonder if I’m more open to writing and available mentally to craft words in the early morning because it is a way of transitioning out of the dream state of the previous night’s sleep. One of the most fascinating and recent theories on why we sleep comes from two scientists in Madison, Wisconsin. The study posits that during the day we are building up synaptic bonds in our brain—the electro-chemical connector between neurons—and in the evening while sleeping, we go about the business of breaking those synapses down. In other words, we sleep to forget. That is, forgetting what our brains deem unessential to an uncluttered mind.
If this research along with research out of Johns Hopkins proves true, it means that our own brains use sleep as a pruning tool. Morpheus is not only the god of dreams but a master arborist. The best assumption on why this synaptic pruning is taking place is that it is a way of removing clutter from the previous day’s experiences. The neurons we have in place want to reinforce our learning and meaningfully add to it. Anything extraneous is just getting in the way. Our brains don’t want to grow extra branches of the mental tree that might divert essential nutrients from feeing the trunk and central branches.
I personally love this idea and it makes real a joke I’ve said to young people when I can’t precisely remember something; “I’ve forgotten more than you know”. Turns out that is true, the older we get the more accumulated things our brains have forgotten, in the middle of the night. Maybe we should change Shakespeare’s statement to sleep, perchance to forget? In practical terms, this means that it is important what we’re experiencing and learning in our waking hours. If the Johns Hopkins study is to be proven correct, the forgetting we do is most likely repetitive information. There’s no need to create more connections to things that are already well connected in our minds.
Our brains remain enigmatic and mysterious. There is more we don’t know about our own minds than our understanding of our planet’s ecosystem. The very idea that my mind is manifesting this post about the nature of how it and everyone else’s mind works is a profound thing to think about. Aside from my fascination with the nature of consciousness and the inner workings of our brains, I think there is a very simple take away from this new understanding of sleep. We can use Bernoulli’s principle of the logarithmic spiral as an analogy to living. An artful life is one that grows in richness logarithmically as opposed to linearly. Our experiences should build until reaching a symphonic shift where we enter a new tier of the spiral. Nobody that I know of wants to listen to a monotonous tone over and over again. We enjoy music for its dynamism just like we enjoy our natural surroundings. Everything we see from trees to mountains is built upon the mathematical principals of fractals. Fractals are a fundamental expression of logarithmic spirals that are the underlying structure of our physical world. Without them, trees would be sticks and mountains cubes. Imagine what a dull world it would be if we had nothing but simple geometric shapes to live amongst or how ugly we would be as human beings.
Every day we awake is indeed a day where we are both the same as the day before and changed. While sleeping our body was working to hone our experiences in preparation for the next day so that we can create our own logarithmic progression. This is only possible if we avoid living lives of monotony. If nothing expansive is added to our lives then there is nothing to prune during sleep. Our days become blurred into a fuzzy haze instead of crystalline structure. Perhaps our desire to learn, to grow emotionally, and to experience more is just our brains hungry for the next layer of the spiral. Think about that the next time you’re in the grocery store staring at an aisle of 100 different types of cereal.