The Frontal Cortex

The Perverse Imp

I couldn’t sleep last night. As far as I can tell, there was no particular reason for my insomnia. I wasn’t stressed, or anxious, or caffeinated, or sick. My mind was tired, but my brain just wasn’t in the sleeping mood. And no, I hadn’t been talking on a cell phone.

For me, one of the most annoying parts of insomnia is the way I continually almost fall asleep. I’m drifting off into that dreamy netherworld, my thoughts growing languid and slow, when all of a sudden I remember I can’t sleep, and snap back into awakeness. It’s damn annoying.

What causes this insomniac process? If I had to venture a guess, I’d go with a theory put forth by Dan Wegner, a social psychologist at Harvard. In one experiment, Wegner asked people to not think about a specific thing, like a white bear. He tells them that this is their only goal. So what happens? As you can imagine, everybody starts thinking about white bears. The second we try to suppress a thought that same thought becomes impossible to avoid. We fail to achieve our goal.

Why is it so hard to not think about white bears? The answer returns us to the intricate connection between our consciousness awarness, the part of our brain that establishes and maintains goals, and our unconscious, the part of our brain that gives us feedback about whether or not we are making progress towards our goal. According to Wegner, whenever we try not to think about something, this cortical setup backfires. Because our unconscious brain continually checks to make sure that we are not thinking about white bears (this is our goal), we end up thinking about white bears. Before long, the brain is trapped in a recursive mental loop and we can’t think about anything but white bears. We have fallen victim to what Edgar Allen Poe called “The Imp of the Perverse.” (Wegner calls this an “ironic process” of mental control.)

For me, insomnia is my white bear. I try not to think about not being able to sleep (this is my conscious goal), which then causes my unconscious to continually check up on whether or not I’m achieving my goal. And then I wake up.

Comments

  1. #1 Tony Jeremiah
    September 25, 2008

    Wegner asked people to not think about a specific thing, like a white bear. He tells them that this is their only goal. So what happens? As you can imagine, everybody starts thinking about white bears. The second we try to suppress a thought that same thought becomes impossible to avoid. We fail to achieve our goal.

    Couple of questions/comments/thoughts come to mind: (1) If the primary goal is switched to thinking about a white bear, will this reverse the original effect (which sounds a bit like the meditation technique of repeating a certain phrase [e.g., “ohm”]).I think the technique is meant to clear the mind of intrusive thoughts; (2) Wegner’s work is similar to Michael Anderson’s in the use of his think/don’t think paradigm that represents a contemporary version of Freud’s notion of repression. His result was that when people were asked to not think about something, they had greater difficulty recalling that thought at some later point in time (contrasted with Wegner’s results). Although, I suspect the difference concerns short vs. long term memory.

    According to Wegner, whenever we try not to think about something, this cortical setup backfires. Because our unconscious brain continually checks to make sure that we are not thinking about white bears (this is our goal), we end up thinking about white bears.

    Sounds like an apt description of the obsessive thought component of obsessive compulsive disorder.

  2. #2 Rachael
    September 25, 2008

    Not that I know anything about insomnia, but here’s some personal experience.

    When I was young (~10yrs), I had a terrible problem with insomnia. I would stay awake for hours at night, staring at the ceiling and thinking about anything and everything, becoming frustrated by my lack of sleep and waking up all over again. At some point, I discovered that I could fall asleep through meditation. By focusing on my cyclic breath and the release of tension that comes with sleep, I could thwart the random thoughts that popped into my head. The meditation before sleep became an ingrained habit: I would clear my thoughts, relax my muscles, and within a short period of time (5 minutes?), I would drift into sleep. Suddenly, sleep was a rewarding activity.

    But this backfired I think — or maybe it was inevitable anyway, I don’t know — as an adult, I have trouble not falling asleep. As soon as I imagine the potential for sleep, I become obsessed with an overwhelming urge to fall asleep at times when I shouldn’t (say, 2pm on a Tuesday). Sure, if I need to stay up, I can. I’m certainly not narcoleptic, but this childhood practice turned sleep into the ultimate, best reward at the end of a long day. Sometimes that is annoying.

