When you are lying awake, unable to fall asleep, traditional advice says to count sheep. But if you find yourself still sleepless after counting livestock, try this sleep trick backed by cognitive science on how to purposefully scramble your thoughts until you can fall asleep.
Canadian cognitive scientist Luc Beaudoin calls his solution “cognitive shuffling,” or serial diverse imagining. It’s a technique where you play a word game to shuffle your thoughts into random images and words to encourage your brain to fall asleep.
In his 2013 paper published on the subject, Beaudoin argues that his technique works because our waking brains are wired to make sense out of everything, and we cannot fall asleep as long as we are in this alert sense-making mode that wants to dwell and analyze instead of sleep.
To help ourselves relax, we need a mental distraction like cognitive shuffling to tell the subcortical regions in our brains that “management processes are no longer managing concerns and making sense, they are in shutdown mode.”
Here’s how it works.
The word game that will put you to sleep
The website for the mySleepButton app, which Beaudoin developed to do the work of cognitive shuffling for you, outlines how to do cognitive shuffling without a smartphone’s prompting.
1) As soon as you are ready to fall asleep, think of a random, emotionally neutral word consisting of at least five unique letters. (You want to stay away from emotionally charged words that will cause you to think too hard.)
2) After you’ve picked a word, think of a list of words that begin with your chosen word’s first letter. Picture each word in your mind for about five to ten seconds. “Bedtime” is used as the example on Beaudoin’s site:
“BABY. Imagine a baby.
BALL. Imagine a ball rolling down a street.
BLINK. Image someone blinking a lot.
BANANA. Imagine a bunch of bananas hanging from a tree.
Bob. Imagine a person named Bob that you don’t dislike. (Notice that it’s fine to imagine people.)”
3) When you get tired of thinking of images associated with one letter, move onto to the next letter of the word you picked. Repeat the word game until you have fallen asleep.
How it’s supposed to work
Our minds naturally drift when we want to fall asleep. This game gives the drifting gentle direction and makes it fun. In his paper on the subject, Beaudoin said that cognitive shuffling could be especially effective on creative thinkers who show a “resistance to miserly information processing” and “belief flexibility.”
Unlike counting games which can be boring, Beaudoin’s word game sparks the playful side of our imagination, allowing us to think up safe, non-threatening images instead of ruminating over stresses. It’s hard for us to focus on multiple ideas at once. “When you’re focused on visualizing a banana, you can’t also be thinking about how your marriage is in trouble,” Beaudoin told O Magazine.
The bottom line
As a creative thinker who has a hard time shutting down my thoughts, I decided to put Beaudoin’s claims to the test one recent night. Picking the word “blanket,” I thought about images of beds, baseballs, the color blue. After I got bored of images that started with the letter “b,” I thought about lamps, a lion, and the image of a peaceful lake.
I don’t remember what I thought after ‘l’ because I had fallen asleep.