Thresholds of Perception: “Do I Wake or Sleep?”

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[1] “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[1] 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 instantaneous—you’re awake one moment, asleep the next. This alteration of consciousness involves a swift but complex interaction between various parts of the brain[1].

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 seconds. Some researchers have compared the neurological mechanism that controls these rapid transitions to the “flip-flop switch” 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 rapid and complete state transitions: 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).[2]

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[3].) “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”[4], 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?[5]


[1] 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).

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] Search says yes, but it looks like woo woo to me.

[5] And Holy Lord, none of this has anything to do with “woke,” so please don’t go there.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Roxan

    Tibetan sleep yoga is the key to hypnagogic states of mind awake, body asleep. An important practice for serious meditators. In time, the barrier between sleeping and waking disappears, and you live in a state that is neither.

    1. lambert strether

      Now let’s do that at a group and societal level…. Without turning into cultists.

    2. QuicksilverMessenger

      Yes and just to add sleep yoga is considered a very high practice- beyond awake and beyond dreaming and sleeping, abiding in what has been called ‘clear light mind’. There are practices leading up to sleep yoga: including dream yoga and lucid dreaming. Basically, all the practices of the Six Yogas of Naropa for any who are interested. There are some pretty interesting modern practitioners writing and teaching now- Tenzin Wangyal for one

      1. Roxan

        Tenzin Wangyal has both books and seminars about sleep yoga. Deep sleep is a state of Clear Light’. I think he offers ‘Dark Meditation’ sessions, as well. There is another interesting organization, also in VA, called The Monroe Institute, that uses something they call ‘Hemi-Sync’ to produce mind awake, body asleep states, and possibly, OOBs. You can buy some of the recordings online.

    1. lambert strether

      Maybe I should write a post about falling asleep; the Covid propaganda makes me feel like I’m having an anesthesia mask lowered over my face….

      1. Randall Flagg

        Isn’t that the point of the Covid propaganda and all propaganda, to “zone “ you out, or get you to a certain “place” with your mind/thoughts?
        Poorly worded I know for what I’m trying to say.

        1. lambert strether

          That is precisely and exactly my point. The difficulty is describing the mechanisms as precisely as one would, for example, describe the spread of Covid-laden aerosol driven by an air conditioning unit in a restaurant, and at the individual, group (class), and society level.

  2. Revenant

    I sleep brilliantly but I wake badly. I need to wake with the light. Unfortunately I need strong daylight, at least 8am’s worth in summer. My bedmate will have been awake for hours at that point. :-(

    If I set an alarm clock, I will wake up just before it. I can do the trick for ad hoc times, not just a regular time. I just have to tell myself before I go to sleep.

    Even on a good waking, I am not the chatty springing about time. More the lumbering, breakfast in silence type. Talking is reserved for after two cups if tea and the morning paper (now scrolling). Breakfast meetings are an abomination!

    If I go back to sleep after the alarm, I will feel jetlagged and like death-warned over unless I manage a full extra sleep cycle (I.e. REM and deep sleep).

    This is probably the price I pay for sleeping easily, reliably and deeply in all circumstances and being able to stay up late over long periods with ill effects. I am a grumpy sleep camel! :-)

  3. Earl Erland

    “Roger Ekirch’s book, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, reveals that until modern times, when artificial lighting allowed us to stay awake longer, most people would go to bed around sunset. The actual time spent sleeping was split into two phases – known as first sleep and second sleep.”

    From the article: “In between the first and second sleep the person would be awake about an hour – enough to say prayers during Matins, which would typically fall between 2 am and 3 am, study or even have sex. The French physician Laurent Joubert (1529-1581) even advised that couples have intercourse during this period, because “they have more enjoyment” and ‘do it better.’ “

  4. The Rev Kev

    Napoleon Bonaparte was supposed to have the ability to sleep for several hours and when woken, it was as if he never slept as he was snapping orders and receiving reports. But most people crawl from their bed groggily and as you get older, it takes a bit longer to get out of bed. The idea that you wake up and jump out of bed is a myth for most people. If that had been true, then the invention of coffee would never have been necessary.

  5. DJG, Reality Czar

    Thanks for this. I was a tad worried at the start, when you invoked the on-off switch hypotheses. Unfortunately, and self-destructively, the idea of binary, which comes out of computer programming, has taken over too much thought in the Anglo-American world. It’s a horrible metaphor and is deteriorating.

    The idea of threshold (liminality) is important. I tend to think of any number of things as thresholds: Natal astrology (not retail astrology in newspapers). The tarot cards–nothing like a good spread to peek across the threshold. Reading a book is liminal. Good poetry, as mentioned in the post, is liminal

    And then there is the question of what happens before sleep, when I, at least, often start to hear dreams and see dreams. Coming attractions, I guess.

    Italian has a lovely word, dormiveglia, for the phenomenon examined here by Lambert Strether. From the Treccani dictionary:

    dormivéglia s. m. [comp. dei temi di dormire e vegliare], invar. – Stato fra il sonno e la veglia: nel d. m’è parso di sentire un rumore; trascorsi alcune ore nel mio letto, in un inquieto d. (Paola Capriolo).

    1. DJG, Reality Czar

      And that final question: “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?”

      The right-hand column is much too dire. It is beyond liminal. War is not liminal. So how do we remain liminal, on the threshold, balancing delicate worlds? It’s “do-able.”

      As mentioned, poetry. Books of all kinds. Live music (what an effect live music can have). Plays (live). Paintings (seen live). Note “live.” One must interact.

      What’s more liminal than the gravedigger’s scene in Hamlet? (Rhetorical question.)

      Festivals of all kinds: Yes, I was just at the tripe festival in Moncalieri. Tripe is liminal. Any festival is liminal.

      Another idea: Learning to “read” a church or temple, whether or not one is a believer. The iconography of a Catholic church is pointing at liminality. An iconostasis in an Orthodox church is a threshold between the mundane and divine. And there are plenty of liminal statues in many religions–the Buddha indicating liminal states by the how the hands are carved into mudras. Lighting a candle for one’s dead in a church.

      What isn’t liminal? The computer screen, I’m afraid. Social media. Advertising. Marketing: and much, much more.

  6. Eclair

    Stop doing this, Lambert! My brain is now fermenting, bubbling with images of liminal zones, littoral zones, borderlands, (all areas fomenting ferment) and, as DJG writes, that area between waking and sleep, when rational thoughts turn into flying elephants that are perfectly reasonable.

        1. Lambert Strether Post author

          > We are being Dumboed down.

          I saw Dumbo when I was a kid. It was terrifying. I remember an elephant blowing square bubbles from their trunk; that was what sent me over the edge and we had to leave. Embubblement?

  7. Jorge

    A little factoid: you start inscribing long-term memory about 20 seconds after you wake up. So, whatever brilliant idea you have when you wake, you will not remember later, because you think of it in the 20-second window.

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