By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
“I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.” –Theodore Roethke, The Waking
Etymologically, the word “wake” comes from the IndoEuropean weg, “to be strong, be lively” (according to the American Heritage Dictionary of IndoEuropean Roots, which I have vivid memories of devouring as a teenager, except it seems to have been punblished in 1985, perhaps on another timeline?) I’m very pleased that “wake” and “vegetable” have the same root, because vegetables are in fact quite lively, especially if viewed in time-lapse photography, as are “vedettes” and, I suppose, “Wicca.”
Since I previously wrote about sleep in “Six Tips for a Good Night’s Sleep“, I thought this time I would write about waking, the process of becoming “lively” after being, at least outwardly, inert, although, oddly, there are no “tips” for waking. Then again, how and where would one read them? I’m not going to go into the biological mechanisms of sleep, of which sleep scientists consider waking to be an aspect (a good explainer; another one. The brain’s “Reticular Activating System” is said to be an especially important component, interestingly linked to attention, arousal, and identity). Rather, I will focus only on the experience — I won’t use the word “phenomenology,” but feel free to think it — of waking, the liminal state between sleeping and “being awake.” I’ll conclude with some significant far-fetching.
Waking is another of the many important things (consciousness, sex, death, love, etc.) we do not understand, at least in scientific terms. From The Conversation, “How does your brain wake up from sleep?“:
When you’re asleep, you can seem completely dead to the world. But when you wake up, in an instant you can be up and at ‘em. How does the brain turn on awareness or consciousness? This question has puzzled scientists for centuries – and continues to do so.
Scientists do agree that the transition between sleep and waking is almost instantaneous. From the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School:
The transition is nearly —you’re awake one moment, asleep the next. This alteration of consciousness involves a swift but complex interaction between various parts of the brain.
It’s almost as if a switch has been thrown:
Transitions between these stable states of wakefulness and sleep occur relatively quickly, often in just . Some researchers have compared the neurological mechanism that controls these rapid transitions to in an electrical circuit. In the brain, the mechanism that maintains stability through mutual inhibition is triggered by changes in factors such as the body’s drive for sleep or the circadian alerting signal.
(A “signal” like light passing through closed eyelids to the retina to some subsystem within the brain, triggering arousal.) From Cell, “Sleep: Switching Off the Off-Switch“:
Such a circuitry ensures : overcoming inhibition on one side leads to more inhibition on the antagonist side, reinforcing the winner’s activity. A current influential working model of the sleep–wake switch is analogous to a ‘flip–flop’ electronic circuit. This is a bistable device that will remain in one state until a trigger causes it to switch to the other state. But which are the triggers of the transition? Multiple regulatory inputs arising from circadian, homeostatic and allostatic systemsneed to be coordinated to decide between sleep and wakefulness. Furthermore, limbic and cognitive variables modulate sleep–wake states. Little is known about the wiring of all these synaptic inputs into the sleep–wake switch. Do they conform to the flip–flop model proposing that sleep–wake transitions need synaptic excitation of wake promoting groups, whereas sleep promoting groups are excited for the reverse transition?
I was about to say “nobody knows anything” but in fact we know more than we did. So there’s that. The thing is, as you know, because you are not asleep, waking is not necessarily instaneous (and I can’t help but wonder whether the scientists are so wedded to their “switch” metaphor that they cannot conceptualize more subtle transitions. Is “turn on” in fact the right metaphor? I suppose it all depends on what you mean — and I think a phenomologist would approve — by what you mean by moment, as in “asleep one moment, awake the next.” In fact, the moment can be extended, and there’s a word for it:
Hypnopompia (also known as hypnopompic state) is the state of consciousness leading out of sleep, a term coined by the psychical researcher Frederic Myers. Its mirror is the hypnagogic state at sleep onset; though often conflated, the two states are not identical and have a different phenomenological character.
Or as an app developer defines it:
The hypnopompic state is that luxurious time between being asleep and being awake.
A scientist extends the notion without using the word. From Sleep Medicine Reviews, “Waking up is the hardest thing I do all day: Sleep inertia and sleep drunkenness”:
“Sleep inertia” refers to the transitional state between sleep and wake, marked by impaired performance, reduced vigilance, and a desire to return to sleep. The intensity and duration of sleep inertia vary based on situational factors, but its effects may last minutes to several hours. Sleep inertia is a normal phenomenon, but one with potentially dangerous ramifications, e.g., in health care workers or military personnel who are woken abruptly in the night and required to make cognitively-taxing decisions. In some disease states, a transitional period akin to markedly pronounced sleep inertia is present and is sometimes referred to as “sleep drunkenness”.
While I accept the occupational hazard focus of the article, I do feel that “inertia” and “drunkenness” are both a little bit judgy, and prefer the “luxurious” paradigm of the hypnopompic extended moment (minutes, not hours).
