If you have been losing sleep recently – and it’s not inconceivable that the ongoing collapse of the postwar global order has been keeping you up at night – I have good news. With fortuitous timing, the 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. And since the world these days already doesn’t, what have you got to lose?
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. One option is Beaudoin’s app, MySleepButton, which speaks the names of items in your ear. Another is simply to pick a word, such as “bedtime”, then picture as many items beginning with “b” as you can, then “e”, then “d”, then… Well, by then, if my experience is anything to go by, you’ll be asleep.
In part, Beaudoin argues, this works because the brain has evolved to determine whether it’s safe to fall asleep by checking what one specific part of the brain, the cortex, is doing. If it’s engaged in “sense-making” activity, that’s a sign it may be weighing up dangers. But if thoughts have degenerated into rambling nonsense, the coast is probably clear. By filling the mind with nonsense, you trigger the sleep switch. Yet the technique also works for a simpler reason: it’s hard to focus on multiple things at once. While you’re busy generating a mental image of a microphone, it’s tricky to fret about your mortgage.
And the “cognitive shuffle” has implications beyond insomnia. Attention, as you’re doubtless aware by now, is a finite resource. This means it’s important to steward it carefully; if you let yours be seized by panicky headlines, there’ll be less left over for what matters. But it also suggests a clever way to silence negative thoughts: deliberately overload your attentional bandwidth. A screaming baby, faced with a grownup making silly noises, will often fall silent; it can’t focus on being distressed and intrigued at the same time. Adults aren’t so different. That’s why the best cure for anger isn’t venting, but switching to something sufficiently complex that anger isn’t an option. (Ever tried doing sudoku while ranting internally?) It’s also why it’s fine if your Brexit coping strategy includes some distraction. In moderation, fiddling while Rome burns has its upsides.
Friday July 15th 2016
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