Unconscious Choreography: Literally moving stories


When I fall asleep in a coffin posture, supine, with my feet tenting beneath the covers and my nose tracing a line up toward the wobbling ceiling fan, I frequently wake up a committed if unwilling Cartesian.

Sleep paralysis 2 Like anyone else in R.E.M. sleep, as soon I slip under my brain starts sending hormonal relaxants to my muscles that anesthetize and effectively paralyze them. Problem is, when I wake up from R.E.M. only a fraction of me pops awake sometimes. It’s not a split between the left and right sides of my body, like a stroke patient, nor a top-bottom paraplegic split. And it’s nothing like a foot or hand falling asleep, then dethawing with that achy tingle. Mine is an old-fashioned, cogito-ergo mind-body bifurcation. Mentally, “I” pop right awake, and as a natural course of being awake this “I” sends signals for my legs and arms and mouth and eyes to yawn, or stretch, or see what time it is and whether I have to go to the bathroom. Those signals echo, ignored. My mind casts the spell again, but it turns out I cannot twiddle a toe or even flex a nostril, no matter how much I strain. Within seconds of the failure, I’m agonizingly aware of the discrepancy. It’s not a dream (there’s nothing fantastical happening), more like a huge karmic blunder, what being reincarnated as a park statue would feel like.

This rigor mortis is actually easy to shrug off, as long as—and here’s the philosophically troubling bit—the outside world intervenes. I can still sense my environment, like some sort of amoeba or slug—that’s a passive act—but the universe must change somehow. I’m powerless to effect change myself and will remain locked up, alone. A sudden alarm clock will unchain me, but not any noises that were already mewing when I “woke” up. A dramatic unmasking of a window might do it, but not the slow creep of the sun. The slightest nudge from my girlfriend will budge me (I suppose it’s the opposite of those little jerks she makes whenever she falls asleep), but the heat of an arm already draped across me is useless.

I told my girlfriend after my latest “attack,” when I woke panting, “If you ever see me lying there immobile and straining, or hear a strangled scream, you should shake me.” Just to be sure, I added, “Hard.”

“But everyone makes noises when they’re sleeping. How will I know?”

“It’s only when I’m rigid. And it’s only when I’m sleeping on my back.”

“Why only when you’re sleeping on your back?”

“I don’t know.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. And why would shaking you help?”

“It just does.” Too early to be having this conversation.

I should have told her that as long as the external world remains static, I’m trapped in my own mind. It’s the ultimate solipsism—except, unlike a real solipsist, I’m aware of being trapped, and get to glimpse what that would really be like. The oxymoron is part of the horror. And I’m lucky compared to some people. Posture makes no difference to them; they’re always vulnerable. Someone I ran track with in high school would slip into sleep paralysis not just in last few minutes of morning sleep, either, but in the middle of the night. He would have to lie there, awake and mute and rigid for hours, suffering like Philip Larkin in “Aubade” until his mother would notice his tardiness before school (“Shawn’s having a spell again …”) and rock him awake. Not the most restful nights, you can imagine. Others slip narcoleptically into this state while awake, a nod known as cataplexy. One poor cataplexic in England has been declared dead three times, and not just by movie ushers and petrol attendants: Her body locked itself up so tightly that medical professionals sadly shook their heads and began calling family members. The first time, age seventeen, she woke up in a morgue.


As with epileptics, less medically enlightened cultures read all sorts of wild spiritual things into sleep paralysis. Pretty much every indigenous culture has its own spook explanation, and most involve a supernatural being squatting on top of the person and forcing him into a platonically perfect wrestling pin, where not just the shoulders but the entire corpse is affixed to the mattress. Usually people identify the force as a devil or demonic minion and give it a voodoo name like “Old Hag,” or “That witch riding me.”

Sleep paralysis 3 I don’t believe in demons, but in the Old Hag I do believe, and I believe the folklore that she’s there to steal my breath for herself. During an attack of sleep paralysis, the mind begins to run through a hierarchal checklist, so when it finds out the body’s highly evolved, fine-motor skills aren’t responding (“I can’t speak. Can’t yawn. Can’t stretch my fingers and scratch that itch, hmmm …”) it descends the brainstem to test out the body’s more reptilian functions, probing how deeply the paralysis extends. Autonomous and unconscious systems, like the beating heart, work well enough, thank God. The semi-autonomous lungs turn into a problem. Because it’s awake, the brain wants to feel the body taking full, solar-plexus-stretching breaths; the body proper—still, physiologically, asleep—cannot take anything but the slightest sips of air. Many of the old voodoo tales swear up and down that something’s being pressed down on the sleeper’s chest because it does indeed feel like you’re suffocating. Apparently some people can will themselves back to sleep at this point, but I’m not sanguine and passive and trusting enough for that. I doubt if I actually tread that close to death, but losing control over your lungs dredges up the most primal animal fears, and the panic would be unbearable, except you can’t do anything but bear it.


Sleep paralysis happens because the part of the brain that sends out the paralyzing R.E.M. hormone forgets to quit doping the water supply when the rest of the brain yawns and stretches. Only a flight-or-flight response will rattle the body awake again, so the brain has to send out the chemical equivalent of a defibrillator.

