Waking up on moving vehicles!
June 30, 2010 10:15 PM   Subscribe

Waking up in moving vehicles sends me into existential crises. What?

This has been happening quite a bit lately. I will wake up from a nap on an airplane or on a long-distance bus-ride and have these intense realizations that, yes, one day I will die. My body will be dead, I will be buried, I will not be living. It's very intense. And it only happens as I'm waking up and moving.

I feel like I have a pretty healthy, if abstract, view of my mortality. Normally I view it peacefully. I don't dwell on it, I don't particularly worry much about it, unless I'm just waking up, and moving. I am currently in pretty good mental and physical health, and 26.

Why is it naps, and why moving vehicles that produce these intense realizations. I'm wondering if anyone else has had this napping, moving, existential conundrum. And if so, what gives?

posted by Sreiny to Religion & Philosophy (23 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
I don't get into death-spirals, but being in transit (plane, bus, etc.) definitely puts me in a Big Picture mode. I get all ambitious in transit and am compelled to make lists and I suppose our respective states have to do with being removed from our normal lives. Travel is weird - and I definitely think that that heightened What's It All About thing is more a feature than a bug.
posted by moxiedoll at 10:19 PM on June 30, 2010 [4 favorites]

I'm actually at the other end of the spectrum - I find it absolutely impossible to fall asleep in any moving vehicle (the exception is trains, which I attribute to the rocking motion).

But your questions is why?, and my best guess is it simulates the feeling of birth, which leads to contemplating the other end, death.
posted by mannequito at 10:23 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I suggest low-level motion-sickness might be sloshing around your subconscious. stirring up doubts and fears about life. When you wake up you have to deal with them, wait for them to settle out, or push them down to work on something else.
posted by wobh at 10:26 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

If is of any help, this happens to me. Perhaps it is the motion?
posted by fifilaru at 10:28 PM on June 30, 2010

Motion? Weird head angle obstructing your airway and causing a low-level panic?
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 10:32 PM on June 30, 2010

The same sort of thing happens to me in hotel rooms. In my case, it manifests as not knowing who I am, what my name is, why I am wherever I am. It's very disconcerting.

I think it's waking up and not having an immediate familiar context: you went to sleep somewhere known, and here you are, somewhere unknown to your foggy early consciousness.
posted by charmcityblues at 10:44 PM on June 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am by no means knowledgeable in this area but my understanding is that the human brain is sort of divided into the lower functioning lizard brain and the higher functions. The lizard brain is primarily concerned at all times with the basic necessities of survival: is something dangerous about to happen? Am I trapped, can I get away? Is that animal/person an enemy? The higher brain functions override and control those thoughts and impulses and keep everything smooth and in check.

Anyway, what I'm getting at is that when you're just waking up perhaps things aren't quite yet in sync and your lizard brain sees that you are a) in a confined space that you cannot immediately escape from and b) that you are being moved/jostled in unknown ways, and it reacts by firing some fear neurons that are usually kept in check by the higher brain which isn't quite yet fully awake and so you experience this rare intense feeling of "I might die" which is usually suppressed.

Take it with a grain of salt; I have no idea if any of that is scientifically valid or not.
posted by Rhomboid at 10:56 PM on June 30, 2010

Well, you know, our sense of self-identity is, I think, a far more changeable and flowing construction than we like to think or suppose. As such, our environment can exert a large influence on it. Our regular environments are ones we have either chosen, adapted to, or put in much thought/effort/time into changing so that they all, in one form or another reflect our ideas about ourselves.

When traveling, we our exposing ourselves to a wide variety of stimuli and environments that are both unfamiliar and possibly unsympathetic or at very least irrelevant to our ideas about ourselves.

