The below is a rough draft of a paper I was going to present at an academic conference in London this summer, but from which I have withdrawn because I can’t really afford it.
It is relatively ‘whimsical’ and not ‘hard science,’ though it flirts with some science in it.
But I offer it as ‘notes’ about what for me is a prominent aspect of the film viewing experience, falling asleep.
“You are 8 ½. What an age for a boy to ask about cinema and dream! It occurs to me that that same evening, Dadda was telling me that his falling asleep in the cinema is a particular honour to the film in question. He was telling me this as a compliment, his having snored through three of the four films released last year in which I appeared.”
– Tilda Swinton (2006: 111)
In an age when film studies wishes to map almost every aspect of the film experience – from ideological influence to affective response, from audience feedback to galvanic skin responses, sleeping in the cinema remains an overlooked aspect of spectatorship.
And yet, what does it mean to sleep in the cinema? Is it simply an index of a film’s failure to capture the attention of the viewer, such that they prefer instead to doze off in pursuit of more interesting thoughts? Or might sleeping in the cinema be something more akin to what Tilda Swinton playfully suggests is her father’s experience of the majority of her films – that is, an honour and a compliment to the film in question?
Theories of why humans sleep vary, although given that not all animal species do sleep, the prevailing logic would suggest that sleep does serve some function that benefits us, and which outweighs the dangers that are associated with sleeping, namely that one is not particularly aware of the potential dangers that could be lurking in one’s vicinity while in that particular state.
What is more, we spend roughly one third of our existence asleep, which reinforces the notion that it must serve some evolutionarily beneficial purpose.
The most common and seemingly plausible theory of sleep is that humans do it for the sake of information storage.
Various studies have shown that sleep enhances synaptic efficacy ‘through oscillatory neural activity providing “dynamic stabilisation” for neural circuits storing inherited information and information acquired through experience… Sleep, therefore, serves the maintenance of inherited and acquired memories as well as the process of storage of new memory traces’ (Krueger et al 1999: 121).
In other words, sleep fulfils some of the same functions that waking life achieves, namely our adaptation to the environment: ‘the major function of sleep is to maintain our ability to adapt to a continually changing environment since that ability is dependent on brain microcircuitry’ (Krueger et al 1999: 126).
By keeping our brains fluid and malleable, sleep enables us better to consolidate memories, which in turn enable us better to navigate our waking world.
It is perhaps useful at this point to explain that there are two separate modes of sleep, which some view as supporting ‘quantitatively different states of consciousness’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 685), namely rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.
Dreams only take place in REM sleep, which is deemed to ‘release hallucinosis at the expense of thought,’ perhaps because ‘the activated forebrain is aminergically demodulated compared with waking and NREM sleep’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 686).
What this latter phrase means is that the neurons used to regulate (or modulate) the size and intensity of certain brain waves (e.g. ponto-geniculo-occipital, or PGO waves) during NREM and waking life do not fire (the waves are ‘demodulated’).
As a result of this, and the hyperactivation and deactivation of other brain regions, REM sleep, or dream, is characterised by ‘the lack of self-reflective awareness, the inability to control dream action voluntarily, and the impoverishment of analytical thought’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 686).
Having differentiated between REM and NREM sleep, though, it is important to remember that both seem to serve a similar function: NREM sleep ‘could allow recent inputs to be reiterated in a manner that promotes plasticity processes that are associated with memory consolidation,’ while during REM sleep ‘the brain is reactivated but the microchemistry and regional activation patterns are markedly different from those of waking and NREM sleep.’
As a result, Hobson and Pace-Schott conclude that ‘[c]ortically consolidated memories, originally stored during NREM by iterative processes such as corticopetal information outflow from the hippocampus, would thus be integrated with other stored memories during REM’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 691).
If both REM and NREM sleep help to consolidate memory, albeit in different ways, during sleep, then the distinction is not necessarily a useful one to draw with regard to sleeping in the cinema, not least because it is hard to determine, even via introspection based upon personal experience, what kind of sleep goes on in the cinema – if there is a constant type of sleep that does happen in the cinema at all.
What is more, the case has been made that there is in fact slippage between REM sleep, NREM sleep and waking life. This is not just on account of the fact that we can ‘hallucinate’ during waking life, or have ‘day dreams,’ such that ‘all conscious states – including waking – might have some quantifiable aspects of dream-like mental activity’ (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 684).
Instead, this is based upon the fact that parts of the brain are always ‘asleep’ while other parts are more activated, meaning that even our waking life is characterised in part by areas of our brain sleeping.
