A cognitive scientist has devised a drug-free sleep trick for your restless mind

“So random”
“So random”
Image: Unsplash/Nomao Saeki
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A cognitive scientist may have solved a familiar sleep riddle: If you struggle to fall asleep, you’re likely to keep thinking about how you can’t fall asleep, which makes it harder to fall asleep. So how do you stop thinking about your struggle to sleep?

Luc Beaudoin of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, has invented a method called cognitive shuffling that’s meant to lull the brain into that groggy state that precedes a sleep cycle by asking it to focus on random words and images, without making connections between them. When he’s speaking to other cognitive scientists, he calls the concept “serial diverse imagining.”

There are two ways to do this cognitive shuffle. The first is to play a simple word game as you lay in bed: Pick a word that contains at least five letters. Take the first letter, and create a new list of words that begin with it, then vividly picture each in your mind. When you run out of ideas or inspiration, move on to the next letter. The “seed” word can be anything, though it should be emotionally neutral, and ought not contain too many repeated letters. Beaudoin uses “bedtime” as an example on his site.

The second option is to use Beaudoin’s app, mySleepButton, which works on a similar principle but does all the heavy lifting for you. Turn it on and a generically pleasant voice reads out a list of random objects, scenes, and activities, seconds apart; all you have to do is set the timer for how long you want the voice to keep listing items, and then picture each item vividly.

Cognitive shuffling is Beaudoin’s answer to his “incoherent mentation somnolence hypothesis.” Essentially, he proposes that as the brain transitions to sleep, it stops “sense-making.” It has turned off the higher-order processing functions we use during the day, allowing thoughts and images to become surreal. That’s a “signal to subcortical regions to continue the transition into sleep,” he writes in a paper explaining the theory, first published in 2013.

His word game and app deliberately push the brain into believing it’s safe to stand down.

We’ve been told to count sheep to lull our mind to rest, but basic counting games are dull, Beaudoin argues. The activity is simply not sticky enough to hold the attention of what Buddhist thought calls the monkey mind. By contrast, cognitive shuffling gives the brain just enough toys to play with, but not enough coherent information to stir executive functioning.

Researchers at the Université de Montréal have begun testing a simpler version of the app in a controlled study pitting serial diverse imagining against counting backwards. Preliminary results (in French and English) suggest the app’s ability to aid insomnia is promising. At the end of a two-week trial, both groups—one using the app and one counting backwards—showed reduced insomnia, but those who used the app showed greater improvement. They also felt that it was taking them less time to fall asleep; the other group didn’t notice any change. (Beaudoin notes that he was involved in the design of the trial, which used an app built on his company’s software.)

For now, mySleepButton is one of many apps approaching an old problem, though it’s the only one designed to purposefully scramble your thoughts.

Insomnia is an occasional problem for me, so I tried the app last night in a totally unscientific experiment. After I set the timer to 20 minutes, and the words began to spill out of my phone, I immediately started to think about why the app writers chose the words they did. That made me certain the app would fail.

The app: Afro…Ocean liner…A bird in a tree… 

Me: Afro? What a start. Racial connotations. Is that cool? Or am I the problem for thinking that?

The app: Shopping on Saturday…A pool at a community center…

Me: Wait, why a community center? Why not “a public pool”? Is that a Canadianism?

It went on like this.

After what felt like five minutes, however, I noticed that each new word was indeed sparking a micro-dream. My mind became an improv troupe accepting random ideas from the audience and putting them to work in strange scenes. (It was sort of like the classic Carol Burnett sketch “The Life Raft,” in which real life humans are forced to act out the whims of a novelist as he crafts his unpredictable plot.)

Though it seemed there was a catch: my oddball dreams were constantly interrupted by the next word or phrase that couldn’t be easily incorporated, waking me up. “Light shining on a mountain” was one such trance-breaking puzzler.

“That seems like a design flaw,” I said to myself — before drifting off and sleeping soundly.