Don’t Do This While You Are Driving


Back in the 90s I used to suffer from insomnia. I’d get an idea, then be unable to sleep until I had fully hashed it out. Then, I decided to try operant conditioning on myself, to train myself to go to sleep under predetermined circumstances.

I wound up programming myself to fall asleep to a sitar music album by Hasu Patel. What I feel that I experience is that I put myself into a light trance, then mentally turn off the light. Poof. The ideas go away because I am paying to much attention to the music, but the music is something very familiar so the creative parts of my brain disengage and I break the compulsive “must think!” loop and I’m out.

Once I had that trick down I could pretty easily substitute any music that had the right amount of complexity. Most of what is called “trance music” can knock me right out; if I am driving (late night 3 hour drives from airports are a common feature of my life) I have to avoid listening to trance/dance music because it knocks me right over. Then, I started thinking, “what is the opposite of trancy music for me?” Something engaging: so I started listening to Henry Rollins’ spoken word performances, then switched to podcasts. There are two elements to podcasts that keep me awake: 1) in principle, they are interesting  2) I haven’t heard them before. It seems to me that familiarity is important to shutting off the alert-sensor part of my brain that is waiting for something new.

I can’t listen to this while I am driving:

Usually, people laugh when I tell them that if I want a flight to go by quickly, I put in my ear buds, dial up some Rammstein, and I’m semi-conscious. But it’s true. And it’s a learned behavior.

A few years ago I had a friend with insomnia related to PTSD. We were talking about my sleep trance approach, and whether it might work for them, and I suggested that “applied ritual” might work. My friend was very suggestible, so I was being a bit deliberately manipulative [With permission, see my comments below] when I explained that ritual is a way of producing a predictable experience that has a known outcome. That’s basically what my sleeping to trance music does, after all. So the two of us designed a sleep ritual, involving a certain piece of music, a certain color of room lighting (because of PTSD they couldn’t sleep in darkness) the bed sheets turned down just so while putting on night-clothes, certain steps taken always in the same order… The intent was that each step would focus the mind on the next, and the next, achieving the predictability and comfort and – hopefully – the known outcome. It worked perfectly. Since then I have often wondered to what degree religion is self-hypnosis; the mechanisms of action seem indistinguishable to me. I cannot say whether my way of putting myself to sleep is a ritual, a habit, or just something that makes me comfortable.

One day about 5 years ago, I was messed up on low dose of psychedelic mushrooms, opiates, and red wine[dose] and I spent hours just listening to music. One of the things I discovered was a flush response when I recognized bits of music I really knew and liked. In my head-space at the time, I realized that “know” and “like” were pretty much the same thing, to me, with regards music. Hearing something that was unfamiliar made me work which made me uncomfortable. Hearing something familiar made it welcoming and relaxing. My conclusion at the time, which remains questionable due to my condition at the time, was that my response to music is that my brain has a ‘recognizer’ that gives it a little shot of happiness as a reward for recognizing something; therefore listening to music that I recognize is just mashing on the happiness button of the ‘recognizer’   I don’t promote that as a psychological theory of brain function or music appreciation, but I’d observe in my defense that there’s about as much objective evidence behind my ‘theory’ as there is in all of Maslow, Freud, and Jung – combined.

So I come full circle: music I love relaxes me because I recognize it as relaxing music that I love.

Lately I have been listening to Jóhann Jóhannsson’s theme music for “Arrival” and somehow my brain felt that it was familiar. It took a few minutes to realize that Jóhannsson also wrote Fordlândia, which is a really atmospheric album inspired by his trip to  that extremely weird place.[wikipedia]  Jóhannsson’s work is wonderfully understated, and doesn’t distract from the movie; I am a huge fan. When I looked him up on Wikipedia just now, I learned that he is doing the score for the new Blade Runner. That’s going to be worth hearing. It seems odd to compliment a musician’s work by saying “It helps put me to sleep!” but that’s the best I can do.

I’ve seen “Arrival” twice and the second time I noticed the music more; the first time I was too absorbed by the visuals. The music is really really good stuff in its own right, so I’d like to promote it by encouraging you to give this a listen:

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[Manipulation with permission] This friend and I had experimented with hypnosis a number of times, back when I was interested in that. Before proceeding we laid out and agreed upon ground limits, one of which included a general permission to occasionally experiment as long as I would always go back and debrief fully regarding any non-cognitive manipulation; I was allowed to be sneaky as long as I would later explain it. That set of ground-rules worked very well and, we both believed, actually helped a bit with some other subliminal “issues” (manipulative family members) which became clearer as a result of having a safe environment in which to experience having someone experiment with cognitive biases and fears. I consider my behavior in that situation to be “manipulative” and borderline dishonest because I did not know that “applied ritual” would work, or even was a thing, but I explained it as if it were – deliberately attempting to trigger a placebo effect. Is this all placebos? For that matter, are rituals placebos?

[Rituals are a strange thing] I have since wondered how much of religion is merely “dangerous ritual by-products” – my friend’s sleep ritual involved having deep red LED lights, turned down fairly low. That’s a great way of creating “safe darkness” for someone who can’t handle darkness, because when they open their eyes, the red light does not interfere with the visual purple that builds up in your eyes in the dark; there is no transitional sensitivity to full light. I learned about this trick reading about pilots “ready rooms” in WWII, and using darkroom lighting in my darkroom at night. Anyway, the “dangerous ritual by-product” was that now she’s absolutely sure she can’t sleep without that deep red light, and required a technological fix in the form of a red LED portable light and a small LED screw-in bulb for travel. Fortunately, LEDs are fairly stable and easy to travel with. I am really glad that something non-portable like a glass of wine or some incense burning was not part of it: imagine if you became convinced that you required a certain vintage in order to sleep. Would you have to travel with a bottle? Religionists have to deal with exactly that sort of issue, all the time.