In spite of this blurred boundary between waking, REM, and NREM sleep, however, the distinction might be useful for us in thinking about more ‘ecological’ causes of sleep.
The cinema is a darkened room; although light shines from a projector and is reflected from a screen, the room is predominantly dark.
Arguably (see Brown 2011), the light from the screen, particularly in the case of rapid changes of intensity and colour (i.e. lots of onscreen movement in the form of figural motion, camera motion, and cutting) in conjunction with loud noise, is enough to activate our attention in a quasi-involuntary manner.
However, the darkness of the room might also be important, since sunlight inhibits the production of melatonin. Melatonin is a compound that synchronises the biological clock; that is, once darkness falls, melatonin is released by the pineal gland, and this is useful as an anti-oxidant and for the immune system.
The darkness of the cinema, then, may also bring about a release of melatonin, which in turn prepares us for sleep.
I might add that melatonin is produced from serotonin in the human body. Both melatonin and serotonin have been considered as playing a role in human sleep, and both have also been used in the manufacture of recreational drugs for their hallucinatory qualities.
Now, cinema has been equated with the dream state since at least the 1950s (for example, Langer, 1953), but rather than the typically psychoanalytic slant given to the relationship between dream and film, I should like here to pursue a different, admittedly (equally?) speculative line.
Both serotonin and melatonin are neurotransmitters; that is, they help to transmit signals across neurons. When, as mentioned earlier, aminergic demodulation takes place, serotonin and melatonin allow the level of hallucinosis to rise.
Serotonin in particular is linked to feelings of euphoria (it is used in MDMA, or ecstasy).
It is interesting that as a transmitter – a guardian in the neuronal gateways – serotonin is between actual signals, but it modifies which signals travel through our brain – which connections are made.
Or rather, serotonin, from my understanding of it, enables brain plasticity; that is, it enables more, not fewer connections, to be made, and is comparatively inhibited, if still at work, during waking and NREM sleep as opposed to REM sleep.
As such, serotonin and melatonin (but the latter seemingly to a lesser extent) are a means of regulating not what we envision, but how we envision it; for creating and cementing new connections in the brain.
On a purely speculative level, in an era whereby scans of the human brain are being carried out during film viewing (see Hasson et al 2004; 2008; Kauppi et al 2010), it would be interesting to see if there are any similarities between brain function during REM sleep and film viewing – that is, whether the human brain considers film viewing in general, or certain types of film viewing, to be a form of hallucinosis.
As a neurotransmitter, which sits between signals or brain events, there is something intriguing about serotonin; as the interval between brain signals, we might consider a neurotransmitter to be more temporal than spatial: neurons themselves have extension, while a neurotransmitter is what decides whether to convert an action potential into an actual action.
As such, the neurotransmitter sits at the threshold between the conscious and the unconscious, between potential and action, between perception and hallucination, and between space (extension) and time (intensity).
Maximising serotonin levels, both in REM sleep and in hallucinosis (and maybe even in cinema?) is the foregrounding of the temporal and the intense rather than the spatial elements and extensive/motor processes of the brain.
Approaching the issue of sleeping in the cinema from the introspective point of view – that is, basing thoughts upon personal experience – during the period from 1 September 2007 to 1 September 2008, I went to the cinema roughly 150 times.
I fell asleep during roughly one third of the films that I saw at the cinema, which is of course a high tally.
I cannot say for certain, but based upon running times and/or conversations with others in attendance, my sleep typically lasted between 2 and 20 minutes.
There are several factors that contribute to my sleeping: typically I do not sleep particularly great lengths of time at night (six hours on average), and I do as a result often find myself tired during the day.
Post-perandial cinema visits, particularly in the early afternoon, would most often induce sleep, as to a lesser extent might early to mid-afternoon screenings before which I had not eaten.
In addition, early to mid-afternoon screenings tend to involve fewer patrons; the presence of other patrons in the theatre, in terms of atmospheric noise, temperature and perhaps also in terms of ‘emotional contagion,’ can affect the way in which we view a film – and the absence of others might also increase the likelihood of sleep.
What is more, my slouching posture and the comfort of the chairs, in addition to the potential effect that the melatonin-inducing darkness of the cinema hall can have on viewers, may also contribute to my nodding off.
Although these factors are important to take into account, I know from experience, however, that I also fell (and typically fall) asleep far more often during what we might term ‘art house’ films than I did (or do) during what we might term ‘blockbusters,’ if drawing such a crude dichotomy between film types be allowed for the sake of argument.
Rarely did I fall asleep for lack of enjoyment; if I may speak personally, very few are the films I do not like, and I like art house films most of all, at least in proportion to the number that I see when compared to the relatively few blockbusters that I actually enjoy relative to the number of those that I see.
