It’s been a few years, so I dug a couple of Travis McGee novels out of my stash to read over the holidays. This time through the The Dreadful Lemon Sky, the following passage caught my attention:
I lay wakeful in the big bed, resentful of Meyer nearby in the guest stateroom, placidly asleep. When he had been involved in a government study in India, he had learned how to take his mind out of gear and go immediately to sleep. I had known how, without thinking about it, when I had been in the army, but in time I had lost the knack.
Meyer had explained very carefully how he did it. “You imagine a black circle about two inches behind your eyes, and big enough to fill your skull from ear to ear; from crown to jaw hinges. You know that each intrusion of thought is going to make a pattern on that perfect blackness. So you merely concentrate on keeping the blackness perfect, unmarked, and mathematically round. As you do that, you breathe slowly and steadily, and with each exhalation, you feel yourself sinking a tiny bit further into the mattress. And in moments you are asleep.
He was, but I wasn’t.
When I was in college, I became quite interested in the Golden Dawn and suchlike. Every night, as I lay in bed, I would mentally go through the motions of the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram.
After a while, I realized that the ritual was indeed having an effect…I had conditioned myself to link that pattern of mental peregrinations with falling asleep. For years I would fall asleep almost immediately after starting the ritual, but as the habit fell away, so did my ability to sink instantly into slumber.
This CNN article glosses an Oxford sleep study from 2002, suggesting that actively suppressing anxiety-provoking thoughts as they arise may be counter-productive, and that counting sheep is largely ineffective. (it would appear to be this study; as of this writing, a version of a later study by the same author can be dredged out of Google’s cache.) Generalizing from a single study can be quite dangerous; generalizing from a media gloss on a single study is worse. Still, I found this interesting:
One group imagined a relaxing, tranquil scene like a waterfall or a beach. The second tried counting sheep while a third were left to their own devices.
Those who conjured up the relaxing scene fell asleep more than 20 minutes earlier than if they did nothing. Those who counted sheep and the controls took slightly longer than normal to drop off.
“Picturing an engaging scene takes up more brain space than the same dirty old sheep,” Allison Harvey, who conducted the study with Suzanna Payne, told New Scientist magazine in which details of the research were published on Thursday. “Plus it’s easier to stay with it because it’s more interesting.”
Both Meyer’s black circle and the ritual visualization fit into this pattern of occupying “brain space”. In my opinion, it’s hardly surprising that simply counting sheep didn’t work for the study participants. I’d be quite curious to see the effects, though, if they counted sheep as they went to sleep every night for three months.
It’s not exactly a controlled scientific study, but I plan to experiment with the black circle over the next few weeks, and I’ll post my results to this forum.