Perhaps your temporary fear upon awakening is due to the - however small - shift and/or dissolution of your constructed identity in part. This, in turn, makes you fear death because what is death, if not the dissolution of the self, which you are in a small, microcosmic way experiencing?
posted by smoke at 11:11 PM on June 30, 2010

I have NO IDEA what causes this, but here's another vote for "holy crap, me too!"
I would love a way to make it go away, but then I think that this intense realization of my own mortality is probably a good thing, so long as it doesn't persist and become paralyzing.

The first time it happened, I remember running up to my Dad and bawling (I was probably 17 at the time - very out of character). I've gotten better at pushing the panic back down and it goes away as I wake up ...

Naps are definitely triggers for me, but I don't require the moving vehicle.
posted by Metasyntactic at 11:25 PM on June 30, 2010

I think it is possible that your dreams are NOT DUE
to being in transit.
There is just something about a mid-afternoon nap
I usually experience lucid dreams during this sleep session
posted by will wait 4 tanjents at 11:31 PM on June 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think for a lot of people, sense of "who you are" is tied to time and place. While you are in transit, you're pretty much not anywhere - neither at your departure point, nor at your destination. A destination is a place; an airplane, not so much.

Travel is a weird and, might I point out, unnatural event that removes you from the time space continuum in very concrete ways that have nothing to do with physics.

Existential crisis ensues.

So that's my why. I do not have a good "what" in terms of what you can do about it. Roll with it? There's an interesting expression: "You're a long time dead." And so you are. Realising you will spend (and indeed, have spent) vastly, vastly more time not being than being is an interesting thing to grasp when you get right down to fundamentals.
posted by DarlingBri at 1:06 AM on July 1, 2010 [9 favorites]

Just a guess, of course: Maybe it has to do with the fact that it's a good, physical example of the way things move along with or without you? In other words, it's a sort of tangible occurrence in which you realize that you have stopped and every else in the world has been continually rushing by without even noticing your period of unconsciousness. Match this with the sense of disorientation that arises when you wake up in a different place than you went to sleep and you're primed to experience it negatively.

Regardless of the reason, when they happen to me these kinds of experiences promote a mindfulness, or self-awareness, that I personally think of as a good thing if they can be kept from becoming all-consuming. YRMV.
posted by Quizicalcoatl at 2:58 AM on July 1, 2010

If you're asleep while traveling, you are out of control of a situation that could potentially kill you. I think your apparent fear of death is triggered by your subconscious understanding that your life is completely in the hands of others.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 5:08 AM on July 1, 2010

I'd like to second the notion that these states have specific physiological pre-meditators. It's very easy for some people to fall asleep on mass transit (planes and cars hum, trains rock, buses jerk and jostle). I think it's a kind of hypnotic apnea, personally, that lets you quickly slip into extremely deep and restful states of REM sleep (like a "cat nap").

It's a very similar pattern to how narcoleptics fall asleep (as I can attest to).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:18 AM on July 1, 2010

I would go along the same lines as others have said, and put it down to a subconscious realisation that while you were comfortably asleep, your life is completely in control of other people, and that their mistakes could have killed you without even realising it. Being asleep is to be vulnerable, and being asleep in a moving vehicle combines this vulnerability with a clear danger.
posted by tumples at 5:22 AM on July 1, 2010

I think DarlingBri has it.

I get something similar when I travel - there's something about being so literally in transition in my physical space and being 'neither here nor there' that makes me focus on bigger, more metaphysical transitions. The year that I traveled around the world by myself I used to write some pretty crazy journal entries on the plane. All existentialist stuff about Who Am I Really and What's It All About.

I travel less now and don't feel it quite so strongly, but every time I fly I tend to think about big picture items. Not when I drive, though - when I drive for pleasure, especially longer trips, I feel an intense sense of exhilaration and freedom, like I can go anywhere and do anything. Regardless of how pleasurable my flight destination is, I never get that feeling in planes. Weird, huh?
posted by widdershins at 6:29 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Try reading some things about psychogeography.
posted by knapah at 6:40 AM on July 1, 2010

First time I had that feeling I was eleven and I was looking at a poster of the Milky Way galaxy that I tore out of National Geographic and tacked on my wall. T

I agree with others, it's about being neither here or there and it does happen to me sometimes when I travel or am in hotels or unfamiliar places, but not really related to waking up in moving vehicles.

