Passing Through Sleep Onset

I make a comment in In Pursuit of Sleep (page 108) to the effect that what you go to sleep thinking about ripples into how you sleep, and in particular it has an affect on how deep you sleep. If you are worrying about something that really bothers you, it keeps you from getting to the deeper stages of sleep. If you have been doing that for a while, perhaps even years, you will rarely if ever get to the deeper stages of sleep and that can lead to depression.

On the other hand, if you have pleasant images and sounds in your mind when you drop off, that conditions you positively for the deeper stages of sleep. You essentially learn to separate your daytime emotional traumas from the sleep state. This can’t help but lead to a degree of emotional wellbeing that you may not have experienced in a while. Taking a pill does nothing like this. This is real sleep hygiene and not that superficial stuff about making your bedroom dark. That type of sleep hygiene will certainly be beneficial, but the internal stuff is so much more important that all this external sleep preparation becomes trivial. You have to get to the internal, psychic, stuff to make a real dent in your insomnia problem. And you don’t have to be under the care of a psychiatrist to do it.

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So what does happen when we go through sleep onset successfully? If I am successfully negotiating the transition from being awake to being asleep, and trying to be aware of what is happening, what will I experience?

This is a really good question, and I answer it in In Pursuit of Sleep on pages 40-41. I assume the sleeper is using my Transition Trek, but the experience should be the same regardless of how you go to sleep. Here is the full quote (hypnagogia is sleep onset):

Signs that You Have Entered Hypnagogia

After you have closed your eyes and started sleep breathing, you will experience some things that indicate you have entered hypnagogia. You have experienced them many times, perhaps even every night, but probably have not realized that they are favorable indications that you are on your way to sleep. The first was mentioned before: you become more aware of body irritants: you notice an itch, can’t find a comfortable position, your nose whistles when you breathe, etc. Second, the images of the Transition Trek will become more vivid. This can be rather startling, although it should be comforting since it is proof the trek is working. Third, you may find that you have become more alert. This feels really strange and you may believe that you have come back out of hypnagogia, but you haven’t. It is your intellect fully recognizing your psychic body instead of your physical body and becoming fully invested in the psychic world. It is also an indication that deafferentation is taking over. Fourth, you start losing control of your thoughts and veer off the Transition Trek. When you realize this is happening, don’t become concerned. Again, it is good news. You are entering the latter stages of hypnagogia. Gently bring yourself back to the Transition Trek and proceed from where you last remember being. Fifth, you may start seeing fleeting images, some very strange, possibly accompanied by voices that have nothing to do with you or your trek. These are hypnagogic content you should not follow. They will rapidly disappear, and you can continue with the trek. Sixth, you may see bits of dreams, which appear as short sequences of images and voices that are associated with you but quickly dissipate. Take note of them but let them fade, as they certainly will. Seventh, by this time you are at the very edge of sleep, at the event horizon so to speak, and you will lose all control and be sucked into Slumberland.

I want to call your attention to a few of things that might lead you to believe that you are not going to sleep. The fact that images, what you mind’s eye sees, become more vivid can be interpreted as an unfavorable situation and cause you to actually stop your descent into sleep. If you realize that this is a positive sign, you have much more of a tendency to allow the process to continue. Becoming more alert seems paradoxical and may be interpreted as another sign that you are headed in the wrong direction. You have to trust the process for it to work. Also, when you start to lose control of the process and enter one of the diversionary paths that lead to insomnia and not sleep, you can become discouraged and actually pull yourself back out of your descent into sleep. Having a specific thing to redirect your mind toward, the Transition Trek, as well as realizing that this is normal and a good sign, further enables you to trust the process and make it happen by return to the Transition Trek.

It doesn’t take long to learn the Transition Trek method. Trust is a major part of it because without trust, you start to develop irritation toward the whole thing, and it falls apart. You can learn this method by reading the first four chapters of In Pursuit of Sleep and then using it that night.

The Magic Bullet That Wipes Away Insomnia

I have had insomnia since I was a kid. It wasn’t so bad when I was young, but as I got older, it became more and more troublesome. I spent eight years in the US Air Force, and I got degrees at both Arizona State and Stanford. I worked on NASA missions to the outer planets and Star Wars projects. I got divorced, and suffered through my daughter’s disappearance and eventual reappearance. I got laid off from my job. Through all this, I had insomnia. I would wake in the night, some times two or three times, and not be able to get back to sleep without a struggle. I tried counting sheep, counting backward from one hundred, controlled breathing, meditation, concentrating on pleasant thoughts. I made my bedroom dark as possible, and removed the clocks. Nothing had a measurable impact.

