The first question – why do we sleep – didn’t have a good answer 20 years ago. The crass answer was that we sleep to cure sleepiness, which is the fatuous equivalent of saying that we eat to cure hunger. It tells you nothing about the nutritional benefits of food. But now, after a remarkable litany of research of the past sort of quarter century, we’ve actually been forced to upend the question and ask is there anything that sleep does not provide in terms of a functional benefit, both the brain and body? And it’s been a real struggle; we’ve found that most all tissues and physiological systems in the body and most all operations of the mind are powerfully enhanced when we get sufficient sleep, and quite demonstrably impaired when we don’t get enough. So I think that’s been a radical change of events.- Dr. Matthew Walker, “Why We Need Sleep” (Revolution Health Radio podcast, 10/8/19)
I think the question about sleep evolving is interesting for at least two reasons: Firstly, if you take a step back it is the most idiotic of all things to do as a biological species. You’re not finding food; you’re not reproducing; you’re not finding a mate; you’re not caring for your young; and, worst of all, you’re vulnerable to predation! So, on any one of those grounds, and especially all of them as a collective, Mother Nature should have strongly selected against this thing called sleep. In other words, if sleep doesn’t support an absolutely vital set of functions then it’s going to be the biggest mistake the evolutionary process ever made! Now we understand it wasn’t a blunder, it was a blind stroke of genius.
The second reason I think that question is interesting is perhaps because sleep didn’t evolve. We assume that it did, and I’ve got a wacky theory that I think is going to be very difficult to prove, and I’m sure I’m sure I’m probably wrong, but I have an idea that, in fact, we started asleep and it was from sleep that wakefulness emerged. Why do we assume that wakefulness was the predecessor and then we had to evolve this thing called sleep? I think we started off sleeping, and from that wakefulness emerged. And wakefulness is, in many ways, remarkably deleterious. If you look at the brain it’s very clear that metabolically wakefulness is low level brain damage! So, I think we had to return to sleep state every time we emerged awake.
In some ways I almost don’t think that sleep did evolve in terms of an inception point, but then sleep has evolved dramatically across species. Every species that we’ve studied appears to sleep, even very old evolutionarily ancient earth worms. Bacteria in fact even have an active and a passive phase which seems to be maybe a precursor of sleep and wake. And from that point forward, sleep has fought its way through heroically every step of the evolutionary tree path. If it’s that well preserved how could it not be essential?
I was listening to one of my favorite health podcasts when the interviewee, a sleep specialist, said the above. And it sent a shock through me; why do we assume that sleep is a thing that evolved and not the other way around, that wakefulness was the thing that evolved? As someone who believes that the chaos of unconsciousness precedes (and follows) the rise and fall of Ego's star, this makes far more sense. The default state of the universe is unconsciousness. Consciousness is born out of unconsciousness, the way order naturally arises out of chaos in physical reality. Consciousness is just one form of order that arises out of the Unconscious.
The first several years of life appear to be a waking dream – no one has memories from that time in their life (though I have heard of an extremely shady cult leader claiming he did, as a sign of his “spiritual evolution.”) Maybe in the same way that we appear to repeat our species evolutionary history in the womb, our childhood repeats the development of consciousness in humanity. Creation myths tell the tale of the waking of the ego from primordial chaos; every one of us lives out this myth in the story of our lives.
Just like sleep, work with the unconscious impacts every part of our lives... but our culture, gripped as it is in the Apollonian obsession with outward success, is literally incapable of comprehending such an idea. This is why it was such a shock to hear. Even for me, someone who deeply values the unconscious. Why sleep when you can make money, or work out, or do anything else that has a practical benefit? Why do the hard work of psychological and spiritual development when you can make money, or work out, or do anything else that has a practical benefit? What purpose does any of this serve? This question only makes sense if you view life as meaningless unless you're getting something out of it. But this view is wrong, and, as with all falsehoods, even if you believe it Life will come up and smack you upside the head with the proverbial stick. That's what I think is going on here with the whole issue of sleep in the modern world.
Sleep is unconsciousness. Unconsciousness is necessary, not only for psychological health and freedom from neuroses but for life itself. The Unconscious is our home, a fact that during the day our ego, under the Maya-like spell of consciousness, forgets. Every night we return to our primeval home, and every morning we come back with nourishment that carries us through our day, until we can go back home once again.
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:- William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home