One advantage of the hypnopompic metaphor, as opposed to “flip–flop”, is that one can give an account of what could only be called “waking disorders, like morning grogginess and “snoozing” (“inertia” and “lower conscientiousness”; judgy again).
which is closely allied to “snoozing.” From Sleep, “Snoozing: an examination of a common method of waking”:
Hypnopompia brings me to Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale,” quoted in the title of this post. Quoting Schmoop — and I’m not going to apologize for this, Schmoop does good close readings couched in excessive informal, indeed breeezy language:
It’s quite a strange poem, actually. The song of the nightingale affects the speaker like a drug, as if he had drunk an entire bottle of wine. This is no metaphor. He just kind of quietly drifts out of normal reality. Like Alice in Wonderland, he’s down the rabbit-hole. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, he has taken the blue pill (or was it the red pill?). As in these other works, “Ode to a Nightingale” flips our view of what is real and what isn’t on its head, so that by the end of the poem the speaker doesn’t know whether he’s awake or dreaming. Once the nightingale’s song lulls him into a stupor, he fades into the atmosphere of a night in the forest, where he can hardly see a thing but can only smell the intoxicating plants around him. The poem gets even stranger when he imagines that he has died and the nightingale is singing at his funeral!
The interesting thing is that, unlike many later poets (ahem, the Beats) and some of his contemporaries (ahem, Samuel Taylor Coleridge), Keats did not need to take drugs to experience mind-altering visions that result in a total shift of perspective. This poem was written totally au naturel. It explores the way certain experiences – a song, a poem, a scene in nature – can make you feel like you have left your day-to-day concerns behind.
In a word: hypnopompia. Quoting the poem (which is worth reading in full; I kept wating to hate it, and never did):
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
(Lethe, Greek mythology: “The river which flows through Hades from which the souls of the dead drank so that they would forget their time on Earth.)
In other words, the poet (or whoever is uttering the Ode) is between sleeping and waking, and luxuriating in it (“O, for a draught of vintage!”) And the poem concludes, as the nightingale moves on and their song (“thy plaintive anthem”) fades:
Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
(I say “wake,” because a “bell” would have awakened the Odist.) “Do I wake or sleep” recognizes the liminality of hypnopompia, the quality that waking has of being at the threshold (Latin limen, threshold) of sleeping and waking. Pulling out my trusty OED:
Liminality is an important concept in anthropology:
The concept of ‘liminality,’ as developed and introduced into anthropological discourse by Victor Turner in the 1960s and 1970s, derives from the work of Arnold van Gennep, a French ethnologist and folklorist. In Les rites de passage (1909), van Gennep argued that ‘regeneration’ was the law of life, and that it was accomplished through rites of passage which have three major phases: ‘separation, transition or margin (limen), and incorporation.’
We might, then — if we successfully avoid the Category Error Police (CEP)– consider waking as liminal, and the transition through waking from sleep into being awake as a sort of rite of passage, performed daily (dark to light, inert to “lively,” unaware to not aware, unseeing to seeing, unconcious to conscious, and so forth).
I grant “a sort of” is doing a lot of work, there. Let me now tweak the CEP even more aggressively by presenting the following table, from WikiPedia’s entry on liminality:
Clearly, we live in liminal times! Now, if there’s one thing that following Covid as an extremely dedicated layperson has taught me, it’s to look for the mechanism, whether biological or sociological. And the reason the CEP uniform is writing a ticket out for me right now, is that there’s no mechanism to give an account for any of the cells in the table (or the row or column headers).
That said, it occured to me that Keat’s question — “Do I Wake or Sleep?” — could be usefully applied to each of us in the populace at large, the citizenry, very much including myself. (After all, the effects of brain worms, so visible in others, could also be produced in me by a brain worm drilling into the back of my neck, where I can’t see it, right now.)
For example, if there’s anything that’s obvious to all of us, it’s that we the citizenry are highly propagandized; there are layers and layers and layers and layers of deeply impacted bullshit (layers that some treat as assets, as resources, and mine, but that’s another story). Suppose one is doomscrolling, as one does, and one perceives a class or cultural marker perceived as repellent, and reacts, in reflexive, “knee jerk” fashion. Then I “share” my reaction with others. Suppose that one is me. Do I sleep or wake? Surely I am not fully awake; if there were such a thing as “lucid waking”, would I be practicing it? I mean this literally and materially, as a matter of (social) engineering, not metaphorically (and frustratingly I have as yet no ladder of abstraction to help me move from individual through group to society).
If indeed — as the table above would suggest — our entire society exhibits liminality, soon to transition from one state to another, as yet unknown state, how should we as individuals prepare? Should we luxuriate in hypnopompia? Remain asleep? Wake? How?
 As a budding animist, I reject the model of consciousness (whatever that is) being located in the brain, preferring to regard it as arising from a circuit completed in and part of the material world (even during sleep).
 There are also people who can “program” themselves, through some not-understood mechanism, to wake at set times, or just ahead of their alarm clocks. The various between clock time and waking time might be something to look at, when determing what a “moment” is.
 Not an alarm clock, since the personal alarm clock was patented in 1847, and Keats died in 1821. However, church bells also functioned as a type of early alarm clock.
 Search says yes, but it looks like woo woo to me.
 And Holy Lord, none of this has anything to do with “woke,” so please don’t go there.