I didn’t drink or smoke, and during the later years, I took three Benadryl capsules at bedtime and two the first time I woke. Later while teaching astronomy at a university, I took Ambien. It worked some but didn’t keep me asleep all night, and when I woke, I still couldn’t get back to sleep. When I went off it, I had sintillating sarcoma for a couple of weeks and had more trouble than ever trying to get to sleep.

In 1996, I moved into an old home my grandfather had built and started writing full time. I then used the hours of insomnia to my beneffit. I wrote from two to three hours in the middle of the night, every night. But I was ruined during the day, and would have to nap for an hour or two in the afternoon.

During all this time, I read every article on sleep I could get my hands on. It seemed that no one else was sleeping either, so why should I think I could solve my insomnia problem?

But then one day while looking into an interesting phenomena I had experienced while close to sleep, I came upon a topic called hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is the name for the state between being awake and being asleep. I didn’t even know that it was considered a separate state. I learned that it was also called sleep onset by researchers, who had worked on the subject. I learned about sleep propensity and electrochemical deafferentation. I learned about the different brain waveforms that are peculiar to that state, which lasts only five or ten minutes for a normal person going to sleep.

I also learned that this hypnagogic state is used by really smart people for creativity. That is where they get their earth-shattering ideas. I learned that most writers use it for help writing novels and short stories.

Old people have more trouble with sleep than do younger people, and I certainly experienced that degradation in sleep quality as I got older. Even after I retired, I worried about the past. I worried about problems I had growing up, my problems with my father. My past loves and my divorce. I worried about my grown kids. I worried about doing my income tax. I worried about my health and had long imaginary arguments with my doctors. As I got older, I was getting less and less sleep and was napping more and more in the afternoon.

But now, only a couple of years later, I get eight to ten hours sleep every night. I take a nap in the afternoon sometimes, but it is by choice and doesn’t generally affect sleep that night. I wake two to three times each night because of a dry eye condition and acid reflux, and yet I use eye drops or pop an antacid and go right back to sleep. My bedroom windows have light from street lamps streaming in, and I use my bedroom for my office with my computer right beside my bed. I have a bright blue light on a printer that that lights up my ceiling like a full moon. I have books all around just in case I want to read. I check the time with my iPhone every time I wake. I have planes flying overhead throughout the night and cars I can hear on the street out front. It rains frequently in Atlanta, and I can hear the drops pounding the room and hear thunder off in the distance. Still, I can easily get back to sleep if I wake and get eight to ten hours of sleep every night, even though I’m seventy-four years old. Sleep hygiene is no longer a concern for me.

How do I do it?

Having discovered that hypnagogia was an actual state, and that it had several aspects that could act as diversions to keep me from going to sleep, I started work on a technique to control my thoughts. But I soon discovered that I couldn’t wait for sleep to come to me. I had to go get it. I also realized how silly was the notion that we “fall’ asleep. Gravity had nothing to do with it. Having practiced good sleep hygiene for decades with little if any favorable results, I knew that sleep wasn’t come for me and that I had to go get it. I realized that sleep professionals knew nothing about the actual process of going to sleep. They knew nothing about sleep onset or hypnagogia. Research scientists said as much. They said that someone needs to do research on it, but no one ever does. This is such an obvious omission that you really wonder if pharmaceutical companies don’t guide research away from sleep onset and toward providing medication so that they can make money off of the condition.

I found a way to put myself to sleep in five to ten minutes every time I wake. It is a simple thought control technique that leads me toward sleep. Usually, I can put myself to sleep in under a minute. Once you understand the nature of hypnagogia, the reason so many people have insomnia becomes obvious. And the solution is so easy that it only takes a few minutes to learn.

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In my next blog post, I’ll go through what happens during a successful trip through hypnagogia on your way to sleep. It is surprisingly simple, but if you don’t know how to avoid the hazards along the way, you can end up spending a couple of hours traveling a dead-end road.

The Problem With Sleep Hygiene

I know I have come down rather harshly on sleep hygiene. And I also realize that it does most people some good trying to get to sleep, but only some help. Now I am going a step further with my criticism.

