A Simple Trick for Beating Insomnia
Lessons from a chronic insomniac who finally learned how to sleep.
- Insomnia is aggravated, paradoxically, by trying too hard to fall asleep.
- Thus, experts recommend healthy sleep hygiene habits that replace obsessive thoughts about insomnia.
- When sleep hygiene isn’t enough, a simple trick for distracting your brain from sleep anxieties could work.
“Your biggest problem falling asleep,” my doctor observed, “is your anxiety about falling asleep.”
I’d been struggling for years with insomnia, and my physician’s insight seemed right on target. Each night, when my head hit the pillow, I’d try to relax but obsessive thoughts would creep in. “What if I can’t sleep again? I’ll be a zombie tomorrow. I’ll get sick. Sleep deprivation could trigger yet another horrible bout of my recurring depression.” (1)
How could anyone sleep with those anxieties buzzing around their brain?
Recognizing this vicious-circle nature of insomnia, sleep experts advise insomniacs not to perseverate on their fears, but to stop trying to sleep, get out of bed (so the brain does not permanently link the bed with sleep problems), and put anxious thoughts aside by reading a book or engaging their brain in some other absorbing activity incompatible with obsessive thoughts. (2)
Sleep experts also recommend keeping a regular schedule, not eating too late, filtering out blue light at night that tricks the brain into thinking it’s still daylight, cutting down on caffeine and alcohol, getting therapy for stress, engaging in regular meditation, and getting regular exercise (2,3,4).
I more or less followed all of this advice and, being a neuroscientist familiar with what chemicals do to the brain, also avoided drugs and supplements such as melatonin and herbs.
But I still routinely struggled to get to sleep and stay asleep.
The really nasty part of having this kind of problem is that, the harder you try to solve it, the more power you give it, and thus the more the problem persists. Paradoxically, I sensed that the solution lay in not trying to solve my insomnia, in order to rob it of its power.
So, I gave up the struggle and…drum roll…still suffered chronic sleep problems.
When I shared all this with my father shortly before his death, he revealed that he had also suffered chronic insomnia years before I was born, but had stumbled on to a simple trick that almost always worked for him.
The life-changing discovery arose from his enduring interest in visual perception. Although he was a rocket scientist, Dad read every research article he could on visual psychophysics and physiology. One night at bedtime, after reading an article on phosphenes—the random blotches and tiny speckles of light you see when you close your eyes or in total darkness—he started paying close attention to his own phosphenes, relishing the idea that he was directly visualizing random, normal “resting” activity of individual neurons in his brain’s visual pathway.
But, night after night, his attempts to carefully study his phosphenes were frustrated because he kept falling asleep before noting anything of interest.
Then it hit him. After years of failing to overcome insomnia, he had finally found a “cure” in the tiny speckles of light produced by the spontaneous activity of his visual neurons. After discovering it, this simple trick had been getting him to sleep for over 50 years, because, he theorized, it gave his brain something to do other than obsessing about insomnia.
“You can never tell your brain not to do something,” he observed, “because it will inevitably do exactly that thing in its attempt to avoid doing it.” But focusing on phosphenes, which, unlike thoughts, never come and go but are ever-present, Dad reasoned he could actively do something incompatible with worrying, by informing his brain that he was doing it out of pure scientific curiosity, not fear of insomnia.
Naturally, I tried the same trick the very night my dad revealed it and it worked that night, and almost every other night up to the present, but in a very different way than it did for my father. While I was “looking” at my phosphenes, I began to have waking visual hallucinations that perceptual psychologists call “hypnagogic images.” These images, which possess a clarity somewhere between images in a dream and real images seen with my open eyes, are quite normal and healthy, and experienced by most people just before they fall asleep (5). My hypnagogic images come in short flashes, but some people experience them as fragments of a visual narrative, or even “hear sounds” or “feel touch” accompanying the images. Hypnogogic images, for me, are three-dimensional objects like horses, fences, tables, landscapes, and…for some weird reason, fruits and vegetables.
Over the years, I’ve refined the technique of summoning sleep-producing hypnagogic images without my brain noticing what I’m doing long enough to start obsessing about what I’m doing. The key to success, I’ve learned, is to say, “Now, see here brain, I’m not trying to fall asleep, but simply watching the light-speckled curtain of darkness in front of me, waiting for visual ‘visitors’ to poke through the curtain of darkness so I can greet them.”
My brain has always been satisfied with that explanation, and, deprived of anything to worry about, quickly turns off, taking me along with it.
I hope gazing at phosphenes or waiting for hypnagogic visitors from the darkness works for you too, in case you need fresh ideas for beating insomnia. But if these tricks for tricking your brain fail, keep looking for other techniques that might succeed for precisely the reason that they—like my nightly wait for hypnagogic images—do not try to succeed.