Krakadorn Revisited

Every day, in every part of the world, a miracle rises in the east. This mundane miracle still has the power to inspire feelings of reverential awe, whether witnessed in Croydon or in the Kalahari, by truck drivers or by coyotes.

The power of this miracle isn’t diminished by its reliable regularity; the subtleties of light and reflection, and seasonal astrological variation, project a new show every day. This show costs nothing, only a brief moment of our time. This show starts every day: dawn.

Awe is readily provided by such mundane miracles of nature, but the abundant miracles of nature are rarely sought out. We spend more time snoring than sitting up and watching the sun rise over the river. We are more likely to squabble over the cereal or elbow each other for sparse train seats, than we are to shut our eyes and allow the morning sun to burn the inside of our eyelids crimson.

Such awe is good for you. According to a 2012 Stanford University study, an experience of awe makes us less impatient, more altruistic and less materialistic. By expanding our perception of time, and confronting us with infinity, awe brings us sharply into the present moment and that mindfulness makes life more satisfying.

The miracle of the dawn has been thrown into the shade by the invention of the electrical light. We have no need to revere the sun like our ancestors did. But, as practical as the electrical light is for those works of drudgery that define human life, it does not inspire awe like the dawn.

That is why, last night, I set my alarm for 4:46. That is why, when that alarm awoke me, I stumbled out into the glimmering half-waked world.

I walked for ten quiet minutes and found my awe.

On the banks of the Thames, I filled my lungs with this morning’s new air, cleaned and refreshed by the cool nighttime. I watched the river flow past on its journey from the beginning of time to the end of infinity, while a star ninety-three million miles away danced its dawn over the water’s peaks.

A fox snuck by and then I snuck to bed once more.

Krakadorn 6 June 2015 FOX!

End Notes:

My original 2008 Krakadorn experiment: 40 days of getting up at the crack o’ dawn.

Rudd, Vohs, Aaker (2012) Awe Expands People’s Perception of Time,  Alters Decision Making, and Enhances Well-Being

Sleep Long: Be Awesome

Sleep 10 hours or more every night and you will reap huge benefits on your physical and mental performance and, not surprisingly, you’ll feel great! (You’ll also be less likely to get fat and die…)

Now, I’m not just making this up – science told me. Volume 34, Issue 7 of Sleep, in fact. More precisely, a snappily titled article, “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players”.

A-ha. Basketball players, you notice. Yes, the fact that their free throw and 3-point field goal percentages both increased by 9%, might seem to be rather sport-specific, but they were also faster in sprints and had faster reaction times. Not only that, but their mood was also elevated, with increased vigour and decreased fatigue and the players reported increased physical and mental well-being.

That’s the carrot, anyway. So why not try to sleep a couple of hours longer at night for a couple of weeks and see what happens? It might be hard at first, but persevere.

And if you prefer the stick to the carrot:

  • Short sleep duration is associated with obesity
  • Short sleep duration is associated with greater risk of death

Off you go now – to bed with you!


You can access the articles here:
Sleep extension benefits: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=28194
Sleep and obesity: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18239586
Sleep and mortality: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=27780

How to Prevent Jet Lag

I love the logic of this trick!

The brain has two body clocks: one in the “old” and one in the “new” brain.

  • The new brain body clock works on natural light patterns. This clock can only shift about 2 hours a day. That’s why it gets thoroughly confused when we cross the planet and the sun is rising at half past midnight.
  • The old brain body clock, however, works to make sure you are awake when food is around. If we were always asleep at dinner time, we wouldn’t live very long.

Normally, the new brain is in charge, but there is a way to switch over to the old brain: by throwing our bodies into survival mode.

How do we do that? By starving ourselves.

Okay, that’s a bit dramatic, but apparently it takes about 16 hours of fasting before the old brain body clock will take over, believing food to be scarce.

So if you’re flying from San Francisco to London, take a meal at the usual time in San Francisco, say, breakfast at 8.00am, then don’t eat anything at all until the next appropriate meal time in London, say, breakfast the next day at 8.00pm. Your body will switch onto the old brain and register the body clock time as “breakfast”: exactly what you want.

