We’ve all heard about the age-old practice of counting sheep to fall asleep faster. One researcher says it doesn’t work, but he has an alternative.
Canadian cognitive scientist Luc Beaudoin has invented a new cure for insomnia, which he calls the “cognitive shuffle”. Essentially, it’s a method for deliberately scrambling your thoughts, so they make no sense. The technique involves thinking utterly random thoughts. One way to do it is to think of a word (perhaps “bedtime”) and then try to think of all of the words you can that begin with the first letter of that word. When you’ve run out of ideas, move on to the next letter … and so on.
Beaudoin told the Guardian newspaper:
Traditional ways of tackling insomnia, Beaudoin notes, are largely useless. If anxious thoughts are keeping you awake, counting sheep won’t work: it’s an utterly boring activity, which means almost any other thought – especially worries – will prove more compelling. Relaxation techniques are often doomed by the fact that you’re consciously trying to get to sleep – a guaranteed path to failure. And mindfulness meditation, done properly, leaves you more alert, not less.
The cognitive shuffle involves mentally picturing a random sequence of objects for a few seconds each: a cow; a microphone; a loaf of bread, and so on. It’s important to ensure the sequence is truly meaningless, otherwise you’ll drift back into rumination.
Beaudoin says the technique works because our brains have evolved to determine whether it’s safe to fall asleep by checking what one specific part of the brain, the cortex, is doing. If the cortex is involved in trying to make sense of things (versus thinking of random things) it may be harder to settle down and go to sleep.