Richard P. Feynman on watching himself fall asleep and dream

Now to the philosophy class. The course was taught by an old bearded professor named Robinson, who always mumbled. I would go to the class, and he would mumble along, and I couldn’t understand a thing. The other people in the class seemed to understand him better, but they didn’t seem to pay any attention. I happened to have a small drill, about one-sixteenth-inch, and to pass the time in that class, I would twist it between my fingers and drill holes in the sole of my shoe, week after week.

Finally one day at the end of class, Professor Robinson went “wugga mugga mugga wugga wugga…” and everybody got excited! They were all talking to each other and discussing, so I figured he’d said something interesting, thank God! I wondered what it was?

I asked somebody, and they said, “We have to write a theme, and hand it in in four weeks.”

“A theme on what?”

“On what he’s been talking about all year.”

I was stuck. The only thing that I had heard during that entire term that I could remember was a moment when there came this upwelling, “muggawuggastreamofconsciousnessmugga wugga,” and phoom!—it sank back into chaos.

This “stream of consciousness” reminded me of a problem my father had given to me many years before. He said, “Suppose some Martians were to come down to earth, and Martians never slept, but instead were perpetually active. Suppose they didn’t have this crazy phenomenon that we have, called sleep. So they ask you the question: ‘How does it feel to go to sleep? What happens when you go to sleep? Do your thoughts suddenly stop, or do they move less aanndd lleeessss rraaaaapppppiidddddllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? How does the mind actually turn off?'”

I got interested. Now I had to answer this question: How does the stream of consciousness end, when you go to sleep?

So every afternoon for the next four weeks I would work on my theme. I would pull down the shades in my room, turn off the lights, and go to sleep. And I’d watch what happened when I went to sleep.

Then at night, I’d go to sleep again, so I had two times each day when I could make observations—it was very good!

At first I noticed a lot of subsidiary things that had little to do with falling asleep. I noticed, for instance, that I did a lot of thinking by speaking to myself internally. I could also imagine things visually.

Then, when I was getting tired, I noticed that I could think of two things at once. I discovered this when I was talking internally to myself about something, and while I was doing this, I was idly imagining two ropes connected to the end of my bed, going through some pulleys, and winding around a turning cylinder, slowly lifting the bed. I wasn’t aware that I was imagining these ropes until I began to worry that one rope would catch on the other rope, and they wouldn’t wind up smoothly. But I said, internally, “Oh, the tension will take care of that,” and this interrupted the first thought I was having, and made me aware that I was thinking of two things at once.

I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!

So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.

After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don’t really know what it’s like to fall asleep when I’m not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection:

I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder.
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!

We hand in our themes, and the next time our class meets, the professor reads one of them: “Mum bum wugga mum bum…” I don’t know what that guy wrote either, but at the end of it, he goes:

Uh wugga wuh. Uh wugga wuh.
Uh wugga wugga wugga.
I wugga wuh uh wugga wuh
Uh wugga wugga wugga.

“Aha!” I say. “That’s my theme!” I honestly didn’t recognize it until the end.

After I had written the theme I continued to be curious, and I kept practicing this watching myself as I went to sleep. One night, while I was having a dream, I realized I was observing myself in the dream. I had gotten all the way down into the sleep itself!
Richard P. Feynman in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: adventures of a curious character, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 46. First published (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985).

Related Media: Other Themes

Richard P. Feynman Posted on behalf of on Sunday, April 11th, 2010 under Quotations.

One comment so far

  1. Beautiful writing ~ found your blog while looking for Shaman’s Dream & had to say hello.
    Sacred Blessings,

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