Sleep hygiene keeps you from going to sleep.

There I said it. Yes, I know I also said it can help, so why the paradox?

The problem is that the environment target isn’t stationary. It keeps moving. How about a business man or woman who is frequently on the road? They can’t control the bedroom light, and frequently can’t control the temperature, and they certainly can’t control what is going on outside, down the hall or what noises that come through the walls from the rooms next door. They have less control over what they eat. They can’t even control when they go to bed or when they have to get up. The sheets feel funny, smell funny, and the pillow doesn’t fit my head.

Sleep professionals speak as if they are always talking about someone 20 – 40 years old who stays home all the time. What about the elderly who are frequently in a retirement community and can control little of their environment?

What if you are in the mountains camping out? What if you are sleeping over at your girlfriend’s or boyfriend’s place? They can sleep through anything, but you have your body and mind tuned to an ideal environment. You’ll never get to sleep.

But here is the biggest problem with sleep hygiene. By telling you that sleep hygiene practices are the only way you will be able to improve your chances of getting to sleep, when you can’t control your environment, they have sabotaged you. They have conditioned you to believe that you cannot sleep anywhere but your own bed.

It also appears that sleep experts know nothing about electrochemical deafferentation, which occurs during sleep onset (hypnagogia). Deafferentation minimizes inputs from the five physical senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell) and allows you to get to sleep regardless of your environment, within reason of course. Deafferentation isn’t my invention. Sleep researchers are well aware of this phenomenon, and it happens naturally. We don’t have to do anything to get deafferentation to take over, provided of course that we don’t allow ourselves to be overcome by hypnagogic distractions. But the “experts” who are trying to educate us on how to get to sleep know nothing about deafferentation. They are in fact clueless about sleep onset.

All this is explained in detail in In Pursuit of Sleep. It also provides a method, called the Transition Trek, which tells you how to deal with sleep onset, even if you are a homeless person sleeping on the street.

My Experience With Sleep Hygiene

For decades I took the advice of sleep professionals and practiced good sleep hygiene. I kept my bedroom as dark as possible. I covered clocks with illuminated dials so I couldn’t check on the time during the night. I entered therapy, not just to solve my insomnia problem but it was one of my issues. I made a concerted effort to not emotionally provoke myself before bed. I thought only pleasant thoughts after closing my eyes. I went to bed at the same time every night, and I got up at the same time every morning. I didn’t take naps in the afternoon. But whatever new technique I adopted, it never had a measurable impact on my insomnia.

My insomnia defeated all my best efforts. My problem was mostly what experts call “sleep maintenance” insomnia. I got to sleep the first time easily enough usually but woke during the night and couldn’t get back to sleep. During the day, particularly in the early to mid afternoon, I had a lot of difficulty staying awake at work. My desk seemed like a better place to sleep than my bed at home. I had trouble staying awake in meetings. It wasn’t because my work wasn’t interesting. I was working on NASA missions to the outer planets and US Air Force Star Wars projects. And it wasn’t just once in a while. It was practically every day. And it wasn’t as if I just felt drowsy. I was painfully sleepy. I would have to get up from my desk, go outside and walk around the block to keep myself awake. And even while walking in the bright Colorado sunlight, I was in a daze. I felt as if I were sleepwalking.

My big beef with my rented apartment at the time was that it had thin drapes in my bedroom. The streetlight outside showed through my bedroom sliding glass door and made my bedroom unacceptably light. I was sure it contributed to my insomnia.

Then I had an eyeopening experience. Following a business trip to Europe, I took a week of vacation to hike the Austrian/Swiss Alps. We stayed in what are called Huettes (huts) that provided meals and small foam mattresses in a communal sleeping loft. One of these huts had a loft that was so well built that it let no light whatsoever into our sleep area. I woke during the night, and had a bad reaction to this no-light situation. I couldn’t get back to sleep at all. I had panic attacks. My extraordinary emotional situation continued for a full six hours, until the sun started coming up and light did filter into the room. I then got a couple hours sleep before I had to get up for breakfast.

When I got back home, I had a new attitude about the light filtering through the drapes in my bedroom when I was trying to sleep. It was comforting. I welcomed it. I slept better knowing I had a little light.

