There are many advantages to being an insomniac in the 21rst century. One of them is that you can use Netflix to find documentaries made about insomniacs by insomniacs. Or at least there is one such film that fits that description. I first watched it at 3ish in the morning about a year ago. It is by Alan Berliner and is appropriately called “Wide Awake”. For a panel discussion at the New York Academy of Sciences, Imagine Science Films invited Berliner to show clips from this same film, and then participate in a provocative discussion about sleep and dreams with some notable academics.
“Wide Awake” is honest in a way a Woody Allen film would be if Woody wasn’t hiding behind a fictional character. While we watched takes of his restless life, attempts to cure the condition, and obsession over his newborn child’s sleep patterns, people around me seemed to nearly mock him. This wasn’t surprising, as Berliners own mother was even harsher in the film itself. “He is completely crazy” was whispered by more than one person. I wasn’t one of these, for the obvious reason that to call Berliner crazy would be to admit my own craziness, as his anxieties caused by a life of more catnaps than 8 hour nights has been the story of my life. Last night was no exception to this for me. I dozed off during the start of the program which featured a 1960’s flashing light show art installation called the “Dream Machine”. I had as much REM sleep during the “Dream Machine’s” 5 minutes of fame as I likely did the remainder the night. This topic of sanity and health seemed to take up a large part of the discussion, despite the more basic and important research of the scientists present which included neuroscientist Matt Wilson, and psychiatrist Erin Wamsley.
The science of sleep is an interesting one and dreams are perhaps the most intriguing of all. Paul Roossin, in this TEDx Talk, describes the history and some interesting theories on the importance of dreaming. It has been a subject of research for a while, with new imaging and electro probing
techniques making the topic more quantitative every year. Still this was part of a film festival, which makes a fascinating metaphor into an observation of how reality is perceived. I have always been fascinated by film, not just for its artistic merits or even for the technology of movies. I have also been intrigued by a world which was pre-film and the one that is post-film. It was only after film was made that we could archive human movement. It is also a way to manipulate that movement by cutting, twisting, fading and dilating time in ways that are more dynamic and vast than other art forms. What last night made me think about was not only film content, or scientific discovery, but also the way film is inherently dreamlike in ways that I find very attractive.
When the audience responded to the “craziness” of Berliner, and the panel discussed the potential unhealthy aspects of sleep deprivation, and therefore lack of a dream life, I made the unscientifically subjective leap towards the attractiveness of filling a life of too little sleep with this art. Is it possible that those things associated with dreaming, such as memory consolidation, may occur when we watch the discordant film that at the same time emotionally moves us in ways that reminds us of ourselves and our world? It is possible that those stretches of the imagination as ignited by the movie are in fact a way to dream when dreaming isn’t accessible? I have no idea of course, but it is at least thought provoking. It is also another good reason to have a science film festival, and a way for people like me to stay up late watching and discussing the science in and of movies.