Sometimes it’s difficult to fall asleep—your mind is racing; you’re tossing around; sleep just won’t come. I’ve tried various strategies over the years, and the one that works best for me is sleep-inducing music. It started several years ago with Brian Eno’s sonic masterpiece “Discreet Music” — calm, slow-paced music that comes in waves and is meant to be played at a very low volume. Eno says in the liner notes, “This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music–as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.”
After I tried listening to “Discreet Music” at low volumes and found it effective, I experimented with other music played the same way. Jefferson Airplane, John Coltrane, and Erik Satie worked for me. Not only are certain songs reliably sleep-inducing for me, there are exact places in a song where I fall asleep. On John Coltrane’s “Shifting Down,” I nod off during Kenny Dorham’s solo at 6:45. On Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love,” it happens right around the start of the third verse, which begins at 1:43 (after first listening to the first two tracks on the album The Worst of Jefferson Airplane.)
Lately I have been listening to the Miles Davis album In a Silent Way as I fall asleep. I always seem to drift off at 4:50 into the song “Shhh/Peaceful,” during a high trumpet note.
While I’ve found music to be remarkably effective (I rarely have insomnia anymore) and, for me, strangely predictable in its effects, I’m searching for other ways to fall asleep quickly and easily. If my trusty iPod fails, I need a backup.
A new mental imaging trick, “the cognitive shuffle,” aims to silence fretful thoughts by deliberately filling the brain with benign images. In a recent article in O (the monthly magazine from Oprah Winfrey), writer Kelly DiNardo quotes sleep researcher Luc Beaudoin from Canada’s Simon Fraser University, who devised this strategy for falling asleep. “The brain’s sleep-onset control system need not know what you’re thinking or imagining.” he explains. “It just needs to notice that there is mind wandering and that there is visual imagery, as if you were hallucinating. Unless the brain is on drugs, these clues generally signal that the cortex is ready for sleep.”
In an article in The Guardian, writer Oliver Burkeman says, “The cognitive shuffle involves mentally picturing a random sequence of objects for a few seconds each: a cow; a microphone; a loaf of bread, and so on. It’s important to ensure the sequence is truly meaningless; otherwise you’ll drift back into rumination. One option is Beaudoin’s app, MySleepButton, which speaks the names of items in your ear. Another is simply to pick a word, such as ‘bedtime,’ then picture as many items beginning with ‘b’ as you can, then ‘e,’ then ‘d,’ then… Well, by then, if my experience is anything to go by, you’ll be asleep.”
I may try listening to music while thinking of random words. A cognitive shuffle with Miles Davis dealing the cards.
What interests me about this insomnia-defeating strategy is that it’s another use of created imagery in our lives, but it’s entirely mental imagery. Like photography, it’s a way of playing with things you see (or “see,” in this case) and combining them. Like photography, it has a lot of elements that you control and, especially as you’re slipping toward sleep, some that are out of your control. Like photography, it probably gets much easier with practice.
Yet, unlike photography, it’s utterly personal, so much so that the series of images you create can’t be shared with anyone else. It’s a reminder that our interior worlds affect us in so many ways, every hour we’re alive. As Professor Dumbledore famously says near the end of the final Harry Potter book, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
Let me know if you try the cognitive shuffle. And sleep well!