This experience started me questioning the science behind sleep hygiene. I uncovered my clocks. I also started looking deeper into what was going on inside my own mind while I was trying to go to sleep that might prevent me from doing so. Twenty-five years of research led me to hypnagogia (sleep onset). The results of scientific research of this period of time, between when we close our eyes and when we are actually asleep, is what I present in In Pursuit of Sleep.

The thing that really amazed me was that none of the characteristics of hypnagogia had been folded into the search for solutions to insomnia. Here’s a quote from In Pursuit of Sleep (pages 16/7) that stresses the issue:

The strange thing is that, although hypnagogia [sleep onset] has been studied, it is rarely, if ever, addressed when discussing insomnia. Yes, you read that right. When professionals deal with the problems of getting to sleep, they rarely if ever discuss the nature of the transition state and how to deal with it.

…we know neither why nor how we fall asleep. The study of sleep has for the most part focused on measures obtained during established sleep, and many of the events and phenomena of sleep onset have been ignored. [Sleep Onset, Normal and Abnormal Processes, edited by Robert D. Ogilvie, PHD and John R. Harsh, PhD, Washington DC: American Psychological Association, 1994, page xviii]

The problem with sleep onset is that it has a multitude of distracting influences that keep you from going to sleep. Not only that, during the later stages of sleep onset (what we also call hypnagogia) we lose much of our ability to control what is going on inside our mind, and our thoughts can rage our of control. This is the open door through which insomnia walks. In Pursuit of Sleep provides a safe way through this hypnagogic maze. It is called the Transition Trek.

I leave you with a graphic that illustrates the problem and its solution.

Sleep Onset Distractions and the Transition Trek (the solution to insomnia)

Sleep Onset Distractions and the Transition Trek (the solution to insomnia)

Insomnia and Your Psychic Body

What is your psychic body, and what does it have to do with insomnia?

Glad you asked.

To even ask this question is to suggest that you have been dabbling in reading In Pursuit of Sleep. I develop the concept there, and it is not so strange as it might seem at first. Actually, everyone has experienced their psychic body, and it has a really close connection to sleep.

Ever had a dream? Of course you have. Were you in the dream? Of course you were. I show up in my dreams too. That is your psychic body. You experience it all the time, five times a night in all probability, every time you go through REM. (See my previous post for the sleep cycle diagram.)

I also like to define the psychic body in terms of what happens when you read a novel. I know. A lot of people these days are not readers, but since you are reading this, you probably dig into a novel now and then. When someone reads a novel, they experience total sensory deprivation in the fictional world… unless the author pulls a few tricks to get the reader in there. And yes, the author possesses skills that enable him/her to evoke the reader’s five senses, which places the reader in the fictional world. The five senses are: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell. If the author can evoke all five of the reader’s psychic senses, the reader feels as though they are in the fictional world.

To put this on a visual basis:

Physical Body versus Psychic Body

Physical Body versus Psychic Body

Your psychic body is your dream body, and since it is used during sleep, we should also use it to try to get to sleep. We do this by activating all the psychic senses when we use the Transition Trek to negotiate hypnagogia. That puts us firmly in the psychic world where we are most susceptible to the sleep propensity curve. Of course, we would want to change out those high heels and that dress for something more amenable to hiking.

The trick, of course, is to put that psychic body to sleep. The more real we make the psychic body through evoking images of the psychic world, the quicker we get to sleep. All this is accomplished by using the Transition Trek.

Here is the clincher: Insomnia depends on the mind being occupied with real world concerns of the physical body. When we minimize the our attachment to the physical body, and instead concentrate on what we have planned for the psychic body (the Transition Trek), we are then able to get to sleep quickly.

All this is explained more clearly and in more detail in the first four chapters of In Pursuit of Sleep.

A Sleep Solution Without Sleep Hygiene

Yesterday’s blog post about sleep hygiene may have been a little over the top, but the emphasis was on target. All these methods designed to improve the chances of going to sleep are good. They do help… a little. But only a little. They also trivialize the problems encountered on the way to sleep. Sleep hygiene doesn’t even address the real issues. Here is a graphic that illustrates what happens, and what can go wrong during a night’s sleep (Figure 2-1 in In Pursuit of Sleep):

The Stages and Cycles of Sleep

The Stages and Cycles of Sleep

If we sleep normally, we go through five sleep cycles of varying depth. The very first stage, the period of time where we try to get to sleep, is called hypnagogia. Hypnagogia is also called “sleep onset.” At the end of each cycle, we ascend and enter a state called REM (for rapid eye movement) where we dream. After REM, we may not go back to sleep and instead actually wake up. If we do wake, we have to try to get back to sleep again, and this involves going through hypnagogia once more. So, we have five chances to mess up a good night’s sleep by not successfully negotiating hypnagogia.

