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When Half My Brain Woke Up - Arvind Narayanan's journal [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

When Half My Brain Woke Up [Dec. 3rd, 2011|01:25 am]
Arvind Narayanan
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Over the years, I've had occasion to describe in this journal my experiences with various brain warts including sleep paralysis, medication-induced amnesia, and bizarre dream states that occur during sleep phase transition. Tonight I can add to that list perhaps the strangest experience of them all, something that happened barely a couple of hours ago. It appears to have been confusional arousal — waking up in a stupor — of extreme severity.

The backdrop for this episode is that I'm jetlagged from international travel, and have had unusual sleep hours during the last few days. Irregular sleep appears to increase the likelihood of most parasomnias including confusional arousals.

Anyway, I feel asleep at my desk while watching TV1 at around 10:30pm, and awoke about half an hour later. I use the word 'awoke' lightly. Very lightly.

I was dimly conscious, but most of my brain wasn't working. In particular, I had no idea who or where I was. You might wonder if I was scared. Funnily enough, I didn't have nearly enough cognitive function at this point to be scared, or to know that anything was wrong. You'll see in a moment.

I could perceive shapes and objects around me, but these held no meaning — I didn't know what I was seeing. The first improvement over this extreme stupor came after a few minutes, when I was able to tell if I was looking at one side of the room versus the other. Most higher brain functions remained elusive.

The big moment came when I realized I was a person.

This was the highlight of the entire experience. It turns out that you can be conscious — just barely — without your sense of self. I would have guessed otherwise, and I feel very fortunate to have experienced it. It is obviously impossible to fully describe in words, but without your sense of self you have bits and pieces of awareness floating by, without everything crystallizing into a coherent worldview centered on one entity, yourself. I'm sure it's entirely superfluous to remark that the experience is like nothing else.

The onset of self was most definitely sudden and not gradual. It was amazing, to the extent that anything can be amazing when you're in a bloody stupor.

Although I was aware that I was a person, I still had no clue who or where I was. But things seemed to happen faster after this point, which I suspect is an illusion due to my remembering more from this period. The big change was that I was actually able to direct my thoughts, rather than passively drifting through an ooze of semi-awareness. Naturally, I decided to utilize what cognitive powers I had toward determining my identity.

After some more time passed, I had made no progress on the who-the-fuck-am-I question, but I realized that I was in an apartment. I didn't know I was sitting, primarily because I wasn't yet sufficiently aware of my own body. Meanwhile, as I tried to recall who else lived in the apartment, my best guess was that I had a wife and a newborn, but I wasn't sure. (This turned out to be an accurate description of the main male character in the TV show I was watching when I got knocked out, which must be why I got that impression.)

Over the next few minutes, as my cognitive abilities continued to improve, I determined I was sitting at my desk and remembered that I lived alone. This made me realize in an abstract way that my situation was scary, but I wasn't able to feel scared in the usual, visceral sense of the word.

But the worst was over, and the final step was being able to recall my name, what I did for a living, and so forth. I then breathed a sigh of relief and slowly stood up to contemplate what had just happened and what to do next. Incidentally, as with most such episodes, I had a poor perception of time, but retrospectively it likely lasted less than ten minutes.

It gets boring from here, so the short version is that I made sure my brain function had returned to normal, called my neighbor over until I was sure I was out of danger, talked to a nurse on a 24/7 hotline who told me it might be TIA (mini-stroke) even though the symptoms I reported were nothing like it, and finally Googled my symptoms to conclude it was most likely a harmless parasomnia.

1When I say TV I mean Hulu on my laptop. Is that pretty much understood these days or does it need a footnote?

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From: fixious
2011-12-03 02:09 pm (UTC)
That's freaky. But yeah, jetlag especially will do that sort of stuff to you. I've woken up a few times not recognizing the room I was in, or believing that what I was dreaming actually happened, or hearing roommates/family talking and not understanding a word. That was weird enough. Losing sense of self sounds awfully scary.
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[User Picture]From: gwern branwen
2011-12-03 05:15 pm (UTC)
> This was the highlight of the entire experience. It turns out that you can be conscious — just barely — without your sense of self. I would have guessed otherwise, and I feel very fortunate to have experienced it. It is obviously impossible to fully describe in words, but without your sense of self you have bits and pieces of awareness floating by, without everything crystallizing into a coherent worldview centered on one entity, yourself. I'm sure it's entirely superfluous to remark that the experience is like nothing else.

Indeed it's possible: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cotard_delusion
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