Saturday, 4th July, 2009


“This perpetual flow of the trains of ideas, which constitute our dreams, and which are caused by painful or pleasurable sensation, might at first view be conceived to be an useless expenditure of sensorial power. But it has been shewn, that those motions, which are perpetually excited, as those of the arterial system by the stimulus of the blood, are attended by a great accumulation of sensorial power, after they have been for a time suspended; as the hot-fit of fever is the consequence of the cold one. Now as these trains of ideas caused by sensation are perpetually excited during our waking hours, if they were to be suspended in sleep like the voluntary motions, (which are exerted only by intervals during our waking hours,) an accumulation of sensorial power would follow; and on our awaking a delirium would supervene, since these ideas caused by sensation would be produced with such energy, that we should mistake the trains of imagination for ideas excited by irritation; as perpetually happens to people debilitated by fevers on their first awaking; for in these fevers with debility the general quantity of irritation being diminished, that of sensation is increased. In like manner if the actions of the stomach, intestines, and various glands, which are perhaps in part at least caused by or catenated with agreeable sensation, and which perpetually exist during our waking hours, were like the voluntary motions suspended in our sleep; the great accumulation of sensorial power, which would necessarily follow, would be liable to excite inflammation in them.

When by our continued posture in sleep, some uneasy sensations are produced, we either gradually awake by the exertion of volition, or the muscles connected by habit with such sensations alter the position of the body; but where the sleep is uncommonly profound, and those uneasy sensations great, the disease called the incubus, or nightmare, is produced. Here the desire of moving the body is painfully exerted, [but] the power of moving it, or volition, is incapable of action, till we awake. Many less disagreeable struggles in our dreams, as when we wish in vain to fly from terrifying objects, constitute a slighter degree of this disease. In awaking from the nightmare I have more than once observed, that there was no disorder in my pulse; nore do I believe the respiration is laborious, as some have affirmed. It occurs to people whose sleep is too profound, and some disagreeable sensation exists, which at other times would have awakened them, and have thence prevented the disease of nightmare; as after great fatigue or hunger with too large a supper and wine, which occasion our sleep to be uncommonly profound.


This vivacity of our nerves of sense during the time of sleep is evinced by a circumstance, which almost every one must at some time or other have experienced; that is, if we sleep in the daylight, and endeavour to see some object in our dream, the light is exceedingly painful to our eyes; and after repeated struggles we lament in our sleep, that we cannot see it. In this case I apprehend the eyelid is in some degree opened by the vehemence of our sensations; and, the iris being dilated, the optic nerve shews as great or greater sensibility than in our waking hours.

When we are forcibly waked at midnight from profound sleep, our eyes are much dazzled with the light of the candle for a minute or two, after there has been sufficient time allowed for the contraction of the iris; which is owing to the accumulation of sensorial power in the organ of vision during its state of less activity. But when we have dreamt much of visible objects, this accumulation of sensorial power in the organ of vision is lessened or prevented, and we awake in the morning without being dazzled with the light, after the iris has had time to contract itself. This is a matter of great curiosity, and may be thus tried by anyone in the daylight. Close your eyes, and cover them with your hat; think for a minute of a tune, which you are accustomed to, and endeavour to sing it with as little activity of mind as possible. Suddenly uncover and open your eyes, and in one second of time the iris will contract itself, but you will perceive the day more luminous for several seconds, owing to the accumulation of sensorial power in the optic nerve.

Then again close and cover your eyes, and think intensely on a cube of ivory two inches in diameter, attending first to the north and south sides of it, and then to the other four sides of it; then get a clear image in your mind’s eye of all the sides of the same cube coloured red; and then of it coloured green; and then of it coloured blue; lastly, open your eyes as in the former experiment, and after the first second of time allowed for the contraction of the iris, you will not perceive any increase of the light of the day, or dazzling; because now there is no accumulation of sensorial power in the optic nerve; that having been expanded by its action in thinking over visible objects.”

Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia; or, The Laws of Organic Life, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London: J. Johnson, 1796), I, pp. 204-7.

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