Now, art house films tend to have smaller audiences than blockbusters, and given my desire to see them during the cheaper early to mid-afternoon screening slots, the small audience size may well have an even greater effect on my likelihood of sleeping than watching a blockbuster during the day.
That is to say, I suspect that each of these factors plays a role in my falling asleep in the cinema.
However, the most common factor seemed to be the art house nature of the films; that is, regardless of my (often high) level of enjoyment, the relatively slow nature of these films, in terms of movement onscreen, camera motion and in terms of cutting rate, helped to bring about sleep.
This stands to reason on a certain level: if we are aroused by fast action and the loud explosions of blockbusters, it is more likely that we will feel drowsy and/or fall asleep when no danger is clear or present.
However, I should like to offer a different reason, not necessarily in contradiction of this prior reason, but certainly alongside it.
The afore-mentioned work on what happens in the human brain during film viewing, or ‘neurocinematics,’ suggests that audiences in fact respond very similarly to mainstream films like Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, USA, 1958), while there seems to be a much greater level of independent brain response during less action-packed films, the least amount of what Hasson and his team (2008) call ‘intersubjective correlation’ (ISC) taking place when viewers see a video of a tree in a park in which ‘nothing,’ so to speak, happens.
According to Hasson et al (2004: 452), the brain regions that are most commonly correlated intersubjectively during mainstream film viewing are the parahippocampal gyrus, the superior temporal gyrus, the anterior temporal poles, and the temporal-parietal junction.
The parahippocampal cortex has been identified as playing a role in REM sleep, in that it allows the sense of movement, emotion and affective salience to emerge (Hobson and Pace-Schott 2002: 687).
Furthermore, in both film viewing and REM sleep, the fusiforim gyrus, which is useful for face recognition, has been found to function.
While circumstantial at best, it might be possible to suggest from this evidence that mainstream film viewing does function cerebrally in a manner akin to dream, especially because the movement associated with the parahippocampal gyrus is illusory in both cases.
Krueger et al suggest, contrary to much sleep research, that sleep is not dependent upon prolonged wakefulness, but rather upon synaptic use.
That is, ‘exposure to rich environments’ can increase the amount of REM sleep that we have (Krueger et al 1999: 124).
It is not entirely clear what they mean by a rich environment.
Since I do not typically fall asleep in mainstream films, we might conclude that these are not such ‘rich environments,’ for example. In spite of the rapid movement and motion in mainstream films, we could argue, that such films do much work for audiences and that they do not force the brain to work harder to comprehend what is going on. In fact, the ease with which we can understand mainstream films would in this case suggest that they are ‘simplified’ (and not ‘rich’) versions of reality (even if such ‘simple’ scenes also stimulate our attention through continued visual and auditory renewal/stimulation).
However, the greater levels of direct stimulation involved in mainstream cinema would suggest some ‘richness’ – and that it is the relatively ‘unrich’ environment of the cinema during art house fare that encourages us, or at any rate me, to sleep.
My point is not here to resolve this conundrum, even if all types of cinema might be said to constitute some sort of hallucinosis, in that we see objects that are only images, but which we might on a certain level take for real, as we do a dream during our experience thereof.
Rather, my point is to say that while cinema might be akin to a shared dream, in that it can induce similar thought patterns across multiple viewers in similar regions of the brain as fire during sleeping, it is the cinema that does not involve such synchronisation of viewers’ brain patterns that is more likely – if I am anything to go by – to induce sleep itself.
Since humans are collectively involved in a world that is always affecting us, it is hard to separate when its influence ends, if at all. If we were to cling to the notion of a subjective self, however, who wanted to think for itself, then we might conceivably argue that sleep is the time when, paradoxically, given that we have little motor control over dreams and do not remember NREM sleep, that our thoughts are most ‘our own.’
That is, we function (more) ‘offline’ when asleep than during waking, during which time our thoughts constantly are being shaped by the world around us.
If Hasson et al’s research is anything to go by, then mainstream film might well bring humans together (we ‘correlate’), but it increases the probability of humans all thinking in the same way, perhaps by virtue of the simplified version of reality that mainstream cinema has to offer.
This is not to say that mainstream cinema will make automatons of us all (unless it already has).
It is to say, however, that films that do not impose images upon us, but which allow us actively to explore the image in our own way (less intersubjective correlation, more ‘art house’) might naturally induce in us that state of maximised (if never absolute) ‘independent’ thought, which is sleep.
The fact that we must search through these environments, rather than have information delivered to us in an obvious if stimulating manner, might even make them ‘rich environments’ that naturally tire us, because we must process individual (new?) thought patterns and associations that we have created for ourselves rather than had imposed upon us.