What happens during hypnagogia that it can waylay our descent into sleep? Hypnagogia has a lot of distracting influences that can be irresistible to a mind that has a lot going on during the day, as shown in the following figure, which is also from In Pursuit of Sleep (Figure 3-1):

Hypnagogia Distractions

Hypnagogia Distractions

Each of these types of distractions can pull you off the beaten path to sleep. They are described in detail in In Pursuit of Sleep, pages 22-26. The way to avoid them and find your way to sleep is to use the Transition Trek, also shown in Figure 3-1, which is described in detail in Chapter 4. The Transition Trek is a detailed thought control technique, one that directs your mind toward sleep.

So, now hopefully, you can see why I don’t have a lot of faith in sleep hygiene. It doesn’t address what actually happens when you close your eyes. Well, that may not actually be entirely true. If you have a lot of things going through your mind, they attribute them to stress and recommend you see a psychotherapist. They don’t recognize the fact that many of these thoughts are due to creative impulses, fantasies, and perfectly reasonable worries, among other things, that should not have to be address by a therapist. All you really need is a reliable thought control technique that directs you away from these disrupting thoughts and toward sleep. You should not need medication either.

All that is presented in In Pursuit of Sleep. It should be all you ever need.

The Truth About Sleep Hygiene, or the Goldilocks Syndrome

Ever notice how sleep professionals like to talk about sleep hygiene? For those of you who aren’t well read on the literature and science of trying to get to sleep — and I do mean trying — sleep hygiene is the art of making your bedroom the perfect place to sleep. You make it as dark as you possibly can, preferably dark enough to develop your 35 mm film in (for those of you who are old enough to remember that cameras have not always been digital and didn’t come as an afterthought on an iPhone). They also want you to remove all evidence of time. No clocks, even soundless, lightless digital ones. And, oh horrors! Absolutely no real-world ticking clocks. No sound whatsoever, and as much like a recording studio with padded acoustic walls etc., etc. And it must be the perfect sleep temperature, not too hot or too cold. The Goldilocks temperature, one might say. And the firmness of your mattress… Well, you get the idea. Haven’t these people ever heard of deafferentation?

Actually, I wasn’t telling you the truth, not all of it at least, when I said that sleep hygiene was “the art of making your bedroom the perfect place to sleep.” They also want to make you the perfect sleep generator. You must not eat anything too close to bedtime, it might upset your stomach, or too far from bedtime, you might get hungry.  (Makes me wonder how many times they were read Goldilocks and the Three Bears as a child.) Caffeine and alcohol are strictly forbidden, and oh yes, you can’t so much as catch a glimpse of a computer screen, or you are condemned to a lifetime of insomnia. Oh, get plenty of sunlight. And workout like a fiend.

It doesn’t stop there. You cannot ever think a bad thought about your bedroom. It must be your perfect haven but only for sleep. Well, you are allowed to have sex there, but not when you should be sleeping, because you must go to sleep at the same time each night and wake at the same time each morning. The worse thing of all is to have a bad attitude toward the amount and quality of sleep you got the previous night, or for that matter, the way you have been sleeping for the last couple of years, or, possibly, decades. No bad thoughts about sleep.

And last of all — and this is when they actually come close to the real problem — they want you to only have pleasant thoughts running through your head while you are trying to go to sleep. No thoughts about that colleague you plan to shove down the elevator shaft the first thing when you get to work in the morning, or perhaps the fact that you are considering getting a cage to lock up your 15 year old. And if the neighbor’s dog doesn’t quit barking you are going to go after both him and the dog with a baseball bat, right now. You can’t think that. Be calm, be nice, be gentle and go to sleep.

Okay. Possibly you can’t get to this sleep state by reading the rules of sleep hygiene off a website, but they have a course you can take, costs only a few hundred dollars, but the really effective way to take it is in residence, which only costs a few thousand. Did I mention that they also have medication? Not quite the same as sleep, but will certainly make you unconscious.

