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It's Late And You Can't Fall Asleep—Here's Why And What To Do

Cognitively speaking, counting sheep is way too easy. Do this instead.

It's Late And You Can't Fall Asleep--Here's Why And What To Do
[Photo: Flickr user Kurisu Mancuso]

It’s time to hit the sack. You had a long day and your head's on the pillow, but no matter what you do, the Sandman just won’t show up. Some of us only have this problem once in a while, but for others—some 70 million or so, —falling asleep is a chronic challenge. To beat it, you need to understand your brain's processing power—and then max it out.

Ruminators Anonymous

Missing out on a good night’s sleep is more than just a nuisance. It puts major dents (or worse) in our productivity as well as our cars. A recent study by Vitality concluded that workplace drowsiness is a bigger efficiency killer than smoking or drinking alcohol, and the Department of National Transportation estimates that driving while drowsy causes over 40,000 injuries annually.

One of the biggest obstacles many of us face falling asleep is that we can’t seem to let go of troubling thoughts. "Rumination," a word that has its root in the repetitive chewing that cows do, isn't as benign as it sounds. When we're trying to fall asleep, that psychological impulse fixates our attention on a failure or a threat. It puts our brains on high alert, causing us to turn a problem over in our heads when we should be turning our heads over to visions of sugarplum fairies and the like.

Thankfully, there’s a practical workaround we can use to put rumination to rest. It’s based on a fascinating pair of statistics about the way our brains are built.

Know Your Brain's Bandwidth

The human brain processes a whopping 10 million bits of information per second. That’s a throughput on par with the original Ethernet cable. But the conscious part of the brain—what we think of as the mind—processes only 50 bits per second. That’s just not enough to pay attention to everything all the time.

If you doubt that your attention is a limited resource, try simultaneously singing the "Star-Spangled Banner" and counting backward from 100 by sevens. Concentrating and making the right decisions is tough work. In one study, participants were told to memorize a number and then were offered a choice between cake and a piece of fruit. The group told to remember a seven-digit number were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as those told to remember a two-digit number. In other words, carrying around five extra digits used up enough mental resources to get in the way of picking the healthier option.

Usually, our 50-bit shortcoming is an obstacle; it's this cognitive chokepoint that all too often gets in the way of our best intentions becoming good behaviors. Because we're wired for inattention and inertia, we deploy our scarce mental resources on things that are either pressing or pleasurable, letting the rest slide. Over time, this creates a gap between what we want to do (if we were to stop and think about it) and what we actually do.

But there are ways to flip things around, making our skimpy conscious bandwidth a feature rather than a bug. Ride-hailing company Uber, for instance, is leveraging this very limitation in order to reduce assaults by drunk riders against its drivers. In a pilot test in Charlotte, North Carolina, the company is simply equipping cars with Bop-It toys, a sort of "Simon Says" game on steroids.

The idea is that inebriated customers will fiddle with the gadgets rather than fight with drivers. Uber chief security officer Joe Sullivan recently told the Guardian, "An intoxicated rider who is engaged in something interesting is less likely to be irritable and aiming aggression at the driver."

Bop-Its For Your Restless Brain

You can use a similar strategy to cut rumination down to size and get to sleep faster. When we ruminate, we're devoting our 50 bits of attention to a problem that we’re unlikely to solve anytime soon—certainly not before morning. The key is to point our limited attention away from whatever we’re ruminating over and toward something harmless. By soaking up all 50 bits of our attention on something else, there’s no mental room left to ruminate.

The next time cognitive cud chewing is standing between you and a good night’s sleep, don't count sheep. That will hardly max out your brain's processing power. Instead, try this: Imagine each letter of the Pledge of Allegiance being typed or handwritten, one letter at a time, in as great detail as possible. You’ll find that it’s impossible to fully attend to this task and worry about something else at the same time.

If you find your mind has wandered back to the problem that’s keeping you awake, the rule is that you have to go back to the very start of the Pledge. More often than not, you’ll drift off to sleep before you can finish.

Bob Nease, PhD, is the former chief scientist of Express Scripts, and the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results (HarperCollins) as well as over 70 peer-reviewed papers.

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