Sleep, Meditation and Dreaming

The Rise of Meditation in the West

Meditation in the West has seen a burst of popularity since the 1960s. An Australian survey in 2002 found that 11% of people in Western Australia have practised meditation at least once in their lives. A 2007 government study in the United States found that 9.4% of people there had practised meditation at some time.

The positive medical benefits for meditation have also recently been documented. The BBC (all hail!) have reported that meditation can reduce blood pressure and ease heart disease as well as actually changing the physical structure of the brain. Cool.

So why is meditation not more a part of Western life? Why is it still seen as an Eastern technique, most often associated with India? Could it be something to do with our sleeping patterns?

What?

Yes, our sleeping patterns. Specifically, our sleeping patterns since the Industrial Revolution.

Before the Light Bulb

In Britain (in the south, so the best case scenario) we spend over half our time without the sun. Roughly 51% of our hours are night. 250 years ago that meant almost total darkness.

Of course there were candles and we could light fires, but open fires were dangerous in our expanding wood-built towns and candles were expensive for most people. Gas lighting was still to be developed.

In the summer, we have about 8 hours of darkness, if we put sunset at about 9.00pm and sunrise at about 5.00am. In the winter, however, we have about 16 hours of darkness, with sunset around 4.00pm and sunrise at 8.00am.

If you can imagine this time 250 years ago, you would be in darkness from the mid-afternoon to the morning. What could you do? You couldn’t read or write, you couldn’t watch television, you couldn’t go outside for a walk to the pub. You couldn’t really do much at all (unless you were a thief) except go to bed or sit around in the dark and chat. For 16 hours a day.

Industrial Sleep

Since the industrial revolution and the explosion in light bulb usage, sleeping patterns in Britain have changed. Sleeping seven or eight hours a night all year round is the norm now – but it never used to be.

When the sun went down, it used to get dark. Now we have lights in our houses, on our streets, we like to relax in the evening with a film. And all this light has done something a little funny: we think it’s summer all year round.

Remember the 8 hours of darkness we get in summer? Isn’t that suspiciously similar to the hours most people sleep? You could call it the minimum that humans have evolved to live with; and that’s what we regulate ourselves to have by using electric lighting in the evenings.

As the chronobiologist Charles A. Czeisler says:

“Every time we turn on a light we are inadvertently taking a drug that affects how we will sleep.”

Pre-Industrial Sleep

Without the miracles of electric lighting, our ancestors spent 51% of their lives in darkness. They couldn’t do much, but they could at least sleep properly.

In fact, there was so much time to kill, that people would have two sleeps: first sleep and second sleep. The first sleep might be from evening until after midnight and then second sleep from the early morning until sunrise – or when the farmer came a-knocking.

But what happened between first and second sleeps? Well, that’s where the meditation comes in. There wasn’t any reason to be fully awake (except to go to the toilet or have sex) so people drifted into this twilight zone of “meditation”. I put it in quotation marks because no one deliberately induced this state: it happened naturally.

First sleep was deep, restful sleep with a burst of dreaming before waking for the first time. Then it was followed by a period of quiet “meditation” before second sleep, which was characterised by more dreaming.

And that was natural.

Can We Still Do This?

Yes we can. Even today, if we are deprived of light for fourteen hours a day, we start to sleep in two shifts. Dr Thomas Wehr did an experiment to test this. After four weeks of acclimatisation to the regime, this is the sleep pattern his subjects showed:

  1. Lie awake in bed for two hours.
  2. Sleep for four.
  3. Awake again for two to three hours of quiet rest and reflection.
  4. Fall back asleep for four more hours.
  5. Wake for good.

The question now is: why would we want to do this? Who’s got fourteen hours to waste on sleep?

The Power of Dreams and Meditation

That middle segment of wakefulness is not just sitting around in bed. It is characterised by an altered state of consciousness, neither awake nor asleep, where confused thoughts wander at will, like dreams, and people feel content. This brain-state is very similar to the state reported by people who meditate regularly.

