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Still Hanging On

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Two stories of falling in everyday life, and one fantastical leap:

6. Falling Asleep: Professor Frederick Coolidge argues that our tree-dwelling ancestors are to blame for a hiccup in our sleeping patterns.

7. Walking as Falling: David Eagleman explains walking as the act of calibrating our steps to turn falls into forward motion.

8. Falling Apart: Neil deGrasse Tyson takes us on a one-way trip into a black hole.


Professor Fred Coolidge, David Eagleman and Neil deGrasse Tyson

Comments [10]

Joel from Las Vegas, NV

In the 1980s I was seeing a psychologist and described to him how I would sometimes dream that I was walking on the street and stepped off an unseen curb and my leg would jerk the way it does in that circumstance and wake me up. I think he called it a hypnagogic jerk and he said it wasn't caused by the dream, it was autonomous, akin to a reflex. As I recall, he said they think it's caused by the muscles relaxing as you drift into sleep and loosing muscle tone. But here's the interesting part: He said there's research showing that your mind concocts the dream after the fact, it builds a narrative to explain the phenomenon, and then it reverses the temporal order of the experience so that it feels like you were dreaming of walking and then jerked when you stepped off the curb.
Since then, when I hear or tell myself a story of how things happened, I often think about this need to construct a narrative and the mind's capacity to reorder events to maintain a consistent narrative.

Feb. 07 2015 04:22 PM
Amy Purifoy from Nashville, TN

@ Professor Frederick Coolidge: I found your hypothesis of the hypnic jerk to be very intriguing and it makes sense to look for an evolutionary explanation for the phenomenon. Yet I had always assumed another hypothesis.

There are a couple chemicals that the brain doses out to our bodies during REM sleep to keep us from acting out our dreams. These chemicals basically paralyze our bodies. The hypnic jerk occurs right at the edge of slumber before our body is fully paralyzed. The act of "falling asleep" is aptly named. We feel like we are falling as we enter sleep. This feeling is coupled with a dream state that parallels it. We feel like we are falling so we dream that we are falling. Our instinctual reaction to falling is to react; To catch ourselves. And so in the process of catching ourselves falling in the dream, our yet-to-be-paralyzed bodies jump and wake us up. There's your hypnic jerk.

Sep. 24 2012 01:47 PM
Grace from Seattle

Any ideas which Laurie Anderson song that was? I wish they'd list the musical clips!

Sep. 21 2012 11:50 PM
Jackson Braider from Boston, MA

The Suzanne Vega version of "Wake Up" comes from a Disney tribute album of the same name, which also includes a perfectly casted version of "When You Wish Upon a Star" featuring Ringo Starr.

Nov. 27 2011 11:32 AM
Sam from Drain

When falling into a black hole, your body would snap and continue to function physiologically, to some degree, for a few moments,

However, any body will lose consciousness at accelerations much less than that which would overcome the electromagnetic forces holding your flesh together. Your brain does not function when all the fluid in it is being pulled to one side. Pilots and astronauts have set some g records, and they all fainted long before anything went to pieces.

Mr Scientist just went for the ratings and made it sound like some kind of torture, even though your ability to sense physical pain would go under long before any separation of flesh.

Dec. 04 2010 06:18 PM
Brystol H from Charlotte, NC

@Ian Carey
That version is by Suzanne Vega. I can't seem to find it on iTunes, however.

Sep. 26 2010 08:27 PM
Jacob from Santa Cruz, CA

Did anybody else think about Inception while listening to the part about the hypnic jerk?

Sep. 25 2010 05:21 PM
Ian Carey from Oakland, CA

Whose version of "Stay Awake" is that?

Sep. 22 2010 07:59 PM
David Gates from san antonio, tx

To go with falling to pieces in a black hole. When your body speeds up ie; approaches the speed of light, time slows down to you; but, not to everything else; so, the pain that you experence lasts forever.

Sep. 22 2010 01:48 PM
Skipper from The Future

I wonder, would one experience a stronger hypnic jerk if they were both falling asleep and falling in love? Or if one went skiing for the first time earlier that day? The idea being that greater activation of the idea of "falling" in the brain would add up to a stronger sensation for the hypnic jerk.

Sep. 21 2010 04:37 AM

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