I don’t know if it’s street noise, the dog trying to take over my pillow, age, or some combination of things, but in recent years, I’ve found myself having more difficulty sleeping through the night.
Sometimes I fall right back to sleep so it’s no big deal. But there are other times when my brain is just too alert, making it difficult to shut off all the thoughts in my head, and fall back asleep.
There was a time when I’d just get up and do some work instead of staying in bed. Because getting stuff done at 4am does feel super hard-core and productive.
But there’s a ton of research out there which suggests that not getting enough sleep can actually sabotage our goals in many aspects of our lives. It can inhibit our ability to learn and make gains in the practice room and classroom , make it more challenging to make good food choices, and in the long run, even put us at a higher risk of dementia.
Of course, knowing how important it is to get good sleep just puts more pressure on needing to sleep. Which makes it harder to get back to sleep!
So what can we do?
Well, I came across a new strategy several weeks ago, which I didn’t really know what to make of, but was weird enough that I figured I’d give it a try.
The first time I tried it, I actually surprised myself by how fast I fell back asleep if that’s possible. It was almost disorienting. I chalked it up to a fluke.
I remained a bit skeptical even when it worked like a charm the next time I tried it. And the time after that. But the darn strategy just kept working.
The research and theory behind this technique is still in the very early stages. But with reports of difficulty getting to sleep on the rise during these pandemic times, and school and various new stressors right around the corner, now seemed like a good time to explore this sleep hack in case you might find it helpful as well.
So what is it exactly?
A bit of background…
The technique is called serial diverse imagining, and we’ll get into the details of it in a minute, but before we do, it helps to know a bit of background…
So ultimately, our brain is responsible for putting us to sleep. But it’s not a process that we have direct, conscious control over. Like, we can’t just will ourselves to sleep on cue.
However, the cognitive scientist who developed this technique, Luc Beaudoin, observed in a thought-provoking 2013 paper, that there do seem to be certain types of mental activity that are more conducive and less conducive to falling asleep. Three types, to be exact.
Three types of “mentation”
He called some types of mental activity (i.e. thoughts and images) “insomnolent,” in that they make it more difficult for us to fall asleep. Stuff like worrying about our future, problem-solving, mentally rehearsing a difficult conversation we need to have, thinking about sleep and how not getting enough of it is going to wreck tomorrow, and so on.
Then, there’s mental activity that doesn’t necessarily keep us awake, but doesn’t really help us get to sleep either (i.e. “asomnolent” mentation).
And finally, there’s mental activity that Beaudoin categorizes as “prosomnolent.” This is the stuff that seems to actively accelerate or facilitate falling asleep. And what exactly does this type of mental activity look like?
Ah, yes, so this is where things get interesting.
Where traditional strategies fall short
Most sleep-enhancing strategies are focused on keeping our brain engaged in something more neutral, like meditating on our breath, so that we don’t have the cognitive bandwidth to engage in worries, problem-solving, or other thoughts and images that stress us out or keep our mind racing.
But Beaudoin notes that meditating on your breath is really more accurately described as a “counter-insomnolent” strategy than a prosomnolent strategy. In that breathing meditation doesn’t really bring on sleep. It just aims to neutralize the unhelpful thoughts that keep you awake, by keeping your brain too busy to think them.
But that’s not necessarily ideal, right? Because while meditating may prevent you from worrying about the lesson you have tomorrow, it’s still an actively focused sort of state that takes a fair amount of effort. Which is not quite the same as being asleep.
The role of coherent vs. incoherent thoughts
As Beaudoin thought about this paradox, it occurred to him that the thing that all these insomnolent, sleep-preventing mentations have in common, is that they involve engaging in thoughts that are coherent. And involve making some sort of logical sense of things.
But have you ever noticed how weird and incoherent your thinking often gets right before you fall asleep? Where maybe you start having super random thoughts, or brief dream-like flashes of nonsensical images and unrelated memories from your past?
Beaudoin wondered…what if this phenomenon isn’t something that just happens to coincide with falling asleep? What if this type of incoherent, non-sensical mental activity actually induces sleep?
How our brain decides it’s ok to sleep
Beaudoin explains that it’s almost like the sleep/wake switch in our brain needs to know it’s safe to go to sleep before letting us zonk out, so it kind of “reads the room” as it were, or scans the activity in our cortex (i.e. the “thinking” part of our brain), to see if it’s doing things that suggest we ought to stay awake, or if it’s doing things that suggest it’s ok to pass out for a bit.