That period of “meditation” allows the sleeper to examine their dreams without the pressures of the day to worry about. How many people these days lounge around in bed, pondering their dreams – if they can remember them at all? No, most people have to get up and go to work, which breaks the spell.

But dreams and quiet meditation are powerful tools. Half-controlled, half-random, dreams offer easy access to suppressed emotions and unexpected thoughts. We can visit old friends, talk to dead relatives, travel in foreign lands, have new experiences and remember old ones.

This period of quiet meditation allows new thoughts to come to the surface, it allows our minds to shuffle through the events of the previous day and to put everything into perspective. “I’ll sleep on it,” is a common saying that reflects this.

The night-time also has a reputation as the “mother of thoughts”. Many artists and creative thinkers report that dreams or sleep in general is the best time for generating new ideas. With a double shift sleep pattern, dreaming, waking and meditation is built in to the system. Twice over.

A Experiment in Double Shift Sleep Patterns

So I tried it (of course). I know that Dr Wehr’s subjects needed four weeks to get into this pattern, but that didn’t stop me trying. The idea that our sleep is supposed to be broken also takes the pressure off. If you wake up in the middle of the night, it’s no bad thing. It’s natural.

So last night I tried it. I went to bed at about half eight in the evening and didn’t get out of bed until about nine in the morning. A good solid twelve hours of rest.

And I did sleep in two shifts. The first was until about three in the morning. Then I simply lay in bed (after checking the cricket score…) pondering the dreams I’d just had. Then I fell asleep again after a while and woke at about half past eight. I then stayed in bed just thinking about the night’s dreaming and got out of bed at nine.

I won’t bore you with my dreams, but suffice to say that I remember them still, twelve hours later. They were dramatic and exciting and perhaps even revealing. I’m going to try again tonight.

Conclusion

On average, we spend 10% of our lives dreaming between 100,000 and 200,000 dreams. That’s an awful lot. I can’t remember too many. One reason for that is that I sleep through too many of them. If I start sleeping in two shifts, like my ancestors used to, then I’ll remember way more. I really appreciate my dreams and the alternate reality that they allow me. Maybe I’ll understand them better, maybe I’ll understand myself better. Maybe I’ll just get a few more stories out of it.

“Let the Night teach us what we are, and the Day what we should be.”

Thomas Tryon, Wisdom’s Dictates (London, 1691)

References

Sleep We Have Lost: Pre-industrial Slumber in the British Isles by A. Roger Ekirch:
http://www.historycooperative.org/journals/ahr/106.2/ah000343.html

Modern Life Suppresses An Ancient Body Rhythm By Natalie Angier, March 14, 1995:
http://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/14/science/modern-life-suppresses-an-ancient-body-rhythm.html?pagewanted=print&src=pm

Various BBC reports on meditation:
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1847442.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/410003.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7319043.stm
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/8363302.stm

How to be Amazingly Happy!

Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

  • Have sex.
  • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
  • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
  • Learn something new.
  • Go shopping!
  • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
  • Do some gardening.
  • Cook.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
  • Play or listen to music.
  • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
  • Trust others.
  • Have a nap.
  • Dream (including lucid dreams).

Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe! Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure). Cool, now I sound like your dad.

This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.

Hypnagogia: How to Dream like Thomas Edison

As I mentioned in yesterday’s article on How to Sleep, Thomas Edison used Stage 1 of the natural sleep cycle – AKA hypnagogia –  to come up with insanely creative ideas for new inventions.

He would take a cat-nap in a chair with steel balls in his hands and, as he drifted off and relaxed, the balls would drop (as it were), waking him and more often than not he’d have a new idea for research.

Edison had attained what is known as the hypnagogic state. Hypnagogia is just a fancy Greek word for the transition from wakefulness to sleep: Stage 1 of the sleep cycle. Please note that hypnagogia is NOT sleep: it is precisely the point between sleep and wakefulness. This is important.

The hypnagogic state is characterised by alpha-theta brainwaves and can lead to lucid dreaming, out-of-body experiences, hallucinations and sleep paralysis. Normally we would not recall any of these experiences because normally our body continues in the sleep cycle and we pass into Stage 2 and so on through the cycle.