In this sense, perhaps sleeping during a film is not only an honour for and a compliment to the film in question, but it is a gift from the film to encourage independent thought, it is an act of love in certain senses.
Anthropologically speaking, humans do not always sleep just anywhere and with anyone (even though inebriation, among other altered states of consciousness, might lead us to believe that we do).
And yet, humans do feel the need to sleep with someone, even if this so-called ‘need’ is cultural.
Indeed, the act of sleeping with another human, which often is synonymous with the act of love, is perhaps the most intimate relationship that two humans can have.
In Being Singular Plural (2000), Jean-Luc Nancy argues that humans must recognise the fundamental ‘withness’ of their existence.
That is, humans do not lead lives in which they can objectively observe each other, detached in their observations, but instead we are always at all points with each other, leading a relative existence, in the sense that we are always only ever coexisting, and that, indeed, there is no existence without coexistence and communcation.
“‘to speak with’ is not so much speaking to oneself or to one another, nor is it ‘saying’ (declaring, naming), nor is it proffering (bringing forth meaning or bringing meaning to light). Rather, ‘to speak with’ is the conversation (and sustaining) and conatus of a being-exposed, which exposes only the secret of its own exposition. Saying ‘to speak with’ is like saying ‘to sleep with,’ ‘to go out with’ (co-ire), or ‘to live with’: it us a (eu)phemism for (not) saying nothing less than what ‘wanting to say’ means [le ‘vouloir-dire’ veut dire] in many different ways; that is to say, it says Being itself as communication and thinking: the co-agitatio of Being.” (Nancy 2000: 92-93)
Picking apart this passage, Nancy offers communication as a means of exposing oneself, of opening oneself up to the other (and elsewhere, Nancy  has written about how exposure is part of the cinematic experience, as we are ex-peau-sed to the skin (pellicule) of the film).
To open oneself up in this way is like sleeping with or going with: co-itus/coitus as part of this communication.
Paradoxically, it takes sleeping with someone else, that experience in which we are most ‘ourselves’ because ‘offline’ (even if never fully so), in order fully to ‘communicate’ or expose oneself to the other.
It is to accept and to be accepted by the other, a level of thought in which we are not the detached, thinking observer that Descartes proposes as the mind split from the body, and which finds expression in his cogito ergo sum.
In an age in which neuroscience has tried to overthrow the sway under which Descartes’ most famous phrase has held us (see, for example, Damasio 1994), because for neuroscience there is no detached thought/mind-body dualism since we are always only ever embodied, in that our ‘higher’ conscious processes stem from and cannot live without our so-called ‘lower’ viscera and emotions, then it would seem that we must abandon the mind-body dualism.
However, this does not necessarily mean that we must abandon the cogito entirely.
Descartes first proposes je pense, donc je suis as one of only three things about which he can have no doubt in Discourse on Method (Descartes 1998 : 53).
He refines this phrase in Principles of Philosophy (2009 : 17), where he argues that we might well imagine that there is no God and that we have no body, but that we cannot doubt our minds, because thinking determines that we must have a mind.
Descartes goes on to define thought, or cogitatio:
“By the word thought, I understand all that which so takes place in us that we of ourselves are immediately conscious of it: and, according, not only to understand (INTELLIGERE, ENTENDRE), to will (VELLE), to imagine (IMAGINARI), but even to perceive (SENTIRE, SENTIR), are here the same as to think (COGITARE, PENSER). For if I say I see, or, I walk, therefore I am; and if I understand by vision or walking the act of my eyes or of my limbs, which is the work of the body, the conclusion is not absolutely certain, because, as is often the case in dreams, I may think that I see or walk, although I do not open my eyes or move from my place, and even, perhaps, although I have no body: but if I mean the sensation itself, or consciousness of seeing or walking, the knowledge is manifestly certain, because it is then referred to the mind, which alone perceives or is conscious that it sees or walks.” (Descartes 2009: 18)
If thought and the mind are precisely embodied, Descartes’ definition of cogitatio would seem misguided.
However, if, as Nancy explains to us, we remember that cogitatio is derived from co-agitatio, which etymologically speaking means to act, move, or do with, then even cogitation is always already a phenomenon done with others (and, after Damasio, with one’s body).
With regard to cinema, we might remember that there is a paradox in that to sleep/to do with another the thing that arguably requires the least ‘withness’ is in fact perhaps the most intimate or the greatest exposure than one can make of one’s self.