The waking shock isn’t any more pleasant metaphysically. Though the idea didn’t begin with him (even medically advanced cultures still pass currency about devils, angels, and other incorporates), Descartes usually get the philosophical credit for modern dualism, the idea that a spirit lives somehow in every body, but is not of the body. Later thinkers added some colorful details, suggesting the spiritual and bodily couldn’t infiltrate or influence each other but that, thankfully, the reel-to-reel tape of each one ran in perfect synchronicity, so whenever the mind wanted peas, the body reached out and opened its mouth and got peas. Very lucky, that. Nowadays, thinking along these lines this is considering embarrassing among professional thinkers; there’s no need to appeal to a little ghost in the machine, pulling the sinewy levers of the body. No doubt it’s comforting to think that every living creature has some sort of inviolate soul that worldly circumstances cannot touch, but people who believe that can never themselves have suffered a real fuckup of an injury or been threatened with even temporary paralysis. The mind works differently when the body malfunctions: Its sensory input and proprioception change, and losing part of the body tears something out of the mind, no different than Phineas Gage getting the railroad spike through his frontal lobes.

To me, all this understanding came later, a glossing over of what the paralysis felt like in the moment. While immobile, something like a soul really did feel caged inside an insensate hunk of meat. The horrifying part was how puny and effete it felt without the body to boss around.


One thing that makes primates primates is the presence of mirror neurons. They’re literally the monkey-see, monkey-do module in the brain. When you move a cup to your lips, say, certain motor neurons fire. Oddly, though, the same neurons fire when you see another person bring a cup to his lips. That’s why they’re mirror neurons: They reflect action. It’s not like your brain needs to rehearse bringing cups to lips; it’s more that the mirror neurons put you in the same mind as the other person by going through the same motions, virtually, at the same time. You can feel it as that little ghostly twitch of envy or empathy when someone does something you’d like to be doing. This is a very strong hint we’re hard-wired for experiencing the world from other points of view.

When you’re interfacing with someone or even watching a movie, your brain automatically fires mirror neurons; it’s not a conscious process, and it helps you submit to the story. Print make you work harder, since you see nothing but blobs of ink or shimmering liquid crystals. When immersed in print, in other words, the brain needs help from the body. I may be outing myself a freak here, but especially if I’ve lost my place or been distracted and need to sink back into the groove of the story, it helps me to perform a sort of literary semaphore, with lots of hand flourishes. If the character has to walk a few steps then duck under a low doorway, my fingers take a few scissors steps on my thigh and then my own shoulders sidle through an imaginary frame. My mind can then slip in behind and follow. If a character is traveling to different countries it helps to hop along with him, bounding across the imaginary map on my lap. If it’s a stretch of dialogue, it’s easiest to incline my nose in different directions whenever the voice switches, letting my ears hear different tones. Even metaphorical descriptions, like someone “going through a hard time” get parsed by making a fin out of one hand and slicing it across my field of vision. I do all this in that half-aware state of reading a sentence over and over and yet not getting anywhere; the miming focuses my attention and shoves me off inside the story. It’s a little trick that makes uses of something analogous to, if not identical with, the mirror neurons.

Nor do I freeze up once the story gets going. At crucial moments, it helps me to don different facial expressions. To pop my mouth and eyes open and lurch my neck forward for surprise. To shudder in disgust and curl my lips sideways. To bounce in giddiness. Maybe purse for a kiss. I prefer to read alone. But I wish, badly wish, we hadn’t given into the monkish ideal of quiet contemplation and had stuck with the good, sane, pagan Roman and Greek habit of reading and even declaiming aloud to ourselves, even in private. One of the signs that reportedly marked Julius Caesar as odd to his fellow men was the ability to read silently, without moving his lips. This detached him from the normal run of humanity, an almost supernatural power, and the ancients took it as a portent (along with his epilepsy) that Caesar stood apart. Maybe it should have been an omen in the other direction: Caesar was an egomaniac who pulled the curtain on the Roman Republic to satisfy his ambition, and was perhaps not the best model of an empathetic human being.


The study of who makes what gestures while reading seems like something the so-called literary Darwinists—English professors and lit critics who adopt a Darwinian outlook to inform their reading of human nature—could find fruitful. It seems more rational than studying the differential reproductive fitness of altruistic characters in Jane Austen. Do people like Caesar who remain unperturbed and statue-like while reading get the same thing out of books as those of us who approach every text like an actor rehearsing a script? Or perhaps these people prefer different types of books: Books steeped in facts and objects versus books driven by the need to find out what’s happening to a character. Regardless, there seems to be a basic difference in the mirror neuron system, so what role do mirror neurons play in the imagination? Some people need help from their body to kickstart the mind; they need to see something moving for the empathy circuits to rumble awake. For these people, I suspect that on a CCTV of their bedroom you’d be able to tell immediately—by their stone stillness—if they’re just not that into whatever they’re reading. A truly absorbing text doesn’t lead to fixation for these people; it leads to unconscious choreography.


Sleep paralysis 1 The shallowness of my breath doesn’t explain all the panic I feel during sleep paralysis, at least not the finer overtones that linger after I’m bodily roused. There’s also feeling cut off from my mirror neurons. A day is a succession of the littler stories we tell ourselves, and, like it or not, those stories make less sense to me without the gestures and grimaces to annotate them, to in some cases produce the meaning in my mind. Understanding life requires acrobatics, and the existential peril of sleep paralysis is feeling the disconnect between mind and body so acutely, feeling how small the mind is without the body and how little it would grasp. Many philosophers argue that Cartesian duality is the default setting in the brain, which explains the persistent human belief in souls (and Old Hags) through all cultures and centuries. We’re all naturally story fabricators, too, which requires both mind and body, and without that ability, it doesn’t feel much like a soul worth having.