If we recall dreams, they are usually from the REM stage of sleep. If, however, we are woken, like Edison, during this first phase then we are very likely to recall our dreams or hallucinations.

With practice we can learn to balance on the edge of sleep and wakefulness and even to control our hallucinations to a certain degree. We can use the hypnagogic state to boost our creativity, to reduce stress and to energise our mind and body.

How to Induce a Hypnagogic State

You’ve probably already experienced a hypnagogic state. Think of times when you’ve been drifting off and had some vivid dreams or hallucinations – but not fallen asleep.

Try to remember the details of where you were, what you were doing and what time of day it was when you had the experience.

Then simply set up those conditions again and this time try to induce the state deliberately. Perhaps it was after a meal at lunchtime, perhaps it was in the library, leaning back on a chair in the sunshine, perhaps it was listening to the radio in the early morning.

I find public transport is good: you can’t fall asleep totally and there is plenty of background noise to provide stimulus.

Here are some more tips:

  • Hypnagogia is about observing the mind as it descends into Stage 1 sleep. Therefore, the two prerequisites are drowsiness AND an effort to think. Just drowsiness and you risk falling asleep; just an effort to think and your mind will stay awake. It is the effort to think that makes it possible to ‘observe’ the consciousness of your subconscious mind.
  • Therefore, don’t try it when you are tired. Late night hypnagogia will probably just lead to full-on sleep.
  • If you think that sleep is a risk, don’t use your bed. If you do use your bed, perhaps prop yourself up with a pillow to avoid sleep.
  • Follow Thomas Edison’s guide. Get yourself some steel balls and an armchair. Another one I’ve heard is a teaspoon and a plate. Hold the teaspoon in your hand and put the plate on the floor underneath. You’ll wake when you muscles relax and the teaspoon drops onto the plate.
  • Try setting your alarm for 30 minutes earlier in the morning and then try to ‘doze’, try to balance between sleep and wakefulness until it is time for you to get up.
  • You can use the snooze alarm on your clock to make sure you don’t go into sleep.
  • The afternoon nap is another classic opportunity for hypnagogia.
  • The brain works in roughly 90 minute high activity cycles, each followed by a 20 minute low activity cycle. If you can, work for 90 minutes and then try a burst of hypnagogia.
  • Stage 1 of sleep only lasts about five minutes. If you wake up after twenty, you’ve probably been asleep.
  • Relax, close your eyes, but stay watchful, observe yourself drifting off.
  • Try concentrating on the changing patterns of your mind as you drop off. Don’t think about what you are thinking about (i.e. work, the kids, etc.), but just observe the way in which your thinking is changing, a change in consciousness perhaps.
  • For me, there’s a point where I feel the body go numb (sleep paralysis) and then I know that in a few seconds my mind will dip into subconscious activity. If I don’t fall asleep, I know that I will be able to observe this state.
  • Be patient. At first this will seem like an odd thing to be doing and you will probably struggle to enter a hypnagogic state. Keep trying, but don’t force it.

Using Hypnagogia for Creativity

Many artists, writers, mystics, philosophers and scientists have used hypnagogia to break through creative brick walls. These have included Aristotle, the Greek philosopher; Robert Desnos, the French surrealist poet; Edgar Allan Poe, the American writer; Isaac Newton, the English scientist; and Beethoven, the German composer.

Observed hypnagogia can inspire not just images and sounds, but also present flashes of insight and, occasionally, genius. I’ll never forget the time my hypnagogic state constructed an entirely new way of presenting data, unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Shame I don’t work with data, really!

Hypnagogic states are highly creative. They are extremely productive, packing a high density of ideas into a short period of time. They are extremely novel, throwing together ideas and thoughts that might never have occured to you otherwise. They express the incredible flexibility of the mind. They are more complex than you can grasp in a wakeful state. They transform existing objects into something totally new.

But the best part is that we all have access to this state. We can do it as much as we like without doing harm to ourselves and it will become more productive the more we use it.