This paradox is logical, since if we are only with others, then one’s most ‘detached’ self is precisely that which is least ‘with’ others – i.e. self-hood is only defined with others, and so that which is most un-other-like about us, our sleeping self, is paradoxically that which is most unique to us; we are most ourselves when we are least ourselves.
Furthermore, this paradox is mirrored by the fact that to cogitate, which Descartes uphold as the highest indicator of the mind’s separation from the body, is in fact only ever a thinking with, both with our bodies and with others.
The cogito is in fact a co-agito.
Sleeping in the cinema, in which we are ‘most ourselves’ becomes in this way a communion with the film.
Many humans sleep alone, within spaces that are familiar to them. Perhaps it is as much the space of the cinema as with any particular film that we feel so intimate and safe that we can allow ourselves sleep.
That I do not sleep during blockbusters leads me to believe that I probably do not trust blockbusters; their fast movement may be arousing in terms of being attention-grabbing, but they also enervate me, making me alert and worried that something is about to happen.
The art house film, meanwhile, is a friend, or a lover, with whom I feel safe, and in a space that feels safe to me.
Since it exposes to me those things that are more intimate and meaningful than does the blockbuster, then I expose to it that which is most private in my life, my sleeping self.
We go together in a strange coitus, a co-agitatio akin to that of cogitation in the real world (and which perhaps we might differentiate from the egocentric survival instincts that the explosions of the action film seem to encourage).
I feel safe in the cinema perhaps because of familiarity, making it not a ‘rich environment’; but while a blockbuster may grab my attention, it does not necessary entertain me.
Art house films are the richest environment in which, or better with which, I think (I co-agitate) the most; blockbusters are not wholly ‘brainless,’ not least because the mind and the brain are embodied, and we can and often do have very visceral responses to blockbusters, which in turn can induce new, richer thoughts.
But the phrase ‘brainless’ is not unuseful in getting to the root of our relationship with blockbusters, of differentiating these simplified versions of reality with the complexity of art house films.
I love cinema, but if my willingness to sleep with art house film is anything to go by, I feel happiest with it.
I am promiscuous in my cinematic tastes, responding to and interested in many of the different experiences that cinema can offer; but I am happiest with the slow, thoughtful films, that sometimes even allow me to think ‘offline’ for a while, to sleep, perchance to dream.
Cinema has long since been associated with dream, and yet sleeping in the cinema is typically thought of as being a negative experience, a sign of boredom.
Cinephiles, together with cognitive studies of cinema, seem predominantly interested in visual and aesthetic pleasure, and in attention and arousal.
And yet cinema can indeed send audiences to sleep.
Contrary to the ‘boring’ and ‘slow’ film argument, this can in fact be the most intimate relationship one can have with a film, even if paradoxically it means not even ‘seeing’ or ‘hearing’ the film (though we can still sense its presence).
To sleep with a film is a sign of cinephilia.
Brown, William (2011), ‘Resisting the Psycho-Logic of Intensified Continuity,’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 5:1, pp. 69-86.
Damasio, Antonio (1994), Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, London: Vintage.
Descartes, René (1998 ), Discourse on Method and The Meditations (trans. F.E. Sutcliffe), London: Penguin.
Descartes, René (2009 ), Principles of Philosophy (trans. John Veitch), Whitefish, Mass.: Wilder Publications.
Hasson, Uri, Yuval Nir, Ifat Levy, Galit Fuhrmann, and Rafael Malach (2004), ‘Intersubject synchronization of cortical activity during natural vision,’ Science, 303: 5664, pp. 1634–1640.
Hasson, Uri, Ohad Landesman, Barbara Knappmayer, Ignacio Vallines, Nava Rubin and Davd J Heeger (2008), ‘Neurocinematics: The Neuroscience of Film,’ Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind, 2:1, pp. 1-26.
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Kauppi, Jukka-Pekka, Iiro P. Jääskeläinen, Mikko Sams and Jussi Tohka (2010), ‘Inter-subject correlation of brain hemodynamic responses during watching a movie: localisation in space and frequency,’ Frontiers in Neuroinformatics, 4:5, pp. 1-10.
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Nancy, Jean-Luc (2000), Being Singular Plural, trans. R.D. Richardson and A.E. O’Byrne, Stanford: Stanford University Press.
Nancy, Jean-Luc (2008), ‘Claire Denis: Icon of Ferocity’ (trans. Peter Enright), in James Phillips (ed.), Cinematic Thinking: Philosophical Approaches to the New Cinema, Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 160-170.
Swinton, Tilda (2006), ‘Film: State of Cinema Address, 49th San Francisco International Film Festival, 29 April 2006’ Critical Quarterly, 48:3 (Autumn), pp. 110-120.