“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
What truly separates man and machine? What separates the sentient from the non-sentient? Some would say language, others would say emotions. There are many answers to this question, but sleep is one of the important ones. Sleep separates the living consciousness with everything else, because sleep is a sign of a highly complex naturally evolved entity in place. Sleep is the autonomous self-management process discovered by evolution to keep the self-looping mushy cognitive system within our calcium domes working to avoid absolute failure (death).
Sleep is one of the most essential aspect of life, that much we all know by now. The Science of Sleep has come quiet far in establishing it's vitality for all aspects of our life - from our physiological health to our overall productivity and mental wellbeing. Sleep directly impacts the quality of decisions you make every day, the level of energy you have, your overall mood in life. A lot of our daily struggle usually comes down to either poor sleep or diet.
I struggle with sleep. I have researched a lot on this subject over the years, exploring every single tip, suggestion, strategy ever discovered to fall asleep. I tried everything I could, from counting 1 and up, to 1000 and down. I tried counting prime numbers. I tried solving math problems in my head.
I tried reading dense textbooks and listening to boring lectures on random topics to bore my brain to sleep. I tried black curtains, no phones past 8 pm. I tried weighted blankets, avoiding a heavy dinner, journaling, reading fiction, making my body physically tired throughout the day. I tried blind folds, ear mufflers, white noise, magnesium glycinate, melatonin and even scented candles.
A few of those helped me, a few times. But nothing worked consistently for me. Partly because consistency is the bane of my existence, and partly because my sleep problem was not so straightforward afterall.
At some point in my eternal struggle to sleep, I realized that not all people with sleep problems are actually dealing with the same problem. Even though the outcome is the same, the underlying problem is different for different people. And so, trying to give any generic advice for everyone simply cannot work. The advice has to be catered to you based on the root cause for your sleep issues.
Types of Sleep Problems
Most of the sleep problems people face fall into two buckets, either
- You feel sleepy, but you just cannot. Primarily because your brain refuses to shut down, doesn't stop thinking, etc.
- You simply do not feel sleepy, at night. Your circadian rhythm is off from conventional and evolutionary standards, and you cannot cope with it. You might feel sleepy but at a delayed timeline.
Somewhere in between these two buckets, you might face issues not with falling asleep, but staying asleep. Your mind or body might interfere with your sleep, and wake you up.
Or even if you do get sleep, it never seems to be sufficient, you never actually reach a stage of feeling "rested" and you eternally feel tired, exhausted, and longing for sleep.
The only other bucket left out are disorders like Fatal Familial Insomnia or Narcolepsy, which just take the above to an extreme that requires serious medical attention. Because the problem here becomes more at the hardware level than at the software level.
Sleep - Brain's Waste Management System
There is a lot of Scientific literature on the nature of sleep, why it exists in the first place, how it came to be through evolution, how it seems to work, how it affects our health, how and why it gives rise to dreams and more. I have my own half rational and half creative simplified take on sleep as a process within our brains.
Any complex molecular system produces waste, just from it's operation. And this waste has to be managed, otherwise it piles up, and blocks the complex system from continuing to function as usual. The same happens with our brains.
It's just like how our civilization operates at a larger scale. All of us, tiny little creatures, living within our tiny homes, societies, doing our routine activities, and producing waste every single day. For our civilization to continue functioning as usual, you need a waste management system. You need to automatically or manually take all the waste from each of these homes out, and dump them somewhere else.
Just the same way, all the thinking, processing, instructing the body, all the activity in our brain produces waste on a regular basis. And this waste, which I like to call cognitive sludge, starts pilling up. The more the cognitive overload, the more sludge. Now what does the brain do? It has to take all of this waste out, but how can it do that?
Our civilization has managed to figure out a waste management system that operates independently from the functioning of our society, so that the system doesn't have to shut down for it to be cleaned up. But evolution is a blind watchmaker, through it's trial and error process, it couldn't discover an independent process for dispensing of all the waste. Sweating is perhaps the only form of waste disposal that doesn't interfere with our regular functioning.
So the brain shuts down, to clear the pathways for all the waste to be disposed off. Of course, our brain during sleep does a lot more than this. It moves important information and experiences to long term memory by reprocessing them. It helps with recovery and rejuvenation of the body itself, letting the muscles relax after an entire day of use.
