The sleeping sponge: on the evolution of waking up

From the book, Wide Awake at 3:00am, I learned that researchers had come up with an answer to a common question, “Why do we sleep”?

It’s a valid question. What’s the actual purpose of sleep? Why would nature favor having the majority of animal species waste several hours each day in a state of unconsciousness, getting nothing done, and becoming vulnerable to predators?

The answer the researchers came up with required turning the question on its head: “Why should any living thing bother waking up at all?” Perhaps sleep is the normal state of all life, and wakefulness is just some aberration – a phenomenon that evolved later – as a part-time activity to more efficiently pursue food and sex.

As a lover of naps and hater of alarm clocks, I kind of like this idea.

I recall reading somewhere that sponges are “always asleep”. But I also read recently that sponges “never sleep”. Rather than go back and do more research to clear up this issue, I shall instead declare that the problem lies the definition of  “sleep”.

If you’re a sponge, you have no neurons. Having no neurons is a good indication that you have no brain. And no brain means no dreaming. Sponges are not like us in that they are sessile: they have no motility (except in the larval stage, when genetic dispersal occurs). If you don’t have to get up and go to work, why bother having a brain? Brains provide inner-representations of the outside world – used to navigate unpredictable terrains. Sponges just sit there at the bottom of the ocean and collect ambient nutrition. A task so easy that anyone can do it in their sleep.

Brains for Movement

The evolution of mobility required not only the direct control of muscles but also representations of reality that determined when and how those muscles get activated. Brains evolved in order for animals to evolve.

Long ago, there was no such thing as “waking up”. Until brains came along and gave organisms a reason to get off their asses and get a job. Perhaps asses and jobs had to evolve as well. But let’s not get too technical here.

It is possible that the binary states of wakefulness and sleep were not invented by brains themselves, but earlier in evolutionary history, by simple neuronal networks that generate sleep-like dynamics. Given that every location on Earth other than the poles has been cycling between day and night since before life emerged, it makes sense that organic periods would emerge to harmonize with this cycle.

Perhaps the very process of storing representations of reality – no matter how small or simple – requires a periodic cycle – as indicated by research finding that sleep is required for brains to prune useless memories and absorb useful ones.

My takeaway from all of this is that I have an organ that likes to make me do complicated things for many hours each day: sixteen to be exact. That’s a long time each day being on the move and getting worked up about other brains that are wreaking havoc on the world, such as the shriveled-up shitball inside of Donald Trump’s skull.

Before I die, I will thank my brain for collecting a massive library of memories that fueled a lifetime of dreams. And then I will say goodnight to my brain, and get back to sleep.

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Thoughts on the Evolution of Communication

My dog and I engage in a lot of signaling. But it is not always deliberate, and it is not always conscious, and it is not always a two-way process.

In the morning, Otto licks my bald head. He can probably smell what I have been dreaming. I hold him and we have a nice cuddle. Just one of our many routines. He looks at me and I look at him. He is always checking me out. In the process of getting to know each other over several years we have come to read each other’s signals – our body language, interactions, responses, vocalizations…and smells.

image from http://projectdolittle.com/

Semiosis emerges in the process. If there is a coupling of signals – a mutually-reinforcing signaling loop – two-way communication emerges. It is not always conscious – for either of us. Sometimes, a mutually-reinforcing signaling process which I was previously unaware of becomes apparent to me. When this happens, I become an active agent in that semiosis.

Otto is so intensely attentive to me – my routines (and deviations from them). He probably tunes-in to many more of my signals than I do to his. But then again, I am a human: I generate a lot of signal. Does he see this as “communication?” It is not clear: his brain is a dog brain, and mine is a human brain. We don’t share the same word for this experience (he only knows a few English words, and “communication” isn’t one of them).

I can be sure of one thing: we share a lot of signaling. And, as members of two highly-social species, we both like that.

I would conclude from this that communication among organisms in general (the biosemiosis that has emerged on Earth over the last few billion years) came about pretty much the same way that Otto and I established our own little world of emergent semiosis. As life evolved, trillions of coupled signaling channels reinforced each other over time and became more elaborate. Eventually, this signaling became conscious and intentional.

And so here we are: human communication has reached a level of sophistication such that I can type these words – and you can read them. And we can share the experience – across time and space.

We are always dreaming

Take a large pot of water and leave it out in sub-freezing temperatures for a few days. It will turn into a block of ice.

Now take that pot of water and put it on the stove and crank up the flame. Before long, it will start to boil.

Let it cool for a few hours at room temperature and it will resume its familiar liquid form.

If you drop a live fish into liquid water it will swim around and do fishy things.

Things would not go so well if you drop a fish onto a block of ice. Fish are not good skaters.

And if you drop a fish into boiling water…well, the fish will not be very happy.

Think about these states of water as metaphors for how your brain works. A block of ice is a dead brain. A pot of boiling water is a brain having a seizure. Water at room temperature is a normal brain.

The fish represents consciousness.

………………….

Liquid brain

There is a constant low level of electrical activity among neurons (like water molecules bouncing off of each other, doing the Brownian dance). Intrinsic random neuronal activity is the norm – it keeps a low fire burning all the time. In a sense, the brain has a pilot light.

A bit of randomness is helpful for keeping the mind creative and open to new ways of thinking – consciously and unconsciously. Like the ever-present force of natural selection that curates random mutation in genetic evolution, there are dynamical structures in the brain that permit more meaningful, useful energy to percolate from the random background.

Command and control

The majority of the brain’s activity is unconscious. At every second of your life a vast army of dynamical structures are buzzing around, managing the low-level mechanisms of multi-sensory input, attention, memory, and intent. These structures are vast, short-lived, and small. And they are entirely inaccessible to the conscious mind.

The command and control area of the brain is located at the front-top of the neocortex. The signature of consciousness is a network of relatively stable, large-scale dynamical structures, with fractal fingers branching down into the vast network of unconscious structures. The buzz of the unconscious mind percolates and fuses into something usable to the conscious mind. It offers up to the conscious mind a set of data-compressed packets. When the command and control center relaxes, we experience wandering thoughts. And those thoughts wander because the brain’s pilot light provides constant movement.

These ideas are derived from Dehaene’s Consciousness and the Brain.

Surrender to dreaming

When we start falling asleep, the command and control center begins to lose its grip. The backdrop of randomness sometimes makes its way past the fuzzy boundary of our consciousness – creating a half-dreaming state. Eventually, when consciousness loses out, all that is left is this random, low-level buzz of neural activity.

But dreaming is obviously not totally random. Recent memories have an effect…and of course so do old but powerful memories. The physical structure of the brain does not permit total randomness to stay random for very long. Original randomness is immediately filtered by the innate structure of the brain. And that structure is permeated with the leftovers from a lifetime of experience.

So here’s a takeaway from recent neuroscience, inspired by the findings of Stanislas Dehaene: WE ARE ALWAYS DREAMING. That is because the unconscious brain is continually in flux. What we recognize as dreaming is merely the result of lifting the constraints imposed by the conscious mind – revealing an ocean – flowing in many directions.

The unconscious brain can contribute to a more creative life. And a good night’s sleep keeps the conscious mind out of the way while the stuff gathered in wakefulness is given a chance to float around in the unconscious ocean. While in the ocean, it either dissolves away or settles into functional memory – kicking out an occasional dream in the process.