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Can’t sleep? Here’s a new technique that might help

Created by a B.C. professor, it uses ‘cognitive shuffling’ to move your mind away from stressful thoughts so that you can finally get some rest

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How many nights have you spent helplessly watching the minutes tick by? You know, the nights where 12:34 a.m. turns into 2:34 a.m., and you’re stuck in a limbo state between wakefulness and sleep — a state known as “hypnagogic” — or worse, completely wide awake.

Luc Beaudoin, an adjunct professor of cognitive science at Simon Fraser University in B.C., may have found the solution. His “do-it-yourself” technique helps counter stressful thoughts that keep us awake. It aims to lull our racing minds, simulating natural sleep onset. He’s tested it on 154 university students (137 of whom were female) and the results have been promising. The technique has even been name-checked by Forbes and Oprah (the magazine).

How it works

You start by imagining a word that doesn’t have any repeating letters. For example, “Pluto”. Then you think of as many words as possible that begin with the letter P. Once you’ve listed all you can think of, move on to L, then U, then T, and finally O. Beaudoin says people usually tire out by the first letter.

The technique is called “cognitive shuffling” because you’re moving your mind away from the stressful thoughts keeping you awake. Beaudoin says this imitates what naturally happens when people fall asleep. “Your mind wanders, your thinking becomes less logical, less coherent, looser in a sense,” he explains.


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How is this different from counting sheep?

Whether you’re counting backwards or tallying up sheep, “it’s a very coherent mental process,” says Beaudoin, and one designed to keep you alert. On the other hand, when you think of random words and jump from letter to letter, “you’re deliberately mind wandering” — which imitates the natural process of sleep onset.

“If you’ve got mortgage problems, relationship problems, your kids are skipping school, and you’re wondering where they are during the day — counting sheep doesn’t cut it,” he says.

It doesn’t help to review what happened during your day or tomorrow’s to-do list because these real-life thoughts are intimately tied to your emotions, which Beaudoin believes will activate your attention and lead you to feel emotionally charged, which will keep you up at night. Cognitive shuffling, on the other hand, puts distance between your consciousness and this emotional level of thinking. Beaudoin has even coined a term for it: “perturbance” — it grabs your attention and alters it.

“People don’t know what to do in bed,” says Beaudoin. “If you’ve got this in your toolkit, it’s like being able to pull out a medication that won’t make you groggy.”

He’s also developed an app called mySleepButton that can help generate words for people who are “in the ironic paradox of being too tired to try this technique without software, yet still in the state where they can’t fall asleep.”

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