Dreaming with the Zeitgeber, Part I: A Lecture on Moderns and Their Night
Stefan R. D. Morales
The Wayward School

How awake are we during the day, and how asleep are we during the night? What are the implications of having become delinked from the Zeitgeber ("time giver") of terrestrial day and night through the invention and proliferation of electric light? This paper explores the division between industrial and pre-industrial times, not by underscoring the importance of the factory or the steam engine, but by taking an object lesson from the light bulb: elaborating on the bio-physio-political influences that electric light has had on our night and daytime experience. The paper explores the why and how of dreamtime exploration within a field of practice tightly circumscribed by everyday electric light, seeking to begin elaborating the outlines of a sleep practice geared towards realigning secular individualism with the unchanging Zeitgeber as a lost cue to quasi-religious experiences.

The paper is based on a lecture and workshop that took place during the OFF LABEL Festival and The Art of the Placebo at Open Space in Victoria, BC from October 26 to November 2, 2011. Following the first lecture, participants were enrolled in three subsequent "dream-share" workshops to share nighttime journeys and experiences and encourage one another's dreamtime practice. The lecture itself was a performance: no lights were turned on, allowing the natural light to imperceptibly shift from daytime to nighttime. "Dreaming with the Zeitgeber Part II" (forthcoming) deals with the implications sleep-practice has on the micropolitics of everyday life.

Mental note: if we cannot dream, why would we struggle for a better world? Today, we are faced with the need to begin openly struggling for a better world and with a lack of dreams about what another world could look like. For centuries western culture has mistaken the conscious realm for the political realm—rational debate, clear arguments, policy plans, bureaucratic technocracy, and so on—when it may be the case that it is through an appreciation and respect for the unconscious realm that we may truly affect the political. For those who wish to struggle for a better world, western culture suggests that one should learn the advances of the enemy, mimic and anticipate their moves, and attack and position using a strategic construct of their design. I worry that any advance against 'the enemy,' so long as it has come about by a mind intent on strategizing and governing, is really a further entrenchment of the problem: the dominance of the cogito over the body and the subsequent failure to recognize the alterity within oneself.


"We shall see that certain poetic reveries are hypothetical lives which enlarge our lives by letting us in on the secrets of the universe." -- Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie, 8.


Der Zeitgeber is the German word used to describe the role that natural light plays in our passages between daytime and nighttime. The sun is the great time-giver, or Zeitgeber, of our circadian rhythms, acting as a cue to a myriad of chemicals and hormones that are released in our bodies, affecting the onset of different stages of mentation or consciousness—some more subtly than others (though this does not affect the intensity with which neuroscientists, psychologists, phenomenologists, and philosophers study the topic).

By titling this paper "Dreaming with the Zeitgeber," I mean to suggest that we humans can engage in an experience of dreamtime exploration that is linked to the circadian rhythm [1]. This experience of the onset of night, and its darkness, is markedly different from our modern experience of the night, and the permutations that modern nighttime has undergone as a direct result of artificial light being so readily available. Artificial light has jarred our connection with the Zeitgeber.

Disconnecting from the Zeitgeber implies a change in the way that we think: the circadian rhythm helps us appreciate that consciousness is anything but stable, while artificial light gives us the impression of regularity. Throughout a 24-hour cycle we pass through the gates of sleep and wakefulness as well as many other smaller, less perceptible gates—like those myriad transitions between daydreams and focused intention, or between the repetitive banality of slow-wave sleep to the full-on REM dream. While many of these changing states of consciousness are hard-wired into our human experience, our hormonal response to triggers—like artificial light—are considerably more plastic, leading to a startling new understanding of the role that the lightbulb has played in shaping our bodies, our experience of dreamtime, and, I would argue, our culture.

As this afternoon progresses and as the sun sets we're going to explore the slow, almost imperceptible transition between day and night, noting what we have lost while also appreciating the impact that seemingly simple and commonplace technologies can have into the very makeup of the human experience [2].

Fordism of the Soul: Tracing the Reach of Mechanism through the Mind

Thomas Edison is remembered as the man who invented the lightbulb in 1879, but this is only partially true. In fact, it was Humphrey Davy who invented the lightbulb in 1806. Davy was not remembered because it was Edison who perfected the invention, effectively making it more efficient and affordable, and therein making it available and consumable.

I'm only partially interested in this story. More interesting is Edison's methodology for invention -- one known to be used by other notable inventors, artists and otherwise creative geniuses: Brahms, Puccini, Wagner, Poe, Twain, Stevenson, Tolstoy, Klee, Dali, Dickens, and Goethe, to name a few. These inventors used "Edison's" methodology to induce a state of quasi-sleep/quasi-awake consciousness today referred to as "hypnagogic" [3]. In common understanding and experience, the hypnagogic is that strange hallucinatory or quasi-hallucinatory state of consciousness that exists somewhere between waking and sleeping -- a state that we usually barely remember. It's a funny state of consciousness because it sneaks-up on us. We often don't realize its happening, as our propensity to recognize logic seems to transition seamlessly from wakefulness to sleep, leaving us with the impression that our train of thought throughout the hypnagogic phase is on track: all these random images, symbols and concepts are connected-up at face value, without any questions or critical discernment attached to their absurd relations. This is the associative mind at work, forming connections between thoughts that would never be considered during wakefulness. These associations differ in degree (lateral, non-linear connections between thoughts proliferate) and in kind (concepts become linked with images, sounds and so on).

Long before our circadian rhythm and the nuances of our daily mentation were studied by neuroscientists, Gaston Bachelard described the phenomenological depth of the hypnagogic as a fall from reverie, or daydreaming, into a nap:

If the oneiric matter condenses a little in the soul of the dreamer, reverie falls into dream; the "gusts of reverie" noted by psychiatrists asphyxiate the psychism, the reverie becomes somnolence, and the dreamer falls asleep. Thus a sort of fatal fall marks the passage from reverie to dream. It is a poor reverie which invites a nap. [4]
For Bachelard, reverie was a phenomenological escape from the cage of modernity, but to fall into a dream was to lose the traces of the cogito, trapping the very act of escape from the demands and expectations of the day, into the freedom of the dream without sustaining a tension between day and dream. The hypnagogic was an asphyxiation of the "psychism" of the cogito, and so, for Bachelard, was to be avoided in his practice of daydreaming.

But the hypnagogic can't always be avoided. If we're tired, and have a window of opportunity in the day to daydream ourselves into a nap, we take it. Before nap time, or when we lie in bed drifting towards a full night of sleep, we all experience the hypnagogic, sometimes more aware of that strange transition and sometimes less. But while we all experience this state of mentation each time we go to sleep, many of us have probably never used the hypnagogic to solve vexing problems. This, however, is exactly what Edison did.

Edison was notorious for his dislike of a full night's rest: in his view, a full night's rest was so many wasted hours of unproductive mentation. Rather than be bound to the schedule of the Zeitgeber, one could be inventing. (Perhaps Edison saw the lightbulb as the invention that would finally sound the death knell for a full night's rest). Instead of sleeping for a prolonged period of time, Edison would take several half-hour naps, giving him the extra time needed to solve problems and invent. Most importantly, Edison would utilize the beginning of his naps to solve problems, since, during the hypnogogic, the mind is particularly capable of forming new associations: the hypnagogic can rouse the mind from the torpor of a repeated thought or problem. Before his naps, Edison would think, concentrating on a problem -- usually mechanical in nature -- while sitting in his armchair. Here's what he did:

On the table in front of him, Edison would place a pad of paper. In each hand he would grip a steel bearing, and on each side of the chair he would deposit a tin plate. He would then sit back in his chair, dangle each hand over its respective plate, and doze off to sleep. As he begins to drowse, one or both of the bearings would fall out of his hands and hit the tin plates, waking Edison with a start. And it was in that period of half-awake, half-asleep that many new ideas came to him. The falling bearing was the associative mind, racing away with the insoluble problem. The tin plate was the leash of waking consciousness. With a clank it would yank back unexpected connections for Edison to inspect and duly document in his notepad. [5]
What is this mechanism for problem solving/innovating—whatWhat power of invention is exercised through Edison'sthis body and by this body? We see the practical applications of an inventor constrained by the conscious mind and its immersion in waking life, its necessities, rewards, and problems (that demand pragmatic solution), encounter the non-linear and associative hypnagogic state. Rather than let 'gusts of reverie' overtake his analyzing and problem solving conscious mind, Edison created a tension between one form of mentation and another in order to produce unique, unthought-of solutions. Rather than daydream about the results, however, Edison channeled the new associations into his overwhelming entrepreneurial gumption. The armchair, the bearings, the steel plates, the notepad, and the sleep practice of napping were tied together in a loose mechanism -- one wherein Edison's mechanical mastery was extended to his own body and the circadian time by which it was bound -- that captured the associative mind on paper before it could take flight beyond the problem that Edison was turning around in his mind. This was a Fordism of the soul, so to speak, that manufactured an inventing body.

Perhaps many of Edison's inventions were spurred by this first invention: the invention of his inventing body. Edison crafted a strange and shaky bridge between the conscious mind and the associative mind out of a bricolage of implements and the recording devices of pen and paper. His inventions came from the ramshackle mechanism created from all of these simple machines and technologies, woven together by a particular napping technique, and all taking place in his office -- a 'factory floor' in miniature operating in the interstices between the desk, the armchair and the ramshackle means of production. This Fordism of the soul gave birth to an inventing mind that devised a more affordable and efficient light bulb that entirely altered our relationship to the night. This account of Edison's inventing body is the story of how one mind and style of mentation came to unintentionally circumscribe and limit another mind and style of mentation: the watch.

