The purpose of this web page is to explain the theoretical rationale of mySleepButton.
Our intention is to use mySleepButton to help our customers fall asleep faster and to advance knowledge about mechanisms of sleep onset. We make no claims about whether this will work for any particular person. We present below a speculative understanding.
What your mind does: Mentation
The brain is always active, creating mental content such as thoughts, images, wishes, wants, intentions, plans, assessments, feelings, stories, perceptions, recollections, etc. The waking mind is usually engaged in a limited number of more or less conscious activities such as planning, imagining, assessing, ruminating, perceiving and/or listening. “Mentation” is the word that stands for all of these activities. It’s more general than “thinking”, if you assume that thinking and feeling, for instance, are not the same.
The mind is a sense making machine
At almost all times, whether you are awake or asleep, your mind is engaged in some kind of sense making. That is, your mind is trying to make sense of the information that it gets from its senses or that it generates internally. For example, if you see someone crossing the street, you might unconsciously infer that her purpose is to get to the other side. If she walks back and forth along a sidewalk, you might conjecture that she is waiting for someone. You are probably trying to make sense of this document. Even when you are asleep and dreaming, your mind is trying, with its limited resources, to make sense of the various images, feelings, and perceptions that your brain produces.
Sense-making is reduced at sleep onset
However, there is one time of the day where mental activity occurs but sense-making is radically reduced: just before you fall asleep. (Psychoactive drugs, coma, and other abnormal brain states may also reduce sense-making.)
The brain controls sleep onset
Sleeping is essential. If you stay awake too long you will have great difficulty solving problems. You might even start to hallucinate and become paranoid.
However, it is not always safe to fall asleep. It would be very dangerous to fall asleep while you are being chased by an armed enemy. Or while driving. Some people have narcolepsy: they have little control over when they fall asleep. That is very inconvenient.
Therefore, the human brain has a mechanism to determine when it is appropriate to fall asleep. This mechanism is not located in the very smart parts of the brain. That is to say, it is not located in the cortex (the parts of the brain most responsible for thinking and higher order mental activities). So, the sleep onset mechanism needs to use “heuristics” to figure out when it’s time to induce sleep.
The sleep onset mechanism is not completely under voluntary (cortical) control. Just like evolution has made us unable to “will ourselves” to stop breathing, or to suppress the motivator to drink when we are dehydrated, so evolution has made sleep onset only partially under the control of the cortex. That is why most people can’t simply tell themselves “now I will fall asleep” and enter sleep onset—the process of falling asleep is quite indirectly controlled by the cortex. In contrast, most people can easily tell themselves to raise their left arm. (Muscle movement, while still relatively indirect, is much more directly controlled by the cortex).
The brain’s sleep onset mechanism balances various factors in its decision to induce sleep. It takes some of its cues about when to fall asleep from the cortex. But it is not completely controlled by the cortex either. It also gets a lot of its cues about when to fall asleep from various parts of the body and brain (chiefly, circadian and homeostatic factors).
How the brain’s sleep onset mechanisms determine it is OK to trigger onset
In order to figure out that the cortex is ready for sleep, the brain’s sleep onset mechanism must take into consideration what the cortex is doing. But because this mechanism is subcortical, it’s relatively “dumb”; so it cannot fully understand what the cortex is thinking. However, it is capable of detecting whether the cortex is involved in sense-making. And it can tell whether the mental activity is rich in diverse imagery and memories.
Three kinds of sleep-related mentation
There are three kinds of sleep-related mentation:
- Mentation that prevents people from falling asleep. That is, “insomnolent mentation“.
- Mentation that helps people fall asleep. That is, “pro-somnolent mentation“. This is the kind of thing that helps to push you over the edge, into sleep.
- Mentation that has no particular impact on sleep onset. That is “asomnolent mentation“.
It is an important challenge for cognitive science to determine which kinds of thought patterns are insomnolent, which are pro-somnolent and which are asomnolent.
Research suggests that the most common types of insomnolent mentation are:
a. Rehearsing/planning and problem-solving.
b. Thinking about sleep and its consequences.
c. Reflecting on quality of one’s thoughts.
d. Thinking about one’s level of arousal.
Interestingly, all insomnolent mentation seems to involve sense-making. This, we believe, is not merely a correlational fact: sense making, particularly about important, urgent, or insistent matters, is insomnolent. So long as the cortex is involved in coherent thought, in sense-making, the sleep onset mechanism tends to delay sleep. (This tendency can be overridden.)
As people are falling asleep, their thought becomes disorganized. They have very brief dreams. They can experience diverse remote memories, some of which may even be decades old. They cease to engage in coherent thought and sense-making. Beaudoin proposed that this thought pattern does not merely correlate with sleep onset, it is pro-somnolent.
Most deliberate mentation techniques that folk psychology and professional psychology have devised to induce sleep are at best counter-insomnolent. That is, they are designed to interfere with or prevent insomnolent mentation. For example, meditation is counter-insomnolent because it (normally) involves focusing on a very simple theme or object, such as one’s breath or a mantra. While you are meditating in this way, you can’t at the same time be problem-solving, planning, scheduling, thinking about sleep, reflecting on your thinking, etc.
These techniques can in fact help you to fall asleep because they remove some barriers to sleep.
However, these techniques do not seem to be inherently pro-somnolent. For example, meditation experts state that if you meditate properly, you will be in an extremely aware, alert and focused state. But while you are alert and focused, you are not asleep.
Super-somnolent mentation = counter-insomnolent + pro-somnolent mentation
Suppose, however, that you are deliberately engaging in a mental activity that is both counter-insomnolent and pro-somnolent. That would be a mental activity that (a) interferes with insomnolent thinking; and (b) signals to your sleep onset mechanism that you are primed to fall asleep. We would say of this activity that it is super-somnolent.
A new objective of cognitive science, then is to identify super-somnolent mentation. There are several candidates for super-somnolent mentation. A new “holy grail” of insomnia research (we believe.) One of them is serial diverse imagining, also known as “the Cognitive Shuffle”.
The Cognitive Shuffle (i.e., serial diverse imagining) is proposed to be super-somnolent
The Cognitive Shuffle is a mental activity that, we conjecture, can be both counter-insomnolent and pro-somnolent. There are different forms of the Cognitive Shuffle, the major one of which is serial diverse imagining. We’ll equate the Cognitive Shuffle with serial diverse imagining in this document.
The Cognitive Shuffle involves imagining diverse items, scenes or processes one at a time, each for a short period of time. It involves “shuffling one’s thoughts (and images)”. That is why the mySleepButton slogan is “Shuffle your thoughts to sleep”. For example, you might imagine the following things one a time, for a few seconds each:
- a cow,
- a stove,
- a star,
- a microphone,
- a motor home,
- a basket,
- a firetruck,
- an octopus,
- baking soda,
- raisin bread,
- a birdhouse,
- a paperclip.
While you are doing this, you probably won’t be thinking (as much) about the concerns that keep you awake, because it’s difficult to think of multiple things at the same time. So this should be counter-insomnolent. If your mind does wander back to your concerns, you just bring it back to random items.