Insomnia and the Unconscious

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.

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 goals, and our adaptive 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 adaptive unconscious 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 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. This is when I wake up.

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I recall reading a book once, years ago, that advised you to never tell young children what *not* to do - even "positive nots" like "don't fall down!", because their brain processed that as "fall down + not" and often they would actually fall down. The book advised only positive commands like "walk carefully" or "hold on tight" (prohibitions should be phrased as "keep your hands off that!" instead of "don't touch that!" for example).

I wonder (a) if that's true and (b) if it's related to this phenomenon.

Why should it be that the unconscious is driven by some suggested goal? Might it not be more like an adolescent who cracks up every time he hears the word "but"? My more adult, conscious self might be ignoring my amygdala or whatever it is the gets this chain started saying there is something hilariously funny or otherwise significant in our environment, this time in our external or internal linguistic environment, but I consciously have better things to attend to. Yet underneath consciousness there are these processes attending to whether someone has once more said "but" or "white bears", even me internally, not because of a goal, but because it was so stimulating the last time. Included in those processes would be how images matching those words pop up simply as automatic translations of non-abstract words.

Do you know the story of Rube Waddell, Hall of Fame pitcher from a hundred years ago? It's debatable whether he was retarded or impaired by brain damage from alcoholism, but whatever it was made it easier for his opponents to find ways to exploit his unconscious. One opposing manager made a point before a game of inviting Waddell to visit the manager's Wyoming ranch during the offseason, where there were plenty of dogs for Waddell to play with. The game starts and the opposing hitters just tee off on Waddell. After being pulled, Waddell makes it clear what the problem was. He couldn't stop thinking of those dogs.

Most of us have different weaknesses than dogs. Most of us have some discipline over our unconscious. But I have the sense that we all have the same problem.

I think about brown bears when I am told not to think about white ones...

By Joe Shmow (not verified) on 06 Feb 2007 #permalink

Upon diving into bed,write down your first thought. Whether it's about brown bears, pink elephants, purple boogiemen whatever. If you are still awake after five minutes, write down your last thought and see how far you have strayed from your original thought.

By Janet McGann (not verified) on 06 Feb 2007 #permalink

Why not just say, "Don't think about going to sleep?'