But the cognitive waste disposal is one of it's key functions, in my view. Because it directly impacts the quality of operation. Poor sleep, means poor disposal of the waste in your brain, and thus the sludge blocks your brain, makes you more lazy, it creates a constant background source of annoyance, frustration, lethargy. It makes it that much more difficult for you to think critically, to do any mentally demanding task.
However, the fascinating aspect of this story seems to be that different people have different settings for this sludge disposal system. Different people operate at different levels of efficiency, some have brains that are far more efficiently designed, than others. And thus, they seem to be able to do more superhuman things, they can think and work their brains a lot, they can do a lot of physical work, and somehow still manage to get by with fewer hours of sleep without any drastic damage to their routine function.
I believe that some of our brains have evolved to be able to function and dispose off the waste, work and clean, in a independent asynchronous manner. Elon Musk is one famous example of this, I think. It's quiet clear that his brain works at a level of efficiency that is different from many people. It's extraordinarily difficult to build and manage multiple companies at that scale and still be closely involved with all of them.
And if this is true, it inspires a great sci-fi story of man finally conquering sleep, by artificially evolving our brains to operate with a higher degree of efficiency. Perhaps one day, thousand years from now, we might truly be able to reap all the benefits of sleep, without actually sleeping.
My Personal Journey with Sleep
I started struggling with sleep as a teenager, more than a decade ago. As I understood more of the world, I had more to think about. As I understood more about life, I had dreams and desire to do more with my mortal existence. And day after day, night after night, my mind started choosing "thinking" over "sleeping" because the former was far more stimulating instantly, it lead to endless imagination, fantasy building of my future self, ruminating about the past and the future. It was like receiving a regular injection of dopamine every single night. And soon enough, I was a junkie. A drug addict, hooked onto my own brain's overthinking. And the affects of that addiction have damaged me in more ways than I can describe.
One of the most common views I heard from people was that when they are tired, physically and mentally, their brain would automatically shut down at night and they would sleep. The advice then was that you have to do real hard work in your day, using your brain and your body, and it would naturally shut down at night. This was absolutely confusing for me, because I vividly remember having days when I would overwork my brain, and my body, and in fact even have the strongest desire to fall asleep. My eyes would be droopy, I would be dozing off on my way to bed. But as soon as I got into the bed, this one part of my brain would activate, the frontal lobe, and it would start thinking. And thinking. And thinking. And no matter how hard I tried to stop the thinking, it would not stop. I was tired, I wanted to sleep, but my brain just refused to shut down.
This continued for a long time. One perticular night was absolutely horrifying for me, because that night, my brain was thinking so much all by itself, against my will, that it physically started hurting me. I held my head with great force, as my brain felt like it was throbbing with pain inside my skull. It felt equivalent to overloading the weight too much while doing some barbell curls. My biceps hurt. It made me cry from the sheer helplessness I felt.
This habit of thinking, and then overthinking, turned into anxiety disorder within my body over time. My nervous system became so used to being over stimulated that it became the default state of my body. At any given time, all the organs of my body receive more than necessary signals from my nervous system. This leads to behavior like fidgeting all the time, not being able to sit still, a constant background radiation of thoughts, an irrational discomfort, high heart rate, sudden anxiety attacks, irregular digestion, dysfunctional bladder system or interstitial cystitis, irritable bowl syndrome, restless leg syndrome. All of which have even further cascading affects on health, energy levels, and mental stability.
Fortunately, soon enough, I discovered something that actually worked for me. My problem was that I couldn't stop my brain from thinking, conventionally. And to mitigate this problem, I had to get better at my brain's ability to focus. I had to do something to control the constant flux of thoughts in my brain. The answer suddenly became very obvious to me, meditation.
I had experience with meditation by this time, and it did help me whenever I practiced it. But there was a realization suddenly that I had, that the meditation I practice by sitting down and folding my legs, and focusing on my breath, I can exercise that while trying to sleep as well.
I realized that while laying down in bed, I can focus on a spot behind my forehead, the cetnral zone of my "frontal lobe" where all the thinking activity seems to be taking place. I can focus on this space, and ask myself "are there any thoughts here right now" and try to observe for any activity in this spot. As soon as I would notice it, I would push it all away, and make the space empty again. The goal was simple, just put all of my energy into keeping this spot inactive, clean, disengaged, empty. I tried it, and soon enough, the natural sleepiness of my brain took over and I fell asleep!
