Are those dreams or are those prayers?

I’m midway through Oliver Sacks’ piece in the current New Yorker (August 23), “Speed: Aberrations of time and movement,” and it is absolutely blowing my mind. It’s about the flexibility of time, not in a metaphysical or even physical sense, but in terms of human perception. He posits that everybody, no matter how long they live, experiences an identical perceived lifespan. If an individual were to live for 100,000 years, the sun would hurl itself over his head at a tremendous rate, with night and day flashing by constantly.

With this as the premise, Sacks drops another mind-bomb once every few paragraphs. I couldn’t list them all here without just reproducing the whole article, but here are the two that are really screwing with me:

Sometimes, as one is falling asleep, there may be a massive, involuntary jerk–amyclonic jerk–of the body. Though such jerks are generated by primitive parts of the brain stem (they are, so to speak, brain-stem reflexes), and as such are without any intrinsic meaning or motive, they may be given meaning and context, turned into acts, by an instantly improvised dream. Thus the jerk may be associated with a dream of tripping, or stepping over a precipice, lunching forward to catch a ball, and so on. Such dreams may be extremely vivid, and have several “scenes.” Subjectively, they appear to start before the jerk, and yet presumably the entire dream mechanism is stimulated by the first, preconscious perception of the jerk. All of this elaborate restructuring of time occurs in a second or less.



Striking accelerations may also occur in Tourette’s syndrome, a condition characterized by compulsions, tics, and involuntary movements and noises. Some people with Tourette’s are able to catch flies on the wing. When I asked one man with Tourette’s how he managed this, he said that he had no sense of moving especially fast but, rather, than to him the flies moved slowly.

OKOK, one more:

I would often see my patient Miron V. sitting in the hallway outside my office. He would appear motionless, with his right arm often lifted, sometimes an inch or two above his knee, sometimes near his face. When I questioned him about these frozen poses, he asked indignantly, “What do you mean, ‘frozen poses’? I was just wiping my nose.”

I wondered if he was putting me on. One morning, over a period of hours, I took a series of twenty or so photos and stapled them together to make a flick-book, like the ones I used to make to show the unfurling of fiddleheads. With this, I could see that Miron actually was wiping his nose but was doing so a thousand times more slowly than normal.


Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »