To sleep—perchance to dream


Everyone has experienced the slow passage of psychological time while waiting two minutes for a thermometer to register and the very quick passage of psychological time when we are deeply immersed in an enjoyable task.  Indeed, the days seem to fly by as I rapidly approach the day of my death even though an hour wait in the doctor’s waiting room still seems like a very long time.  On the other hand, my little girl thinks she will be nine years old the rest of her life.  Thus, it seems reasonable to posit something called psychological time that is related only in its elemental properties (such as direction) with our own physical proper time.

When I was an undergraduate, I awakened each morning with the ringing of a wind-up alarm clock.  Often, my night’s sleep ended with a dream that featured at its end the ringing of a bell.  It occurred to me on more than one occasion that the bell element in the dream had been so prominent and essential that the ringing of the alarm clock must have initiated the dream as well as ending it.  Therefore,  I measured the angle through which the winder had turned and determined how long it took to unwind to that extent—normally a few seconds.  Yet, in the dream, the passage of time had been rather extensive as some of my dreams have long complicated plots such as the plot of Alice’s dream.  Thus, dream time might be a reasonable extension of the concept of psychological time.  But, in that sleep of death, what dreams may come?

We know that death does not come instantly.  Even in the case of extreme trauma some small but nonzero period of time must elapse from the initiation of trauma until the last neuron fires.  Nothing can occur in zero time.  But, at some point in time all vital activity has ceased.  This point in time cannot be experienced in any way by our minds, as dead people are not conscious—not even subconscious.  But, a point in time that can never be experienced is arbitrarily distant in the sense that there are infinitely many additional points in time surrounding every intervening point in time.  It has often been said that, before we die, our entire life passes before our eyes.  If this be so, who among us will not experience some rather pronounced embarrassment if not deep shame as we review the mistakes of our pasts.  Suppose, for a moment, that, for whatever reason, the theologians are correct in the following sense:

Although nothing supernatural occurs, when we are dying, no matter how brief a period of proper time elapses, psychological time stretches out to eternity.  Each successive fraction of the proper time remaining must be multiplied by a larger and larger factor to determine the psychological time or dream time associated with it.  While it may be true that some minimal period of time is required to experience a thought, a feeling is the experience of a moment, a period of time of zero length.  Thus, we pass from life into ‘purgatory’ as we realize (as a feeling) the folly that has filled our lives.  For some, the descent may continue (with the continuous succession of an infinite number of momentary feelings) to the depths of ‘hell’.  For others, that dream of death might eventually lead to ‘paradise’.  What dreams may come when we are shuffling off this mortal coil must truly give us pause.

Tom Wayburn

Houston, Texas

August 20, 2005