I’m a terrible sleeper, which is perhaps why I got invited to contribute to a NY Times group blog on “insomnia, sleep and the nocturnal life”. Here is my first contribution, which focuses on the work of Dan Wegner:
My insomnia always begins with me falling asleep. I’ve been reading the same paragraph for the last five minutes — the text is suddenly impossibly dense — and I can feel the book getting heavier and heavier in my hands. Gravity is tugging on my eyelids.
And then, just as my mind turns itself off, I twitch awake. I’m filled with disappointment. I was so close to a night of sweet nothingness, but now I’m back, eyes wide open in the dark. I dread the hours of boredom; I’m already worried about the tiredness of tomorrow.
Why did my brain wake itself up? What interrupted my slumber? To understand this frustrating mental process, let’s play a simple game with only one rule: Don’t think about white bears. You can think about anything else, but you can’t think about that. Ready? Take a deep breath, focus, and banish the animals from your head.
You just lost the game. Everyone does. As Dostoevsky observed in “Winter Notes on Summer Impressions”: “Try to avoid thinking of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.” In fact, whenever we try not to think about something that something gets trapped in the mind, stuck in the recursive loop of self-consciousness. Our attempt at repression turns into an odd fixation.
This human frailty has profound consequences. Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, refers to the failure as an “ironic” mental process. Whenever we establish a mental goal — such as trying not to think about white bears, or sex, or a stressful event — the goal is accompanied by an inevitable follow-up thought, as the brain checks to see if we’re making progress. The end result, of course, is that we obsess over the one thing we’re trying to avoid. As Wegner notes, “The mind appears to search, unconsciously and automatically, for whatever thought, action, or emotion the person is trying to control. … This ironic monitoring process can actually create the mental contents for which it is searching.”
These ironic thoughts reveal an essential feature of the human mind, which is that it doesn’t just think: it constantly thinks about how it thinks. We’re insufferably self-aware, like some post-modern novel, so that the brain can’t go for more than a few seconds before it starts calling attention to itself. This even applies to thoughts we’re trying to avoid, which is why those white bears are so inescapable.
What does this have to do with sleep? For me, insomnia is my white bear. My conscious goal is to fall asleep, which then causes my unconscious to continually check up on whether or not I’m achieving my goal. And so, after passing out for 30 seconds, I’m woken up by my perverse brain. (Most animals lack such self-aware thoughts, which is why our pets never have trouble taking a nap.)
In a study published in 1996 in the journal of Behavior Research and Therapy, Wegner and colleagues investigated the ironic monitoring process in the context of sleep. The experiment was simple: 110 undergraduates were randomly divided into two groups. The first group was told to fall asleep “whenever you want,” while the second group was instructed to fall asleep “as fast as you can.” To make matters more interesting, the scientists also varied the background music, with some students falling asleep to a loud John Phillip Sousa march and others drifting off to “sleep-conducive new age music.”
Here’s where the data gets interesting: subjects who were instructed to fall asleep quickly took far longer to fall asleep, at least while listening to Sousa’s marching music. Because they became anxious about being able to fall asleep to the upbeat tune, all of their effort backfired, so that they would lie awake in frustration. Instead of just letting themselves drift off into dreamland, they kept on checking to see if they were still awake, and that quick mental check woke them up.
Wegner and colleagues suggest that this paradoxical thought process can explain a large amount of chronic insomnia, which occurs after we get anxious about not achieving our goal. The end result is a downward spiral, in which our worry makes it harder to pass out, which only leads to more worry, and more ironic frustration. I wake myself up because I’m trying too hard to fall asleep.
One of the paradoxical implications of this research is that reading this article probably made your insomnia worse. So did that Ambien advertisement on television, or the brief conversation you had with a friend about lying awake in bed, or that newspaper article about the mental benefits of R.E.M. sleep. Because insomnia is triggered, at least in part, by anxiety about insomnia, the worst thing we can do is think about not being able to sleep; the diagnosis exacerbates the disease. And that’s why this frustrating condition will never have a perfect medical cure. Insomnia is ultimately a side-effect of our consciousness, the price we pay for being so incessantly self-aware. It is, perhaps, the quintessential human frailty, a reminder that the Promethean talent of the human mind — this strange ability to think about itself — is both a blessing and a burden.