The Psychology of Covid-19: Is Mental Perturbance Keeping You Awake?

Unsurprisingly, during the Covid era, there have been several reports of people having more difficulty getting to sleep and back to sleep — a state we call “insomnolence” rather than “insomnia”. This tends , formally and informally, to be attributed to “worry”, “repetitive thought”, “racing minds”, “rumination”, “cognitive arousal”. However, none of those concepts are up to the task — or at least that is what two teams of insomnolence researchers say. Being a member of both, I agree!

In our research publications, we have been arguing that the processes underlying such insomnolence actually involve mental perturbance. In other words, that mental perturbance is insomnolent.

Mental perturbance is a state of mind in which attentional resources tend to be consumed by insistent motivators. Motivators involve evaluations (or appraisals) as a situation as being motivationally relevant. They are not just “dry thoughts” or “cognitions” (like an ear worm). They are “affectively active” states of mind that our “executive functions” (working memory, deliberative processes, meta-cognition , etc) were designed by evolution to serve.

If that all sounds too abstract, or just plain interesting, check out Attention! Have you lost it? on the CogZest blog.

If you want to dig a bit deeper, check out this peer-reviewed paper that Sylwia Hyniewska, Monika Pudlo and I wrote:

Beaudoin, L. P., Pudlo, M. & Hyniewska, S (2020). Mental perturbance: An integrative design-oriented concept for understanding repetitive thought, emotions and related phenomena involving a loss of control of executive functions.

It was published last week.

Insomnia vs. insomnolence

We distinguish between insomnia and insomnolence:

  • Insomnia is a psychiatric condition whose definition varies across diagnostic manuals and time. Not everyone who has difficulty falling asleep should be labeled as having a psychiatric condition —insomnia or otherwise.

  • Insomnolence is a descriptive term that we coined. It refers to difficulty falling asleep when a person intends to sleep.

Keep in mind that many psychologists, like Colin Espie, claim that the very intention to sleep is insomnolent, which presents a bit of a paradox. But we reject those theories.

In fact, we claim that normally people fall asleep because they want and intend to. They actually trigger processes to fall asleep. Falling asleep is admittedly less direct than scratching your head, but it’s more direct than how many other mental or behavioral outcomes are achieved. It’s just that the mechanisms by which the intention is translated into sleep onset is implicit, complex and ignored by folk psychology. We believe it is the role of integrative design-oriented (IDO) models of sleep onset and insomnolence to explain

  1. how natural sleep onset happens, whether or not intention is involved,
  2. and the various mechanisms that can prevent sleep onset.

Those mechanisms are varied and complex. Insomnolence can have multiple causes. But with systematic IDO modeling we can discover how they might work. Empirical psychologists can then get to the business of evaluating IDO models.

Célyne H. Bastien, Alexandre Lemyre, Monika Pudlo and I have been developing a somnolent information processing theory with the aim of producing a theory worth testing.

If we’re right, then the reason why “worry”, “intrusive mentation”, and “rumination” keep you awake is that the brain’s sleep onset control system is sensitive to perturbant motivators and alarms. Furthermore, the concept of “cognitive arousal” can be thrown in the trash can of failed scientific theorizing.

President, CogSci Apps Corp. Author, Cognitive Productivity

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