The purpose of this web page is to explain the scientific rationale of mySleepButton.
NB: the information presented here will soon be updated based on recent developments in the somnolent information-processing theory. It is important to realize that research about information processing mechanisms controlling transition to sleep in humans is in its infancy. There are quantitative models based on circadian and homeostatic sleep factors, but a lack of detailed modeling of the cognitive, motivational, emotional and mood mechanisms that influence sleep in humans. Whereas sleep control is ancient, sleep control in human appears to be more complex than in simpler mammalians. There is a need for more detailed theories, computer simulations (using the designer stance of cognitive science / AI) and more empirical research. Having said that, the information reported here reflects a developing basis for such a research programme.
mySleepButton is based on a recently proposed theoretical framework proposed by CogSci Apps Corp. co-founder, Luc P. Beaudoin. Beaudoin published this theory in an open-access paper on March 31, 2013 at Simon Fraser University where he is adjunct professor:
The possibility of super-somnolent mentation: A new information-processing approach to sleep-onset acceleration and insomnia exemplified by serial diverse imagining (SFU Summit #12143).
CogZest initially ran a pilot test on this with promising results c. 2012/2013. This was subsequently put to an empirical test in an experiment at MacEwan University by Professor Nancy Digdon, Kelly O’Neill, Geoffrey Rachor and Beaudoin. The results are encouraging. A new experiment is currently under way at the Université de Montréal; its principal investigator is Prof. Julie Carrier. This is only the beginning of this research program. Another experiment by Digdon and colleagues was conducted whose results are to be analyzed. Other labs have also expressed an interest in testing the theory and the cognitive shuffle technique. We encourage further research (see below). At SFU, Beaudoin has listed several research questions on his theory and technique that need to be addressed.
Our intention is to use mySleepButton to help our customers fall asleep faster and to advance knowledge about mechanisms of sleep onset. As scientific understanding improves, we will improve our product. Thus, mySleepButton is doubly scientific: it is based on cognitive science theory and its research sibling ( SomnoTest, mentioned below) will contribute to cognitive science.
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.
The Cognitive Shuffle is proposed to be pro-somnolent
The Cognitive Shuffle is proposed to be pro-somnolent. When your sleep onset mechanism detects this strange thought pattern, it may say to itself “The mind’s all over the place. Imagining all kinds of unrelated things. Looks like it’s getting drowsy. Let’s make it even drowsier.
We believe this technique can, in some conditions, induce sleep within a few seconds. But sometimes it can take minutes, even dozens of minutes. That’s because the sleep onset mechanism is an integrator. It uses several signals. That’s why it’s important to put all the odds in your favour and use the sleep tips. However, the technique can also fail altogether: there is no silver bullet, none of the techniques in the literature are guaranteed to work for everyone every time. (This is partly due to insomnolence having multiple sources.)
Doing the Cognitive Shuffle is difficult unless you use the mySleepButton app, or you use the DIY-Cognitive Shuffle techniques we describe.
An invitation to sleep researchers and cognitive scientists
The somnolent information-processing framework is a contribution to cognitive science. As such it is open to scientific assessment and criticism.
mySleepButton does not hinge on all the tenets of the framework. The Cognitive Shuffle (SDI) technique and mySleepButton might (if at all) facilitate sleep via other mechanisms than those identified by the framework. Moreover, mySleepButton can be improved by discovering more about sleep onset information processing, using other scientific theories. Data collection and analysis ought to enable researchers to discover and test new theories.
We welcome such investigation and encourage scientists around the world to test this theory. They can do these tests with or without mySleepButton. mySleepButton’s research variant ( SomnoTest) has extensible scientific data gathering capabilities. It can send anonymized data from consenting users to a central database. Therefore, we encourage sleep labs to contact us with respect to mySleepButton for research purposes.
CogSci Apps Corp. has developed a version of mySleepButton for iOS that is specifically for researchers and their participants: SomnoTest for iOS. (Research labs may contact CogSci Apps Corp. for more information and access to SomnoTest.)
The CogSci Apps Corp. founders have been designing and implementing tools to test psychological hypotheses since 2002. Several of these tools have been used at Simon Fraser University and other universities (e.g., Prof. Phil Winne’s extensive nStudy system; PDF).
Ownership and affiliation
CogZest transferred ownership of the intellectual property related to mySleepButton to CogSci Apps Corp. in 2014. mySleepButton is the sole property of CogSci Apps Corp. Whereas Beaudoin has academic affiliations, the information presented on this web site belongs to CogSci Apps Corp. and is not intended to represent those institutions in any way.