Tuesday, August 12, 2014

On Sleep Disturbance, Color Perception, and the Loneliness of Perception

I just watched a wonderful video that discussed something I've wondered about before: is my perception of color the same as yours?  As I suspected, the video stated that this is something we will never truly know.  Specifically, it is part of the "explanatory gap" - the failure of language and human understanding to adequately communicate to another human what their own perceptions feel like or, in the case of color, look like.

We learn color through exposure.  No one is able to explain to us in words what "yellow" is; instead, they have to show us.  This school bus is yellow.  This pencil is yellow.  Over time, we learn how to identify yellow on our own, based on what we have been shown, as well as our ability to generalize learned information to other things.  We also learn to discriminate - to learn definitions in such a way that we can say, "This thing is yellow.  This thing, on the other hand, is orange."  We can never describe in words how we know this thing is a different color than another, except to say that it looks different.  These abilities are one of the reasons that, even a human of low intelligence is smarter than a computer when it comes to detecting context and experiencing things through perception, rather than hard numbers.

Which leads me to another story.  When I was 8 years old, I began my lifetime struggle with insomnia.  At best, I can get 7 or 8 hours a night - if I go to bed really early, and intend on staying in bed for far more than those 7 or 8 hours to make up for the latency in falling asleep and all those times I wake up in the middle of the night.  At worst, I get 2 to 4 hours a night.  These are the nights I dread.  It doesn't matter how tired I am.  It doesn't matter if I can barely keep my eyes open during the day.  I may still find myself exhausted and in bed, but unable to sleep.

It's a difficult thing for people without sleep disturbance to understand.  How can one be sleepy, but unable to sleep?  In fact, it isn't just their inability to feel my feels - I didn't even know that what I was experiencing was abnormal for a very long time.

Our only experience that we can truly know is our own.  As the video I linked above says, we are alone in our perception of the world.  We can use language and examples to describe our perception to others, but we can never truly know if they feel what we feel.  So for the longest time, I thought my sleep was perfectly normal, because I only had my own experience to draw upon.  I thought everyone took 30-60 minutes to fall asleep.  And I thought everyone woke up multiple times in the middle of the night.

I remember one time in high school, when I was sick, that I actually slept the whole night through without waking up.  I mentioned this to a friend the next day, expecting that they would say, "Yeah, you must have been really sick to be able to sleep that much."  Instead, I got, "What do you mean you wake up multiple times at night?"  Of course I do.  Doesn't everyone?  I was surprised to learn that, no, my sleep was different from others.

Still, I didn't think much of it, until I got to graduate school.  As a psychology student, I was taught again and again that the primary determinant of whether any disorder is problematic (and in need of treatment) was if it interfered with one's life.  When the stress of grad school caught up with me to the point that I was getting only a couple hours a night, I knew I had a problem.  And when I began forgetting things - important things, like class assignments and assistantship duties - I knew I needed to get help.

I was 23 or 24, and for the first time in my life, was finally diagnosed with insomnia.  Something I'd already spent 15 or 16 years of my life battling.

There is a clear stigma around mental illness - perhaps less so with regard to sleep disturbance, but the end result is the same.  People don't talk about it.  And given that our only experience of the world is our own, we may not know how it feels to be other people because we can't experience it.  Unlike color perception, however, we can use language to describe the experience of feelings: sadness, fatigue, anxiety, euphoria.

But we don't know what others are feeling - truly feeling - unless they tell us.  We may not realize that others feel sad for no other reason than they are and that things feel hopeless.  We may not realize that others feel anxious about different events.  We may not realize that others sometimes want to stop living in this world for any number of reasons - or no reason at all.

With the recent news of Robin Williams's suicide, the world is talking.  They're talking about depression.  Suicide.  They're expressing disbelief, or understanding, or fear that it may happen to someone they love.  Remember, no one knows what it feels like to be you, unless you tell them.  Here's to keeping the conversation going.  You never know what sharing that side of yourself to others may do.  It just might save someone's life.

Deeply yours,