All this is what sleep professionals like to tell insomniacs because they know nothing about getting to sleep. Did you notice that? When you close your eyes, you are on your own. They know nothing about actually getting to sleep. You have thoughts coursing through you brain instead of sleeping? Try meditation. The purpose of meditation is to purge your mind of thoughts and put you in a perfect spiritual state. Perhaps you’ll even talk to God. Well, count sheep then. Count backwards from a thousand. Imagine shooting a hundred free-throws.

But the barking dog. The fifteen year old. And the elevator shaft.

Truth be known, sleep professionals know nothing about actually getting to sleep. Well, maybe that isn’t quite true. Researchers have studied sleep onset, the period of time from when you close your eyes until you are actually asleep. This transition state is also called hypnagogia. We have literature on it going all the way back to Aristotle. A woman, R. E. Leaning, wrote an excellent article on hypnagogia in 1925 titled, “An Introductory Study on Hypnagogic Phenomena.” Daniel L. Schacter wrote an excellent article in 1976 titled, “The Hypnagogic State: A Critical Review of the Literature.” And to top it all off, Andreas Mavromatis has written an excellent book titled, Hypnagogia, The Unique State of Consciousness Between Wakefulness and Sleep. Researchers have also written a book that documents some of their more recent work on sleep onset titled interestingly enough, Sleep Onset: Normal and Abnormal Processes, edited by Robert D. Ogilvie and John R. Harsh, 1994. Ever see any of this literature referenced by any of these so-called sleep professionals? No one. Ever. Mentions. Any of it. Ever.

A cynical person might think that these sleep professionals are making a lot of money off insomniacs and really aren’t interested in solving the problem. A cynical person might think that sleep professionals, therapists, pharmaceutical companies, and charlatans in general have a vested interest in keeping this information from insomniacs because someone might come to understand the true nature of the problem and solve it themselves, without spending a lot of money on online courses, webinars, seminars, retreats, and yes, yes, yes, office visits and medication, medication, medication. Companies could go bankrupt. That someone might write a book. It would destroy the economy, global economy. But let’s not think those cynical thoughts because we could lie awake at night planning to do harm to these people. It could cause insomnia.

Instead, we could read that insomniac’s little book — and it is a little book — because it tells the truth about why we can’t get to sleep and provides a method, called the Transition Trek, for getting us all the way to Slumberland. Not only that, it tells us how to fix our sleep propensity curve so that we radically improve our inclination to go to sleep and possibly even cure our insomnia. Without redecorating the bedroom. I do like clocks.

The book is called, In Pursuit of Sleep: The Origins of Insomnia and What to Do About It. It is free on this website’s homepage and on iBooks and B&N. Costs 0.99 for the digital on Amazon and $7.99 for the paperback. Click here to buy it online.

Insomnia and the Sleep Propensity Curve

Sleep propensity, i.e. the force behind the urge to sleep, is also the force behind the problem of not being able to get to sleep. I discuss sleep propensity at length in Chapter 1 The Sleep Problem (pages 3-7) of In Pursuit of Sleep. The higher your sleep propensity, the more difficult it is to resist going to sleep. Here is the sleep propensity curve for a normal person:

Normal Sleep Propensity Curve

Normal Sleep Propensity Curve

I did not make up this curve. The research that determined it is documented in Sleep Onset: Normal and Abnormal Process, edited by Ogilvie and Harsh, page 25. As you can see, our propensity to sleep starts to increase in early evening and only reaches a maximum in the early hours of morning. That bump in the afternoon is what some of us call siesta time. Many cultures recognize the need for a nap and close shops to afford the time for an afternoon siesta.

If this propensity curve works in our favor, why don’t we all get a good night’s sleep?

Glad you asked. The above sleep propensity curve is normal only for people who have no problem getting to sleep and staying asleep throughout the night. If they do wake — to go to the bathroom or check on the kids — they get back to sleep quickly and with little trouble. For the rest of us, we either can’t get to sleep to begin with or have difficulty getting back to sleep once we wake up because our sleep propensity curve has holes in it.

What happened to our sleep propensity curve? Were we born wrong?

No. Turns out, sleep propensity is malleable. If we lie awake initially, or get woken up at the same time night after night, our sleep propensity adjusts to that new normal. This is where the holes come from.

So how do we go about repairing it? Is that even possible?

Repairing the sleep propensity curve is definitely possible. All you have to do is get to sleep quickly and stay there, night after night. If you do wake in the middle of the night, you must get back to sleep quickly.

