Step and pivot: Musings on sleep, weightlessness and the exercise machine of my dreams

July 19, 2016

By Matthew E. Milliken
July 19, 2016

People often say that dreams of flying give them a wonderful sensation of being weightless. I too occasionally dream about moving through the air, but I have a slightly different association between sleep and weightlessness.

Sometimes when I’m falling asleep, I feel as though I’m drifting in space. It’s a seductive feeling, and often the moment I become aware of the sensation overlaps with the moment unconsciousness overtakes me.

At other times, when I’m struggling to fall asleep, I try to simulate the sense of weightlessness. I do this by imagining what it feels like to be floating in water or suspended in microgravity. On some occasions, I’ll think about being on a bicycle that’s effortlessly rolling downhill; on others, I’ll think about how it feels to ride in a car or airplane, or what it might look like if I were somehow traveling with my eyes alongside the wheel of a moving bicycle or car.

(I’m actually a little wary of associating travel with sleep, however, especially car travel, because I’m afraid if my mind forges too strong a link I might develop a tendency to fall asleep while driving. Be that as it may…)

I’ve been having a bit of trouble with insomnia lately, alas, and I’ve started pursuing a slightly different line of thinking in an attempt to combat my sleeplessness. I think about walking in an exercise machine

Not on an exercise machine, mind you — and not any kind of exercise machine, either. I think about a machine that will allow me to walk in a circle that starts and ends with me standing upright. One quarter of the way through the loop, my body would be parallel to the floor with my eyes facing upward; halfway through, I’d be upside down; and three-quarters of the way through, I would again be parallel to the ground, but facing it this time. At the end, I would be in the exact same orientation as when I started. But I’d also be in the same spot, since the machine, like a treadmill or a stationary bicycle, wouldn’t actually move anywhere.

Another way to think about this contraption is as a sort of human-scaled exercise wheel, like pet gerbils or other small rodents often have. That’s not a precise description, however, because in exercise wheels, the animal isn’t strapped in, and it stays at the bottom of the wheel, with its movement putting the wheel in motion. With my device, the person is strapped in, and her or his steps put the person in motion. In both cases, the device doesn’t actually travel to a different spot.

About those straps: The person would have to be secured at multiple points. The feet would have to be strapped or locked in, maybe using something a bit like bicycle cleats, only these could not be detached as long as the safeties were engaged. Then the waist and shoulders would have to strapped in, perhaps using something like the system that holds riders in place on standup roller coasters.

In starting position, the upper-body harness and backrest would extend upward from a sort of waist-high axle that connects to the frame of the machine. The user’s feet would be on independent movable stanchions connected to the axle in such a way that, at first, each step would move the lower body forward and upward and the upper body backward and downward.

The stanchions would be connected to some kind of ratchet-like locking system so that, on the ascent, the “pedals” could only be moved upward. By blocking downward movement, the stanchions give the user something to push against.

After the midway point, when the user is upside down, a different type of system would regulate stanchion movement so that the person’s legs don’t just slide down all at once thanks to gravity. On the descent, each step moves the lower body forward and downward and the upper body backward and upward. If this all comes together the way I envision, a person would be able to walk in place, propelling her- or himself in a circle.

There are a few things that I think would be great about this device. One is that the person is working against her or his own weight and gravity on the ascent. Around the midway point, gravity will pull blood in unfamiliar directions, which I suspect is a good way to get a cardiovascular workout. And if the user is walking in a smooth, continuous fashion, I imagine that it would if not simulate then at least approach the feeling of being in microgravity.

Now, if this machine were to exist (or if it does exist) in real life, then I think it would require its users to burn quite a lot of calories. So it’s a little different than what I imagine when I’m trying to fall asleep. At night, when I’m trying to reproduce the sensation I want, I just envision taking a few steps, about as smoothly and effortlessly as any normal ones, along a path that just happens to defy gravity. Its a bit like the jogging scene in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, only on a much smaller scale (and not in space).

(Incidentally, the spaceship in Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars has a similar design to the one in Kubrick’s movie; you can get a glimpse of it at the 48-second mark in this trailer.)

Sure, the reality wouldn’t be exactly like my dreams. But I still think it’d be cool to have one of these thingamabobs in real life!

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