Who among us has not endured a restless night (after night after night) of sleep? When you can’t fall asleep, all you can think about is how you can’t fall asleep. You might even be constantly recalculating how much sleep you’ll get if only you could fall asleep right now. Or now. While we know all that kind of thinking is hindering our ability make our dreams of sleep a reality, how can we stop it from happening? The answer, according to one cognitive scientist, might be a trick he calls “cognitive shuffling.”
Adults live in a very “left-brain” world dominated by language and thinking. Young children in contrast spend a lot of time imagining and playing. Of course, adults look at a lot of images—videos, TV, film, photos and logos. But they tend to do so passively, and usually with lots of chatter (whether it’s vocal or not).
Sleep researchers have found that as people fall asleep, they often experience visual images and “micro-dreams.” The diverse images people imagine may help them fall asleep.
In contrast, continuing to think in a verbal, analytic, problem-solving mode can delay sleep onset.
In other words, we need less thinking and more imagining. Don’t imagine a bunch of jumping sheep, though—that shit is boring and will cause your mind to wander back to why, exactly, you are having so much trouble falling asleep in the first place. Instead, you need to allow your brain to wander through a variety of random images—in effect, you need to create some “micro-dreams” for yourself, and that’s where Beaudoin’s method comes in.
How to use cognitive shuffling to fall asleep fast
1. Get yourself in bed and ready for sleep.
2. Think of a random, emotionally neutral word that has at least five letters. Beaudoin suggests “bedtime” as an example. Others might be “laptop,” “peach,” “movie,” or “lightbulb.” (Try to choose a word that doesn’t have too many repeating letters, like “banana.”)
3. Slowly spell out the base word in your mind and then, starting with the first letter, think of another word that also starts with that letter. Imagine the item represented by the word—if your base word is “peach,” you’ll start with words that begin with the letter “p,” such as “puzzle,” “pig,” or “pizza.” One at a time, imagine each item, lingering on it long enough to create a clear picture of it in your mind before releasing it and moving on to the next “p” word.
4. Repeat this as many times as you can for each letter. Once you run out of “p” words (or you get bored with “p”), move on to the next letter, which—in our example—would be “e.” Now you’ll imagine an Easter egg, an eagle, and an eggplant.
If you have a hard time coming up with “e” words, skip it and go to the next letter. Likewise, if you choose a word you can’t easily imagine, ditch it and move on to another one. You can also imagine different versions of the same word. For example, if you’re imagining “bread,” you might think of a loaf of soft white sandwich bread, and then some crusty French bread, followed by your favorite homemade sourdough. If you make it to the end of your base word without falling asleep, start over with a new base word.
While this is a tactic worth trying, Beaudoin says it does have its limitations. It won’t work under these conditions:
- You are too tired to conjure up words, but not drowsy enough to fall asleep. (For example, when you wake up in the middle of the night.)
- You don’t like to think deliberately when you are trying to fall asleep.
- You find it difficult to come up with words that start with a given letter, despite practice.
- You find spelling tedious.
But if the conditions are right and you’re simply having a hard time guiding yourself through the practice, you can also download Beaudoin’s free mySleepButton app for iOS or Android. Think of it like a guided sleep meditation, versus meditating in silence—it can be helpful to start with the guided version until you’re comfortable leading the practice on your own. Sweet dreams, hopefully.