    I’d really like to know what switch was flicked in my brain to change me from not being able to sleep to not being able to stay awake.

    >>I try not to think about not being able to sleep (this is my conscious goal), which then causes my unconscious to continually check up on whether or not I’m achieving my goal.

    Rather than fighting your thought process, try directing it to something mundane, such as your breath. Keep in mind a few dead-end topics and direct your thoughts back to these simple, repetitive measures. The old adage of counting sheep is referenced for a reason — your mind never stops thinking, so give your mind permission to think about the kinds of things that are conducive to being unconscious.

  3. #3 gabe
    September 25, 2008

    Reading is my cure. Whenever I can’t sleep, I just read, read, read, read, read until I can’t possibly keep my eyes open anymore. Plus reading is such a bizarre trance state to be in anyway, it almost resembles dreaming more than waking life. Flip that light off quick and let your mind spin off into the book’s imagery…

  4. #4 Kath
    September 26, 2008

    Night is a “feminine energy” — so maybe sometimes we need to “resolve our relationship” with that idea/representation. Do embrace its fickleness? Do we rebel in its control over us?

    Then again, if you believe in synchronicity… sometimes yer just supposed to not sleep because it’s going to make way for something wonderful to happen. …Such as your inspiration for a blog that appears to be about nothing significant LOL. I have come up with my best poems that way.

  5. #5 Gayle Greene
    September 26, 2008

    I’ve found some visualization techniques that help. There are also “mind machines,” and various kinds of music therapies. There are lots of things out there that might help. -i talk about these in my book INSOMNIAC.
    I’m a lifelong insomniac. I got so tired of hearing the same-old advice I decided to find out what is known about insomnia. Not much, it turns out. But people do come up with ingenious techniques, and maybe what works for someone else can work for you. My site sleepstarved.org is there to help…
    Gayle

  6. #6 jb
    September 27, 2008

    If you aren’t into reading or don’t have anything interesting to think about to while away the time, first of all accept that you are awake and use the time gratefully to train your mind. Here you are relaxed and lying comfortably ….perfect time to try meditation. Ordinarily one doesn’t meditate lying down because of the probability of falling asleep but you’ve licked that one and lots of people don’t meditate because they can’t find time…you’ve got that licked too. So straighten out, open or close your eyes and put your attention on your breath. Follow the sensual experience of breathing in and breathing out. When a thought arises (and there will be lots) label it ‘thinking’ and go back to the breath without judgement. You are training not to buy into thoughts, rather than trying to get rid of them. Gradually the thoughts that do arise will be from the right hemisphere rather than the left and therefore qualify as insights. Or you will fall asleep before that happens. Either way you are ahead.

  7. #7 sericmarr
    September 28, 2008

    My sleep cycle changed last October with a heat wave. The nights were so warm that I couldn’t fall asleep. Since then I fall asleep right after dinner. I wake up about ten and can’t go to sleep until about two in the morning. I decided to take advantage of this. I do a walking meditation. Write for several hours. Do another walking meditation and then go to bed and fall asleep. I do feel a bit like Marcel Proust (only my room is not cork lined!!!). I have written four first drafts for stories this year.

  8. #8 sericmarr
    October 4, 2008

    Addendum: We just had another heat wave with very warm nights. My sleep cycle didn’t change. I still fall asleep after dinner. Wake up at 10 PM, write, and then fall asleep at 1 or 2 AM.

  9. #9 M C
    October 22, 2008

    Try supplementing with sublingual melatonin – works for me.

  10. #10 brint montgomery
    July 10, 2009

    It’s been a while since the issue was raised, but I thought you might enjoy my 21st cent. update of Poe’s, The Imp of the Perverse. It’s here:
    http://brintmontgomery.blogspot.com/2009/07/core-of-evil-edgar-allan-poe-updated.html

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