Think again of Thomas Edison. Was he a particularly innovative inventor? Or was he just some guy who napped a lot? The two go hand in hand. Walk hand in hand with your unconscious, work together.

Control Your Experience

As you develop your ability to enter a hypnagogic state, you can start to try and do more with these experiences. You can’t directly control the hallucinations, but you can try to suggest things to the mind.

It is important that you remain relaxed. Just let it happen, whatever it is. Anxiety will provoke your alarm systems and you will wake up. The hallucination is in control just as much as you.

Record Your Experience

Of course, the hypnagogic experience is just an entertainment unless you make an attempt to record it. If you want to make something creative out of the hallucination then you must rehearse and write it down immediately afterwards, while you are still in the afterglow of the experience, otherwise it will fade quickly and vanish.

Another way to record the experience is to learn to verbally report the images as they are happening using a dictaphone. This is not easy to do in the beginning because it uses the analytical side of the brain, which is inherently wakeful, but it can be done.

Verbal reporting can take place as long as you don’t search for words, grammar or intellectual concern for the expression of abstract ideas. This means that you can record more directly the images and ideas, rather than scrabbling for a pen immediately afterwards.

Ease the Pressure to be ‘Creative’

Inspiration gained from hypnagogic states can also be used to ease creative pressure on an artist and to deflate ego and arrogance. Because they are ideas that have arrived from an unconscious state, it is hard to take full credit for them. The creative process becomes more of a partnership between you and your ‘muse’.

Tom Waits is among the many artists who have found this a useful way of reducing the stress of public acclamation of his ‘talent’. He puts in his shift and his muse puts in hers. When the ideas arrive, he is ready to receive and works them up into songs or words. If the ideas don’t arrive, then it’s not his fault; he did his job and his muse simply failed to show up, maybe she will tomorrow.

Other Uses for Hypnagogia and Alternatives

Hypnagogia is not just good for unlocking the creative power of the brain, it is also beneficial in other ways. The relaxation of a hypnagogic state refreshes your mind and body and diminishes the apparent unpleasantness of painful stimuli.

The practice of hypnagogic observation doesn’t just conserve energy, it produces it. It also lowers blood pressure and oxygen consumption and leads to a decrease in heart rate and respiration. All of which is good for beating stress and stress-related illness.

Inducing a hypnagogic state is not the only way to get the benefits of theta brain-waves. The following are other alternatives (my experiments in brackets):

I encourage experimentation – but hypnagogia is a great option that’s relatively easy, fun and safe.

Hypnopompia

Hypnagogia has a partner: hypnopompia, the transition from sleep to wakefulness. Hypnopompia is probably the more common experience.

Most people quite often have this sort of hallucination in the mornings, especially if your alarm goes off early and you use the snooze button. It seems to be identical in brain-activity to hypnagogia, but of course happens at the end of the sleep cycle, when you are half-awake.

The downside: you can only do it once a day! Nevertheless, you might as well indulge when you can.

Bonus: A Theory of Dreaming

We have two brains, not one. We have an ‘old’ brain and a, relatively-speaking, ‘new’ brain and they’ve evolved one on top of the other in us humans. The old brain is for use in survival mode: there is no ‘ego’, it is totally animal. The new brain is what makes us uniquely human, this is where the ‘ego’ sits, our self-conscious mind.

Dreaming is a product of the old brain; it subsumes the ego totally. Babies almost exclusively use the old brain; they have no self-consciousness and have no concept of inner and outer worlds. As the new brain starts to take over we develop our self-conscious mind.

What is Wakefulness?

Dreaming is an activity independent of sleep. Brain activity observed during the dreams of REM sleep is identical to that observed during our (so-called) waking hours. Therefore you could characterise our waking state as REM dreaming plus direct sensory stimulus.

It is only with the development of the new brain that we have also developed the distinction between sleeping and wakeful states. The new brain grabs that sensory stimulus and takes over. The old brain is still doing its thing, but at the subconscious level, which we don’t often notice or pay attention to except in meditative states, day-dreaming or hypnagogia.

What is Sleep?

