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.