Have you ever laid in bed desperate to go to sleep, only to be kept awake for what feel like hours by a rotation of racing thoughts?
What are we supposed to do when counting sheep and breathing deeply isn’t cutting it?
According to Sari Bahcall, PhD in Physics at Stanford and author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, we could try hypnotising ourselves.
Hypnosis, as he describes it, has less to do with chicken dancing audience members, and more to do with focus.
A study titled, The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two
Some Limits on Our Capacity for Processing Information is famous for asserting that the human mind is capable of interpreting approximately seven items of stimulus at any one time.
Hypnosis is the process of focussing all of the brains resources on to one piece of stimulus.
How do we apply this to sleeping?
Bahcall has a few sleep exercises he recommends, but the following has two are the easiest to start out with. Apparently they have a pretty high success rate depending on whether you’re a more visual or auditory person.
Visual Sleep Exercise
The first exercise involves focussing on the images or shapes you see when you close your eyes.
He says that the most important thing about this method is that you allow yourself to be genuinely curious about whatever you see.
Once you see something, anything at all, investigate it. The thing you see could be as simple as a square, or as complex as the face of a distant cousin. It doesn’t matter as long as you’re not thinking about it.
Now get curious.
Notice things about it. What are its features? Does it have colour? Where are its edges? Focus and refocus, noticing new things about the image, making it clearer and clearer until your brain jumps to something else.
Then investigate that.
Repeat this process for long enough and you should nod off once you get into the rhythm of gentle noticing.
Auditory Sleep Exercise
Despite its name, the auditory exercise doesn’t have anything to do with making sound. It’s for shutting up the voice in the back of your head, not for sounds outside of it.
This exercise is ominously similar to the sheep counting we’ve all tried, but has a few key adjustments which make it applicable to the adult brain.
Once your eyes are closed, allow your brain to randomly generate two digit numbers between 11 and 100, then visualise each number.
You can get creative about how you visualise the numbers, it doesn’t matter. Bahcall likes to imagine them shooting out of a cannon into the sky. I like to imagine them slowly forming from ripples in a pool of water. You do you.
Then… Well that’s pretty much it.
It’s important that you’re able to set your mind on auto pilot generating these numbers.
Hypnotism is possible because of the constraints around the numbers which we’re allowing ourselves to generate; the numbers are in random sequence because if we were counting, we would get bored. If we get bored, we stop focussing, and the process doesn’t work.
The numbers are double digit because we’re so familiar with 1-10 that we can generate them while allowing other thoughts or stimulus to come in. In other words, thinking about 1-10 is too easy.
On the other hand, anything more than two digits and we run the risk of overcomplicating the task. Your mind needs to put less effort into generating the number 74 than it does the number 1382, but more than it does to generate the number 3. Two digit numbers are the sweet spot.
I’ve been trying these out, and will likely do a follow up post to report my findings. If you try either of them, be sure to let me know.