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Researchers discover a surprising visual trick for falling asleep faster

Using VR and data visualization, they let sleepers watch their own brain waves as they drifted off.

Researchers discover a surprising visual trick for falling asleep faster
[Image: courtesy RMIT University]

People who sleep well go to bed calm, while those who don’t lie in bed anxious or ruminating. But as anyone who has trouble sleeping knows, you can’t always just tell your racing brain to relax and forget about that student loan debt until tomorrow morning. So sleeping poorly can be a self-reinforced cycle. People go to bed anxious because they don’t sleep well. And they don’t sleep well because they go to bed anxious.

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New research from the Exertion Games Lab at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University has found that there may be a surprisingly simple solution for some people who have trouble going to sleep: giving them chance to look at their own brains as they lie in bed.

Scientists invited 12 healthy students into their lab and placed an EEG monitor—or a device that measures electrical brain activity—on their heads. The students laid down and were fitted with a VR headset that contained an artistically interpreted visualization of those brainwaves. (A projector also played this visualization on a back wall, which the subjects didn’t see during the experience since they were wearing headsets. But it makes for some really great photos.) The more excited the person’s brain was, the more active the visualization would be, with greater contrast, color, and amplitude.

[Image: courtesy RMIT University]

What researchers found was that after 10 minutes, subjects reported a significant drop in what’s called “pre-sleep cognitive arousal.” That means their minds were quieter and in the state we know leads to good sleep.

[Image: courtesy RMIT University]

While the study didn’t have the subject pool or control groups necessary to be entirely certain that it was the brain visualization, and not just any old visualization, that made the difference, researcher Nathan Semertzidis tells us that findings suggest “the feedback loop” between the sleeper, the visualization, and their brain “is core to the experience.”

As one subject put it in a post-study interview, the visualization was like a tool to relax: “I was drifting off to worries, mainly about work, and [the change in visuals] brought me out of that.”

[Image: courtesy RMIT University]

The researchers have no plans to commercialize their system. But they do believe you can take some of its learnings and bring them into your own bedroom, no VR headset required.

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“The mechanisms which the neurofeedback element of the system operates on is closely aligned with mindfulness meditation,” says Semertzidis, since this system kept people in the moment to avoid rumination and created a sense of calm just as meditation does. “Considering this, it would be possible to achieve similar benefits by performing mindfulness meditation before sleep to move the mind away from focusing on stressors which might otherwise hinder your ability to sleep. However, the downside to this is that mindfulness meditation requires a lot of practice before its benefits can be properly felt.”

In other words, we’re going to need a combination clock-radio-EEG-visualizer on Kickstarter, stat.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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