The Watch: Powers of Dream Interpretation Lost in the Face of Artificial Light

The effects of artificial light can be likened to those of a drug. "Every time we turn on a light," remarks the chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler, "we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we sleep," with changes in the levels of the brain hormone melatonin and in body temperature being among the most apparent consequences [6]. Any source of light above 100 lux disrupts the body's release of melatonin, a hormone that helps initiates the onset of sleep [7]. Other factors -- stimulants like coffee and sugar, for instance -- affect the onset of sleep as well, of course, but artificial light plays a key role in the process. By extending daytime through the use of artificial light, we have effectively made the onset of sleep a matter of (a certain degree of) personal choice. Additionally, by extending the length of the day we have altered our experience of the night in at least one important way: we have transitioned from "bimodal" sleeping -- one wherein we woke up (and got up) in the middle of the night, cleanly dividing our slumber in two -- to sleeping the whole night through. This has two fascinating consequences that I'd like to draw your attention to.

The first consequence of this transition is physical -- and just plain interesting: by sleeping the whole night through, without interruption, our growth hormone cycle continues and is intensified for a full 8 hour period. Since our pre-industrial ancestors were bimodal sleepers, their growth hormone cycle was interrupted by the end of their first sleep, restarting again for the second sleep. Our growth hormone cycle, on the other hand, continues throughout the night, intensifying and ending when we wake up 8 hours later. The result? We are physically taller than our pre-industrial ancestors (of course, other factors, such as the nutritional quality of the foods we eat, have an important role too).

The second consequence is mental: in losing the period between our ancestors' two sleeps, we have lost a period of reflection and calm wakefulness lasting anywhere from one to three hours. There is much historical evidence to suggest that speaking of one's "first sleep" and one's "second sleep" was fairly commonplace. The same evidence shows that the period in between -- the period of calm wakefulness -- was referred to as "the watch" [8]. After the watch, a second sleep, wherein the distinctions between REM sleep and waking were blurry, would follow: dreams were pockmarked with conscious reflection. Our ancestors could consider, meditate, and process the emotional content of their night.

Warren, an avid "onieronaut" and explorer of bimodal sleep, writes that "the watch" is the perfect word for the hypnagogic state: "I was like a big observing eye, turned in but also out"; it was a state that lent "an appealing immediacy to my dreams. I was able to remember them very clearly, and their emotional tone resonated with me in the dark, not always in pleasing ways" [9]. As Rosalind Cartwright, one of the pioneers of the mood-regulation theory of dreams, suggests, " when we're awake, we're used to thinking in a logical, linear way, one thing leading to the next in a straight-forward line. But dreams are constructed more like Scotch plaids, with recent memory placed on top of earlier memories, all linked by feeling, not logic" [10]. The watch allows us to consciously engage with the emotional thinking of our dreams. During the watch, we calmly consider defamiliarized versions of ourselves, scenes where our dreaming selves are carried away in emotions: bawling our eyes out at the loss of a loved one, euphoric with the joy of a summer field, enthralled with anger and rage towards some unjust act, and so on. The watch gives us a chance to rest with these versions of ourselves, and to come to a deeper appreciation of their connection to events we experienced throughout the day.

The watch is also characterized by a surge of prolactin -- a fragile surge that can be disrupted by restless thoughts -- a hormone that also affects our conscious experience of wakefulness during the day. In many studies on bimodal sleep patterns, participants report feeling more awake than they have ever felt in their waking lives, leading bimodal sleep researcher Thomas Wehr to describe their testimony as so compelling that "it made him wonder whether 'any of us know what it is like to be truly awake'" [11].

Why Edison Was Wrong: Dozy Culture, Dozy Politics

Although the nap and the hypnagogic state that precedes it are still relatively unmapped terrains of experience, exploring this side of mentation might be just the starting point for the deeper reflections that bimodal sleep can offer. (Other, radical possibilities are offered by lucid dreaming.) Artificial light has made it very difficult to access this aspect of sleep, and we have to consciously carve out a space for it. This is telling. Our culture is dominated by the need to be awake and productive at all times: we see this in coffee culture, in the 5-hour energy booster at the gas station checkout counter, in split shifts, in "all-nighters", in the "red-eye express", in 60 hour work weeks, and so on. We valorize this culture; we valorize busyness. All of this only makes sense given artificial light, because no matter how many carrots we eat, the ability to see in the dark will always lie beyond our human limitations.

It's telling that the light bulb itself is used to symbolize the moment of invention: the light bulb above the head completes the image of the raised index finger and the expression of "Eureka!" Replace the halo with the light bulb and you have a short story about the journey from church to state, and the history of modernity as a whole. But replace the light bulb with the dark of night and you have a long, complicated, and incomplete story about our present predicament that I'm hoping has come to your attention today as the sun has set. Enlightenment finds expression today as the drive towards innovation -- rationality made productive and pragmatic -- and the light bulb still symbolizes this blend of focused and logical mentation within the constraints and opportunities of the real world. But what alternative forms of innovation and creativity lie beyond the bulb?

In regards to our missing surge of prolactin, what the laboratory studies and histories of bimodal sleep tell us is this: our very effort to stay awake is making our supposed waking life more and more slumberous. We inhabit a dozy culture with dozy commentary on gripping, real-life events taking place on the other side of the world. We learn through "edutainment" and seek the escapism of the screen in all its various forms. Dozy politics dominate our conception of the democratic, and even those who are engaging in our most radical attempts to transform "the system" -- the progressives, the environmentalists -- seek to mobilize mass support for their causes by pandering to the emotionally charged value systems of the electorate and the unconscious expectations and desires of the masses. This is certainly problematic, but who can blame them? Playing the game of dozy politics may be the only way to rouse the populace on the shoestring budgets that charitable status affords them. A platonic cynicism? Perhaps. This is why we must be wary of the possibility that we may awaken the masses from one slumber into another.

But what is the alternative? I think it is this: taking the time and clearing the space to be able to cooperatively learn and self-educate together about what makes us tick, and about just how dozy we are; taking the time to incorporate self-discipline towards common purpose and popular change in our "free time." This sort of time making, space clearing, and cooperative learning is beyond the limited outreach budget of those working for change, and here's a wake-up call: no one will ever fund it. As Michel DeCerteau has taught us, we have to poach time, space, and education from our day when we can. But we have to help others do so too; we can only build momentum by practicing together. That said, this is not beyond personal technique, as both Edison and DeCerteau have taught us: we can learn how to better navigate the micro-political contours of everyday life, collaborating in small ways with others, to greater and greater political effect. I therefore propose new techniques of dreaming (which are, of course actually "old") as a key step. I propose that we experiment with ramshackle mechanisms that blend simple machines and bridge states of consciousness within our everyday circadian rhythms in order to create strange and unknown effects in the dreamy "waking world" of capitalist spectacle and seduction. These bridging techniques are needed to invent paths beyond path dependency, and beyond the foreclosed experience of "waking" life. What lies beyond the corona of the lightbulb is a darkness -- and this is a good thing.


Dreaming with the Zeitgeber, Part II will deal with media literacy in relation to: a) learning how we are the dog, and how the dog is wagged by its tail; and b) knowing how dreamtime exploration and alternate modes of mentation help the dog wag its tail. We will critically examine the progressive's use of "framing", explore the political affect of mass psychology, and consider William Connolly's missing micropolitical techniques of the night.


[1] "Circadian rhythm" comes from circa, Latin for "around," and -dia, meaning "day". The circadian rhythm is thus a biological process that displays an oscillation, or rhythm, within a 24-hour period of time.

[2] This paper is indebted to Jeff Warren's book The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness (New York: Random House, 2007), which spurred me to appreciate the full spectrum of our consciousness. I highly recommend this excellent and accessible read. Rather than meticulously footnote the text throughout, I simply refer readers to Warren's book -- in particular, Part 1 -- for many of the examples and arguments explored here.

[3] Hypnagogic comes from the Greek hypnos, meaning 'sleep', and agagos meaning 'leading in'.

[4] Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos (Boston: Beacon Press, 1971), 10.

[5] Paraphrased from Warren, Head Trip, 39.

[6] Roger Ekirch, At Day's Close (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005), 304.

[7] A singe lux is equivalent to a burning candle, a single 100W light bulb is equivalent to 150 lux, the noonday sun is about 100,000 lux. Warren, Head Trip, 75.

[8] Ekirch, At Day's Close, 300.

[9] Warren, Head Trip, 86 and 84.

[10] Quoted in Warren, Head Trip, 85.

[11] Quoted in Warren, Head Trip, 92.

Works Cited

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Reverie: Childhood, Language and the Cosmos. Boston: Beacon Press, 1971.

Ekirch, Roger. At Day's Close. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005.

Warren, Jeff. The Head Trip: Adventures on the Wheel of Consciousness. New York: Random House, 2007


Stefan R. D. Morales holds an MA in political science from Acadia University. His thesis -- entitled "Soil Genealogy" -- is on the political history of soil over the past 100 years. Morales is co-founder of The Wayward School (waywardschool.wordpress.com), a multidisciplinary cooperative school in Victoria, BC, and is a policy anaylst on municipal/provincial relations for the BC provincial government. Morales teaches on topics ranging from common-pool resource governance to modern subjectivity, and is a proud new father.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
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