Do you want to be able to achieve sleep when you need it? Don’t bother with an App!
With barely a moment’s thought, it seems so obvious and self-evident, that achieving a calm state of mind is a necessary pre-requisite for sleep to occur.
That’s why the marketplace continues to be deluged with Apps, books, web sites and courses that hold the promise of helping you achieve that necessary state of mind.
Considering Apps alone, the number that are available seems almost endless. You can (hopefully) drift off to sounds of the crashing sea, the gentle lapping of waves on a silvery boat (as the Sandman takes your hand), or you can hear the sounds of the Everglades at dusk, rhythmic beats of various frequencies and intensity, Stephen Fry reading to you, white noise, sultry somnambulistic suggestions, and even follow yoga instructions. All of these apps have been created on the pre-supposition that you must achieve that calm state of mind, otherwise you’ll struggle to get to sleep.
But what if something so obvious as trying to achieve a calm mind should turn out to be incompatible with the way our brains shift from wakefulness to sleep? What if the Apps actually contribute to counter-productive states that interfere with getting to sleep?
One thing I am confident of is that the first person to suggest the alternative proposition, that the brain can be (and may even need to be) active in order to fall asleep, will have derision heaped upon them from the conventional wisdom majority. But just for a moment I invite you to join with me, suspend your derision, and entertain the sleep equivalent that the world may not be flat…
This article is written for those of you in this camp—those who are frustrated with applying the conventional wisdom, and despite employing various sleep Apps, still find themselves wide awake at 3:00AM. It is written to help provide alternative help and solace for those of us who have become frustrated by their own personal experience, or perhaps puzzled when observing their partner drift off to sleep easily despite their having an active mind.
“Do not go gentle into that good night.”
When Dylan Thomas wrote that he was watching his father die. It led to a very sad account of his father’s thwarted ambitions in poetry. However, without knowing it, Dylan could have written it in anticipation of sleep science yet to come. You do not need to go gently into that goodnight. Strangely, sleep scientists have known for at least 40 years that calmness is not a pre-requisite for sleep; a fundamental fact ignored by App developers – and a good deal of sleep therapists as well.
In essence the science shows us that our brains are as active during sleep as they are when we’re awake. It’s just that during sleep the brain’s neurochemicals are not conducive to creating a state of being in which self-awareness and memory serves to convince us that that mental activity has taken place. Sleep is in fact just one of many states of mental being that are predicated by three factors:
• the brain’s neurochemical mix,
• it’s source of cognitive and emotional activity, and
• its gross type of electrical activity as measured by EEG waves.
In deep sleep the cholinergic chemicals dominate, cognitive activity is not captured by memory functions, external stimuli are thwarted from reaching awareness by the Thalamus, and electrical activity can be recognised as slow waves of about 2 Hz. In dreaming the same cholinergic chemicals are present, the aminergic chemicals are suppressed, certain cognitive processes like perception and sense-making abound, but, because of the particular chemical mix, other cognitive processes like memory and self reflective awareness, insight and judgement are all deficient. Our electrical brainwaves are more like those found in wakefulness.
This appreciation of the science of sleep (and all states of mental being) makes it clear that the level of cognitive and emotional activity itself is not a condition for sleep, or wakefulness. It follows that we need to question the assumptions underpinning the ‘calm mind’ view of sleep onset. A calm mind, and all the Apps that purport to facilitate this, are not prerequisites for sleep. What is a pre-requisite is to effect a transition from attention to the external real world, to a different internal world of fantasy (for want of a better description). In our fantasy world we’re able to free ourselves from any need to maintain a level of vigilance of the external world (where we’re watching out for any threat to our well-being).
So, it’s not calmness or busyness per se that should concern the App makers, but a focus on encouraging the type of mental busyness which is compatible with sleep. That many Apps fail to do this is their downfall. After all, how can you use an App that requires your attention, while at the same time shutting down conscious awareness of the outside world?
When I began the serious business of assisting international pilots with achieving better sleep, I eventually set aside the calmness goal. Was it even reasonable to expect that in the two hours available for rest (during a flight) that a pilot could transition from a complex and stimulating flight deck, and in a few moments achieve calm and go to sleep? Setting aside that goal freed me to explore very new and liberating paradigms for achieving sleep. I was able to treat inducing sleep as an active process, as a type of specific skill that could be acquired by practice. I was no longer locked into an outdated paradigm that supported essentially passive approaches to sleep. These approaches have dominated the sleep therapy industry, that essentially rely on removing the obstacles that conventional wisdom (and urban myth) suggested got in the way of a natural process for falling asleep. I was able to explore paradoxical alternatives that encouraged me to consider sleep inducement as an active process—one that is almost within our control.
Once you free yourself from the calm-before-sleep requirement and understand the architecture of sleep which is built from its three components, then you begin to appreciate why the Apps are both limiting and even counterproductive. The Apps are generally built around producing sounds (music, rhythms, and words) with the promise that they will lull you into a calm state, and then sleep will take over—you need do nothing but listen.
However, the act of listening is an externally driven activity, which serves to keep the brain vigilant. Apps also require that we use our concentration to attend to the sounds; the moment we stop attending then our minds tend to wander. Preventing a wandering mind requires that we interact with those sounds or stories, and part of that concentration requires the we anticipate what comes next (which is why melodic sounds are more satisfying that a disorganised cacophony – we like receiving what we next expect). However, our attention is also held by surprise – “I wasn’t expecting that” which in turn promotes sleep denying vigilance. We can drift in and out of awareness of the sounds as long as our mental wandering doesn’t drift off into worrying thoughts. But for most of us it will, especially at 3:00AM. These Apps create a wakeful double blind; we can actively listen and stay awake, or drift away from the sounds into worrying thoughts – and stay awake.
What’s the alternative? Internally sourced mental activity that promotes sleep, which I call Pure Fantasy.
It’s devoid of all requirements for vigilance—it has no connection to the external world and is positive and life affirming. It’s quite possible to learn this mental technique as a skill without recourse to an external App. When used in combination with my Blis technique for inducing sleep, as described in my book BLIS™ For Insomniacs
, you’ll have a suite of mental tools for actively inducing sleep, rather than passively lying awake waiting for ‘it’ to come along.
Go actively, not gently, into that ‘Goodnight’, and achieve the Blis of sleep.