Sometimes I can’t get to sleep, or perhaps more accurately I can’t get to sleep as quickly as I’d like. I’ll be thinking about some project I’m working on or what I need to do the next day. It doesn’t help that I’m pretty sure I’m more nocturnal by nature. I suspect that if the schedule of the world didn’t impose on me, I’d likely keep the circadian rhythm of a vampire.
I’ve heard of many possible approaches to victory over insomnia: nightcaps, reading, TV, exercise, etc. All of these options have – at different times – had some positive effect for me. Particularly helpful is simply making sure that I’ve consciously relaxed my body from head to toe, I find that I often retain tension in my neck or shoulders without really realising it. But in this post, I want to talk about a more specific technique, perhaps a form of meditation, that’s floated around in my head for a while now.
Looking back at how I fall asleep in hindsight, I often will note that as I approach the threshold, that unremembered tipping point where I assume I must slip into what is described as Stage 1 non-REM sleep, I sometimes start to see images in my mind, known as hypnagogic hallucinations. If you experience these as well, you may remember them as being the kind that can trigger a hypnic jerk, jolting you awake because for a second, your body thought you were falling or something. I have come to know these hypnagogic hallucinations as being a sign that I am close to sleep and assuming they do not trigger a hypnic jerk, they are usually the last thing I will remember before the dream state. I’m probably fortunate in that I’ve never experienced sleep paralysis during the hypnagogic state.
My feeling is that these hypnagogic hallucinations are almost like a trigger that causes a shifting of gears in my brain towards sleep. The content of the visions are very much like dreaming, they can be mundane or nonsensical, often having some relation to the activities of the past day, usually they come in short bursts and are not accompanied by any sound, they’re just visual. Sometimes they come in the form of simple shifting or moving geometric shapes and/or textured surfaces, along side curious sensations of close or distant proximity to what I’m seeing, this sensation is hard to put into words.
I like to think of these hallucinations as video, where as when I’m thinking silently to myself or I’m remembering a song, it’s more like audio (even though there’s not actually any physical sound, it’s all in my head). My theory is that audio thinking hinders me getting to sleep, while video thinking helps me get to sleep. Thinking about that coding issue I’m wrestling with is audio, or having an earworm stuck in my head is audio. I have found that if I can be disciplined enough to think only in video, then it helps me to get to sleep faster than if I just let my mind free-wheel through all the audio thoughts that it wants to think about. I see it as a form of meditation in so far as the idea is to direct thought in a specific way. Sometimes I will intentionally try to visualise simple 3D shapes of different colours, but I find I am most successful at achieving sleep if I can let go to a certain extent and allow my mind to spontaneously generate the video. This is when the more description defying stuff starts to present its self.
This got me to thinking about the old adage of counting sheep jumping over a fence. I think the adage might have it half right. Placing it into the framework of my theory, visualising sheep jumping over a fence is video thinking, but counting them is closer to audio thinking. This could be why the Oxford University experiment cited in the previous Wikipedia link concluded that:
… counting sheep is actually an inferior means of inducing sleep. Subjects who instead imagined “a beach or a waterfall” were forced to expend more mental energy, and fell asleep faster than those asked to simply count sheep. Sleep, by the same token, could be achieved by any number of complex activities that expend mental energy.
So the Oxford study is concluding that more complex visualisation expends more mental energy than simpler visualisation, with mental exhaustion leading to sleep. Maybe my video thinking just expends more energy than my audio thinking? It doesn’t feel this way to me. To me, it feels more like video thinking is somehow more in tune with or more conducive to the sleep state. If anything, audio thinking feels to me to be the more exhausting, but at the same time more promoting of a type of focus that does not agree with getting to sleep.
It’s easy to make the assumption that everyone’s brain works the same way yours does, but this is not the case. Some people apparently have little or no ability to visualise, some can visualise certain things and not others. Some people are synesthetes of varying types and I can only marvel at how their inner world must function. But for me and I suspect anyone who has ever experienced hypnagogic hallucinations and their occasional companion the hypnic jerk, what I’m talking about in this post may have some application.