Waking up to ourselves. What sleep reminds us about our conscious experience of the world.


The sunrise this morning takes my breath away. It’s a sliver of light against the backdrop of night’s dark cloak; a palette of pinks and oranges painted across the horizon, broken in two by a strip of bruised purple coastal clouds. The world is asleep beneath its waking. Sydney’s cityscape in the distance a twinkle of blue and green lights, the suburban houses that stretch out between us dark and quiet below their terracotta roofs.

But the birds are awake, and the air is alive with birdsong. It’s my favourite sound, transporting me to sleepless jetlagged mornings in the African bush. There is the twirbling of magpies, beautiful and melodic, set off by the arrow like call of the plover, intermingled with the chirps and chitters, whistles and tweets of birds I’ve yet to identify. Robins, wrens, galahs. Perhaps a honeyeater. But as always, as day conquers the night and the world arouses itself, the birdsong is rounded off with the harsh cackle of the yellow-crested cockatoos, gathered in their trees like plump, feathery fruit.

Every day we come awake again. From the depths of slumber, our conscious experience of the world comes online and we come back into existence, at least from our own point of view. All driven by the activity in our bodies, and particularly in our brains. I find this a marvellous thing to think on. That our entire first-person experience of life, though it seems one continuous thing, is regularly punctuated with our non-existence, consciously speaking.

Truth be told we often walk through the day like automatons. Lost in thought that is not consciously generated, driving and reading and shopping without much attention paid to our experiences. Most of what happens to us, our desires, our responses, our emotions, are driven by subconscious processes we have little awareness of. Unless you choose to, of course, wake up to yourself. Wake up and shine the light of your mind on itself.

That all this — your entire experience of the world, your sense of who you are, what you see and hear and feel, and the meaning you make out of those sensations is generated by the biochemistry of your brain is an astounding reality the human race has yet to come to terms with. And to think the Egyptians, with their desire for eternal life, embalmed the hearts of their dead, and discarded their brains by sucking them out of the nose and unceremoniously dumping them in the trash. The brain, that organ that sleep suggests, if it could be perfectly preserved and restarted, would bring you right back into existence from where you left off.

I can’t understand why everyone is not studying neuroscience. Unlocking its secrets unlock the secrets to ourselves — our souls, if you prefer the parlance of the past. My husband laughs at me. He says peering into the sausage factory makes people uncomfortable, and they would just prefer to eat the sausages and trust in the make-believe stories about their origins that make them feel good. How true, and how tragic.

Even so, even without the desire to know more about the brain itself, investing in understanding your own mind, your own conscious reality, opens you up to a world of opportunity to live a life richer in meaning, contentment, and value. Instead of just moving through life hostage to the actions of others and the emotions they evoke, mindlessly playing out the programming of your childhood, your culture, your experiences… you have the chance to shape the way you are in the world. That’s the gift of human consciousness, with its first-person narrative and capacity to problem solve, the ability to take responsibility for the choices our brains in our bodies make, and through it, influence the experience of ourselves and others for the better.