Sounds like the chicken and the egg. I can’t get to sleep because I haven’t been able to get to sleep.

You are right. That is the crux of the matter. You must have a way of getting to sleep reliably every night, and one that will get you back to sleep as soon as possible after waking. To accomplish this you have to go get sleep. Sleep is not coming to you. If you have insomnia, you have proven sleep’s elusiveness night after night.

Where would I find such a method?

You would find it in In Pursuit of Sleep, The Origins of Insomnia and What to Do About It. The method is called the Transition Trek. It teaches you how to push aside those thoughts that are raging in your mind and focus on images and sounds of a Transition Trek that leads you to sleep. You can learn the method by reading only the first four chapters of In Pursuit of Sleep, which shouldn’t take anymore than an hour. Then you can start the method that very night.

You don’t have to spend weeks training yourself to think of your bedroom as only a place to sleep. No, your bedroom doesn’t have to be absolutely dark. No, you don’t have to get rid of all extraneous sounds. You don’t have to cover your clocks and put your iPhone in the next room. You don’t have to get rid of your restless sleeping partner. You just have to concentrate on going to sleep using the Transition Trek method. Every time you wake, for whatever reason, the Trek is there inside your head waiting to put you to sleep.

Insomnia and Deafferentation

Ever notice that when you first lie down to go to sleep, you are inundated with all sorts of body irritants (itches, feet too hot or too cold, etc.) that seem to want to keep you awake? Strangely enough this hassle is good news. This is the first stage of falling asleep, and is the first indication that you have entered hypnagogia, also called sleep onset. It also raises the question of how we ever go to sleep with all this sudden increase in physical sensitivity. Well, we have an answer to that question: deafferentation.

I suspect that you have never heard of deafferentation. But electrochemical deafferentation is in large part what allows you to go to sleep with all this extracurricular physical awareness raging. (See In Pursuit of Sleep pages 32 and 88.) Hypnagogia, the period of time between being fully awake and being fully asleep, starts by making us less aware of our surroundings and more aware of our physical state. But hypnagogia also starts another process that transfers our awareness from our physical state to our psychic state. To do this, the mind starts to electrochemically shutoff our awareness of the physical state in favor of activating the psychic state, which of course is our mental processes. This process of shutting off the physical senses is called deafferentation.

Deafferentation of the physical senses is not total; however, it is enough to enable us to go to sleep despite our physical uncomfortableness. We are not totally oblivious to the external world either. The cry of a child will still wake us, as will the blast of a car horn next door. Still, deafferentation is our friend, and we should pay homage to it.

How do we go about that?

Once we know about deafferentation, we can pay homage to it by not panicking when we first get in bed and encounter all these physical and environmental impediments to sleep. This is that first level of emotional control we need to exhibit to keep us from sabotaging our own descent into sleep. It is much easier to not become demoralized right off the bat if we know that this little hero of ours called deafferentation is taking over.

Other sleep disciplines want you to exercise complete control over your sleep environment. CBT wants you to make your room as dark as possible, get rid of all extraneous sound, and ensure the room temperature is perfect. CBT also wants you to make your bedroom a place only for sex and sleep. I think this may be helpful for some but is mostly hogwash. Most people use their bedrooms as a refuge, and I see no reason to stop this. Also many elderly people live in constrained housing situations where their beds are frequently in their living quarters, making this recommendation impossible to fulfill. When you employ the Transition Trek (In Pursuit of Sleep, Chapter 4 Charging the Gates of Slumberland), it shoves all this into the background and directs your attention toward sleep. Controlling your thought process through providing psychic images and sounds puts you fully in the psychic world and directs you toward Slumberland. This is all accomplished by following the Transition Trek.

An 1899 Cure for Insomnia

As usual, I found this cute little cure for insomnia in the New York Times archives for July 23, 1899.

Cure for Insomnia in the New York Times July 23, 1899.

Cure for Insomnia in the New York Times July 23, 1899.

The reason that this article caught my attention is that I have used some of these techniques. Many years ago, I had used pushups as a method of tiring myself so I could get back to sleep. I also have used warm milk. My wife used to complain that I thought sex and a glass of milk could cure anything.

I found a lot of “cures” through the decades, but the Transition Trek of In Pursuit of Sleep is all I ever need now.