That said, when I drive, much like what @widdershins stated, I tend to get all existential driving long distances but I don't feel the vulnerability of mortality but contemplative about life instead.

I'm really glad you asked this because when I've broached this topics with my friends or family in the past, they were very afraid for me and reluctant to discuss the experience or analyze it.
posted by vivzan at 7:00 AM on July 1, 2010

It happens to me when I have a cold, and when I take naps in mid afternoon. Everything feels artificial...I feel like I don't know what life is all about, I feel like I have been pretending and will continue pretending until I die.

After a minute or so, I am myself again.

I am glad you have asked this, I never really acknowledged that feeling.

I think it could be one of those elevated states of awareness "spiritual" people talk about. like a transition between dreams and the tangible world. I dunno. I wish somebody could give us an answer!
posted by Tarumba at 7:00 AM on July 1, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks all, great answers in there. And to my suspicions no firm answer "this is called ____", which makes total sense. I think it is a combination of a number of elements mentioned— time/space continuum disruption, equilibrium juices sloshing around while sleeping, lizard brain reactions of not being in control of the situation, maybe even the rocking/humming that references being a baby. I think not being in control of the situation may have alot to do with it.

"Realising you will spend (and indeed, have spent) vastly, vastly more time not being than being is an interesting thing to grasp when you get right down to fundamentals."

That's a wonderful statement. I'm going to put that in my back pocket.

@ will wait 4 tanjents: These aren't dreams, but right when I wake up from sleeping. Agreed though that nap dreams are always the weirdest.

I'm glad I'm not the only one. It's certainly not a bad thing, just intense. Good to have intense reflections sometimes though.

posted by Sreiny at 7:51 AM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

There's been some discussion on how road rage in general could be caused by simple brain overload from physical speed. Under our own power, we could never travel nearly as fast as cars take us, and we've not had nearly enough time in the sense of evolutionary history, to learn to cope with this.

So while the thinking part of the brain is concentrating on changing lanes or singing along to the radio, the stembrain is freaking the hell out, and tiny things end up making you snap.

Except in your case it doesn't sound like road rage, but still, I believe (as many have said above) your lizard brain is set off by the motion and speed, and your logic brain is trying to compensate in weird ways.
posted by komara at 9:40 AM on July 1, 2010

Travel, not transport. Travel is about change, it's a liminal state outside your normal life. You're between one phase or state or place or persona and another. All sorts of things can happen during travel. That's why so many children's stories start with it as a narrative device.
posted by westerly at 11:40 AM on July 1, 2010

I have a pretty similar combination of feelings, but usually on airplane or train rides, not so much car trips. It's a lot better if I'm travelling with a friend. This travel anxiety, I guess, is something that became a hell of a lot worse as I've gotten older. I guess I don't trust, inherently, the safety of these transports and the thought of dying in that anonymous way, with people freaking out around me, makes me feel all kinds of weird. That thought inevitably leads to its corollary, which is that no matter how I die, in the end, my existence in the grand scale of things is rather brief and inevitably tiny. I like DarlingBri's counter assertion.

Something that helps me out is packing my own lunch. I guess that sounds silly, but pulling out some homemade food really calms me down. Everything seems somewhat sterilized and unreal in transportation - having concrete items that are tied to a specific place kind of quells that mind / body disassociation freak out zone. Thinking about it, I bet just having something that smelled good and real - some mint or an orange or ginger tea would also help out.

I also wonder if having the time to do some good physical activity before traveling wouldn't help with the fidgety / nervous feelings.
posted by ajarbaday at 8:28 PM on July 1, 2010

« Older Oregon outdoors ideas needed for the weekend.   |   It's late, and I can't persude my sister she's in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.