Like, if it senses that your brain is trying to make sense of the discrepancies you’re seeing between what is on your Google Maps app and the roads and exits around you, it’s clear that now is not a good time to go to sleep. No matter how exhausted you might be.
But if you’re sitting in the back row of philosophy class at 8am, having been up until 5am playing Mario Kart with your buddies, your professor’s soothing monotone, combined with the random bits and pieces of various concepts that seem incoherent and make no sense to you may give your brain a false sense of safety, until suddenly, you’re unconscious.
Is sense-making the key factor?
So the theory, is that if you’re involved in mental activity that’s oriented around coherent thoughts, and an attempt to try to make sense of things, the sleep/wake part of your brain is going to intuit that it’s not safe to go to sleep.
So what might happen if you purposefully engage in incoherent, non-sense-making thoughts and images? Could this be the holy grail, where not only is your mind blocked from engaging in worrying and the sort of sense-making thoughts that keep you awake, but also enables you to access your brain’s sleep/awake switch more directly? Letting it know that it’s safe to shut things down for the night, by essentially mimicking what it does right before falling asleep?
Beaudoin calls these “super-somnolent” strategies. Because they not only prevent you from engaging in unhelpful mental activity, but also accelerate sleep. So a double win!
And this is where serial diverse imaging (aka “The Cognitive Shuffle”) comes into play.
A sleep study
Beaudoin and a few colleagues (Beaudoin et al., 2016) recruited 154 university students who reported having some difficulty shutting off their brains while trying to get to sleep.
They all completed questionnaires to measure their level of alertness before going to bed, how much effort it usually took them to get to sleep, and their sleep quality. And then they were randomly assigned to various groups and asked to use different types of sleep strategies.
The group we’re interested in used an imagery-based mind-wandering strategy. As these participants lay in bed, they turned on an app that was programmed to recite a word or short phrase describing an object or scene that they would try to visualize. And every 8 seconds, the app would prompt them with a different object or scene, thereby encouraging participants to keep shuffling continuously through new random images in their head (hence, the name “cognitive shuffle”).
And what happened?
A month later, everyone retook the questionnaires, and sure enough, there was a significant improvement in all three areas – quality of sleep, ease of getting to sleep, as well as their mental state before going to bed!
It’s important to note that this strategy is not the be all and end all for all sleep issues, because sleep issues have many different causes. So it’s not going to work perfectly all the time, or for every single person, but I think it’s definitely worth a try. And if you’re interested, instructions are below!
The Cognitive Shuffle strategy
1. As you’re lying in bed, think of a random, emotionally neutral word that has at least 5 letters. Beaudoin used the example word BEDTIME, so I’ve actually just been using that.
2. Anyhow, starting with the first letter, “B,” think of a word that begins with B, and visualize that item. Like imagine a Bear. And then a Banana. And then Bacon. And then Bread. And then Butter. (ok, I will confess that it’s lunchtime as I write this, so my mind is trending in the direction of food).
3. If you can’t think of another word starting with B, or just get kind of bored with it, feel free to move on to the next letter in your “seed” word BEDTIME – in this case, the letter E. So you’d imagine an Elephant. An Egg. An Escalator. And so on.
4. If you get to the end of your word and are still awake, just pick a new seed word, and repeat the process.
For complete details on how to do this, here’s Beaudoin’s complete instructions:
I’m rather partial to the DIY version myself, but the app version is cool in a different way. If you’d prefer to try the app version, you can get that here:
And because if you’re having difficulty sleeping, it’s important to consider other factors as well, here are Beaudoin’s sleep tips:
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Beaudoin, L. P. (2015). The possibility of super-somnolent mentation: A new information-processing approach to sleep-onset acceleration and insomnia exemplified by serial diverse imagining. (First version published 2013-03). http://summit.sfu.ca/item/12143
Beaudoin, L. P., Digdon, N., O’Neill, K. & Racour, G. (Abstract accepted for 2016 publication). Serial diverse imagining task: A new remedy for bedtime complaints of worrying and other sleep-disruptive mental activity. Poster to be presented at SLEEP 2016 (A joint meeting of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the Sleep Research Society). Denver, CO.