Of course, this only worked some times, when the strength of my brain to focus was capable enough to win the tug of war against the monkey in my frontal lobe which suddenly becomes so energetic that it just wants to jump around, from one thought and feeling to another. Practice makes it easier, but practice requires deliberate repetition at a regular frequency, which requires an ability to manage your attention and direct it regularly to the practice, and now we are stuck in a loop. ADHD is a disorder of existential paradoxes, all you can hope to do is just keep doing things in your flow and being lucky enough that productive behavior latches on and becomes a subconscious habit.
How do you solve a problem that doesn't have a single consistent solution? When the parameters of the problem change every time? You apply every practical solution that you have tried and tested, and go through each of them, until something works, or you just give up and accept things as is for the night and try again tomorrow.
Practical Solutions to fall asleep
Here are some of the solutions that have practically helped me, over time, multiple times, to actually fall asleep and even stay rested.
Use your bed only for sleep and sex, nothing else. Go to bed only when you are actually already falling asleep, and get up from bed as soon as you are conscious again. If you are struggling to fall asleep, do absolutely nothing and sit in a chair, and wait until your brain is starting to fall asleep. You will get irritated, bored, and that is what you want. Bore your brain, with disengagement. Never stay in bed for more than few mins if you are not falling asleep or actively engaging with your partner.
Guided or self-directed meditation helps. I have personally found the Medito app the most helpful, as it's also not trying to monetize meditation. If you already have practice with meditation, and your mind is not too actively engrossed into thinking about something, just patiently focusing on your mind seems to bring you to sleep within 10-15 mins. If the mind is not actively occupied with any thoughts for some period of time, the natural sleepiness takes over the brain.
Light and temperature help. Some find it more useful to be in a pitch black room, some find it easier for fall asleep with a dim bedlight on. And being able to control the temperature of your room, through an AC, heater, thin or heavy blanket, can be helpful.
Sometimes, noise helps. Familiar repetitive music helps. Sometimes you might need classical music without any vocals, sometimes it might be modern mellow lofi music, other times you might want to trigger some nostalgic sentiments to remind your brain of times when life was more calm and relaxed. For me, sometimes, heavy rock music does the magic for some reason as well. Other types of noise, such as ambient sounds, white static noise, can also help.
Bed and pillows can affect your comfort level as you fall asleep. I find it necessary to have two pillows under my head, and one under my knees, for optimal comfort. The one below your knee also helps with your posture and avoids pain in your back.
A routine mental self-talk along the lines of "now my day has ended, everything I have done today has come to an end. There is no reason for me to think about anything at all anymore right now. I can wake up tomorrow and continue my thinking" helps instruct the brain to not engage in thinking when it's time to sleep. Training your brain to think, but only within controlled windows of time, helps with the transition to sleep.
Sometimes, fasting helps. Not having a meal at night or having a early meal, helps with falling asleep and staying rested.
I personally think that some form of controlled stationary discomfort helps. Fasting is one form of it, but there are others. For example, falling asleep on the sofa sometimes feels easier than on the bed, even through the sofa contrains your body and movement a lot more. It pushes against you, boxes you in. Sleeping on your belly, blocking your lung movement a bit, also is a form of controlled discomfort, which somehow makes it comfortable I think.
Turning on night mode on your devices, desktop, laptop and phone helps. Absolutely helps. You stop noticing the transition after a while, and your eyes automatically hurt if you look at a device without the filter on once you get used to it. Turning your devices off 2-3 hours before sleep, keeping them far away from you, perhaps even in another room, can be helpful.
Reading a fiction (physical) book or journaling all of your thoughts (pen and paper) before going to sleep, can be helpful.
If you have a creative mind, actively fantasizing about a fictional world, building the world in your head, creating the characters, their arcs, experience, can help unwind the mind and fall asleep. I personally have enjoyed imagining Mowgli in the Jingle type of stories, exploring the wilderness with absolute freedom.
Walking or jogging at night can be helpful. Overall it can be helpful to have some physical activity in the day, to fall asleep at night.
Setting simple achievable goals and mentally expressing appreciation to yourself for finishing them at the end of the day helps with relaxing your mind and falling asleep.
If you are suffering on a daily basis, ask yourself if lack of sleep is associated with your suffering in any manner. Often, the answer might be yes. Lack of good sleep typically leads to self-inflicted suffering, and vice versa. And if so, then prioritize your sleep, and never give up on it. Try to rotate between all of these solutions, experiment and add your own to them, try applying multiple of them every day.
Take care of your sleep, it's a necessary foundation of life. Until of course mankind can objectively break through the evolutionary barrier of our existence.