If the waking state is simply the REM dreaming of sleep plus an exterior sensory stimulus, then what is sleep? People deprived of REM sleep dream more in the NREM phases, people deprived of sleep altogether hallucinate.

Hallucination in the real world is dangerous; believing you can fly off that cliff, believing you are invincible and so on. Therefore, we need to secure a safe place to give ourselves over to dreaming, to give ourselves over to the old brain. That safe place is sleep.

We can only sleep when our surroundings are secure; we can’t sleep if we don’t feel safe, our panic buttons are pushed and we stay awake. Therefore sleep is simply a safe place where we can dream.

This idea has remarkable conclusions. If the wakeful state is simply REM dreaming plus sensory stimulus and sleep is simply a safe place for us to dream, then what are we? Dreamers I suppose.

Creativity as Dreaming

This makes sense. Humans need less sleep than other mammals. This could be because we are able to ‘let go’ in a wakeful state as well – through creative arts or daydreaming, for example. This explains why we can survive REM deprivation, whereas animals, cats for example, go crazy and die.

Our ability to relax and engage in dreaming activities means that we need less sleep and less sleepdreams. This also explains why napping during the day can reduce your need for nocturnal sleep.

Now: Experiment!

This is all fascinating and highly theoretical. Sleep and dreaming, especially hypnagogia, is not well-understood by anyone – and I certainly don’t claim to have the answers! All I hope is that I have given you something to think about, to investigate further and to experiment with in your own life.


The primary source for this article, particularly the section, A Theory of Dreaming, is a book by Andreas Mavromatis, Hypnagogia, published in 1987 by Routledge. This is still the standard work on hypnagogia (as far as I know).

Further Reading:

How to Sleep

The Sleep Habit

Sleep is a habit. Get into a good habit and your sleep will be good.

This fact translates into just one hard and fast rule:

Get out of bed within 30 minutes of the same time everyday. Every day.

That includes the weekend. This will make your body rhythms consistent and you will get good at sleeping the whole time you are in bed because your body will know that that is the time allocated to it for sleeping.

Equally this will mean that you will begin to feel tired around 8 hours before your wake up time. So go to bed then. Don’t fight your body.

It is a scientific fact that most people get most benefit out of sleeping the hours between 11pm and 7am. Don’t blame me if you like staying up later, I’m just saying.

Sleep Hygeine

And that’s pretty much all there is to it. However, there are some things that contribute to sleep, some things you can do to facilitate it and some things that you should avoid. These tips are called Sleep Hygiene.

1. Don’t use your bed (or bedroom if possible) for anything other than sleep. Your body will then get used to the equation Bed = Sleep and respond accordingly.

2. Read fiction before sleeping. This activates the right side of the brain and helps you switch off the hyperactive, analytical left side. This will particularly help you if you spend hours lying in bed thinking over problems and worrying about things. Whatever you do, do not read non-fiction. This will have the reverse effect and you brain will churn over the ideas all night.

3. Don’t take caffeine after lunch. Caffeine is a stimulant and takes around five hours to leave the body. Caffeine includes coffee, coke and chocolate.

4. Don’t drink alcohol either. It badly damages sleep quality. Have a drink at lunch time instead!

5. Don’t smoke. Nicotine is a stimulant and smokers get withdrawal symptoms during the night, disrupting sleep.

6. Get a bigger bed. Sleep is an activity. During the night we twist and turn – as shown by the state of the bedsheets in the morning! If you sleep with someone else then consider a king size. Seriously, people who sleep together, sleep worse.

7. Sleep in silence. If noise is a problem, then use earplugs or a white noise recording (you can find them on the internet or just detune a radio). A fan works as well, although you might dream that you’re flying through the wind.

8. Keep cool. Body temperature is crucial for sleep and therefore so is room temperature. Slightly cool works best. Make sure there is sufficient ventilation as well.

9. Don’t eat a meal in the three hours before your sleep time. But you could have a small snack high in tryptophan, calcium and carbohydrate like a roast turkey sandwich with a small glass of warm milk. Tryptophan promotes sleepiness, calcium facilitates the absorption of tryptophan and carbohydrates slow and clear the mind. Avoid proteins at all costs.

10. Avoid bright lights in the run up to bed time. Your body clock is set by daylight, so you’re just confusing it with bright electric lights. Dim the lights, or read with just a soft table lamp. Equally, eliminate light in the room when you are actually trying to sleep. You might have to use blackout curtains or a eye mask.

11. Listen to an audio book to help soothe you to sleep. I know someone who listened to a recording of Marcel Proust’s ‘Swann’s Way’ for a whole week and never got past the first few pages. However, put the player on a timer so that it doesn’t wake you up a few hours later.

12. Take a warm bath before going to bed. Sleep onset is encouraged by a drop in temperature. A warm (but not hot) bath will simulate this drop as the water evaporates off your skin. However, this is artificial and not normally necessary. Bear in mind that this artificial drop is followed not long after by a gradual rise in body temperature as you warm up again. This is not conducive to sleep – so jump into bed within 20 minutes after taking the bath.

13. Slow down your heart rate. In other words, try meditation or focus on your breathing. Whatever you do, do not take exercise in the 3 hours before you intend to sleep. This could mean no after work gym sessions.

14. On the other hand, do exercise during the day. As little as 30 minutes exercise will help you sleep at night. Hit the gym in the morning.

15. Do not do any stimulating activities before sleeping. This means television, surfing the internet or card games.

16. Avoid sleeping medicines. There is no substitute for natural sleep. If you are still having problems then make doubly sure you are keeping good, regular sleeping habits and go and see your doctor. Be careful.

Now I shall dig a little deeper into what sleep is and what it does for us.

The Stages of Sleep

Sleep is made up of several different phases:

Stage 1
This lasts around 2-5 minutes. It is distinctive for its Quasi-REM (dreaming without the eye movements), which is not well understood. This is the condition that Thomas Edison induced to help him with breakthroughs in his inventions. He used to sit in an armchair with two steel balls in his hands, resting on the arm rests. When he moved from dozing into deeper sleep, the balls would fall onto the floor and he’d wake up from his dreaming, often with a new idea.

Stage 2
The first stage of ‘proper’ sleep is characterised by a slowing of your heart rate and a drop in body temperature. This explains why these two changes can be used to induce sleep. Stage 2 sleep is important for increasing alertness, promoting motor learning as well as reasoning, planning, language, reflexes and social interaction.

Stages 3 and 4 = Slow wave sleep (SWS)
This is the deepest sleep that we have. If we wake up during this phase (thanks to an alarm or an irate policeman) then we will feel groggy. This is known as sleep inertia and has three solutions: go back to sleep for 20 minutes or so, engage in a physical activity or splash water on your face. During slow wave sleep our bodies stop producing stress hormone and boost our levels of growth hormone. We also metabolise fats, cholesterol and carbohydrates during this phase and our mental neurons stop firing. This phase will clear your mind, repair your body and improve your declarative memory (e.g. “The Fire of London was in 1666”).

Rapid Eye Movement (REM)
REM is the most glamorous phase of sleep, it is the time when we dream most deeply and memorably. Our blood pressure and heart rate go up and we pump 50% more blood to the brain which is firing neurons as if we were fully awake. REM sleep enhances our memories as our brains transfer information from short to long term memory. REM sleep also enhances creativity.

Sleep Cycles
It is not necessarily helpful to give approximate time lengths for the various stages of sleep because they vary a lot according to the human. For example, a male aged 20-29 years will spend about 21% of his sleep time in Slow Wave Sleep, a male aged 40-49 years about 8% and those aged 60-69 will spend just 2% in SWS. However, the average duration of a sleep cycle is about 90-100 minutes. This explains why humans average about 8 hours sleep a night, that is 5 full cycles.

So that’s it. Sleep isn’t a terrifically well-understood area of human activity, given that we spend about a third of our time engaged in the activity, but the tips above are a good start to sleeping well.


This article first appeared on the (now defunct) website, How to be Human. I hope it finds an appreciative audience here.