[self-hypnosis] I feel I am on dangerous epistemological ground, since “hypnosis” is a pseudoscience term for the manifestation of a set of behaviors, which are self-reported and observed. It’s very hard for me to be able to say with confidence whether someone is hypnotized, or pretending, or unaware that they are pretending to be hypnotized. Since it’s not possible to tell the difference between someone who is “hypnotized” and someone who is pretending, I’m not entirely comfortable even saying that “hypnosis” is a thing. But for the sake of this posting, please excuse me for using the term loosely, as a ‘pop psychologist’ would.

[dose] My jaw was broken and had been wired back together. They sent me home from the hospital with a liter of liquid roxicet (oxycodone) and told me to “make it last 2 months” – which I did – but I soon grew bored of sitting around slightly messed up and decided to get very messed up, so I washed a mild dose of mushrooms down with some red wine and spent a relatively nice evening listening to music. It’s hard to be happy when you’ve got a mouth wired shut with posts screwed through your gums into live bone, so I was just trying to make the best of a bad situation.

PS – All this reminds me of an old joke: “I want do die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did, not kicking and screaming like all the other passengers who were in the car at the time.”

Comments

  1. says

    Mmmm. I’ve had problems sleeping since I was three years old. Sleep isn’t a refuge for me, and I absolutely cannot stand dreaming (I know I do, as long as I’m unaware, fine), and if I start dreaming, it’s an instant wake up. I can’t cope with anyone in my sleeping space, it has to be ultra dark, and I can’t sleep at all without 1) meds and 2) my thunderstorm (thunderstorm breaking over an ocean) on loud, with headphones.

    I did the ‘black dot’ thing once, successfully, on a drive into Mexico. Yeah, passenger. Black dot: envision a small black dot, then start enlarging it, to completely cover everything else in your mind. When you achieve full black, asleep. It only worked that one time, probably because we were traveling at night, and I was bored out of my mind.

  2. says

    Caine@#1:
    I can’t imagine what it’d be like if sleep weren’t a refuge.
    Back in the day, when I had more energy and cared a lot about what I was doing, I was never interested in sleeping because every waking minute had to be filled with something to accomplish. Eventually I chilled out a bit.

    Black dot: envision a small black dot, then start enlarging it, to completely cover everything else in your mind.

    That’s a pretty cool technique; I’d never heard of it before. The problem, for me, with approaches like that is that they engage my creativity and then I’d be wide awake and quivering, imagining a black hole eating sheep and counting them as they spaghettified, then thinking about the time dilation they’d experience as they sped up… I’d be wide awake for hours!

  3. says

    The black dot thing is from John D. MacDonald, it was in a Travis McGee book I read. :D Like you, I tend to expand too much for such things to work.

    The rapes started when I was 3 years old. Since that time, sleep has been a harbinger of violation and terror and a complete loss of control. I don’t like being out of control of myself. At all.

  4. Siobhan says

    I use Vivaldi for the same reasons you listen to techno. Funny how we can recognize fully circular logic (I like this music because it makes me feel good because I like it) and know it’s entirely irrational yet nonetheless manipulate it deliberately to our benefit.

    Although I’ve never had difficulties falling asleep, my PTSD makes it difficult to stay asleep. I’m not sure if that’s the sort of thing a ritual can adapt to, since it lacks the predictability element. Most of the time, when I wake up early, I won’t fall back asleep (which can be inconvenient if I wake up at, say, 1 in the morning).

    In some ways I’m just glad I’m not the only person struggling with the brain-on-full-throttle issue.

  5. says

    Caine@#3:
    The rapes started when I was 3 years old. Since that time, sleep has been a harbinger of violation and terror and a complete loss of control. I don’t like being out of control of myself. At all.

    That was the issue my friend with PTSD had: she was terrified of going to sleep. I think it was knowing there would be dreams, too.

  6. says

    Shiv@#4:
    In some ways I’m just glad I’m not the only person struggling with the brain-on-full-throttle issue.

    I used to worry about it a lot but then I decided it’s just how I am. Rather than crush my life into the world’s schedule (“we must be awake in daylight and asleep at night”) I just accepted that I was born to be a computer programmer, and if I woke up at 3am with an idea, I’d work on it until the itch was scratched. Which meant, sometimes, that I would be awake and working for 2 or 3 days, then crash and burn for a day. Eventually, I discovered that felt good. It was how my brain and body wanted to work and I was doing things that let them work well.

    Then came the time that I had ideas and problems that were too big to tackle in 1-2 day bursts, and started being unable to sleep for prolonged periods, and my mind would get weird. At that point, I had to figure out where the off switch was, and that was when I started conditioning myself to sleep to that one specific album (which kind of sucks because it was a favorite and now it’s just the sound of unconsciousness)

    Funny how we can recognize fully circular logic (I like this music because it makes me feel good because I like it) and know it’s entirely irrational yet nonetheless manipulate it deliberately to our benefit.

    Yeah!!! It’s like writing yourself a dose for “placebo, 50mg” and then making yourself a glass of dehydrated water with placebin, drinking it, and having it work. The whole time going, “this is funny, but if I believe in it, it will work.”

  7. sonofrojblake says

    There are two elements to podcasts that keep me awake: 1) in principle, they are interesting 2) I haven’t heard them before

    I could give you a long list of recommendations, but I’m going to boil it down to one: BBC Radio 4’s “In Our Time”, with Melvyn Bragg. There’s an enormous back catalogue available free. He just gets two or three academics in a room and talks around a subject for 30 or 40 minutes. Subjects break down across science, culture, philosophy, religion, and history, and have recently included (stopping my finger at random along the feed and picking three titles in the order they were broadcast) The Invention of Radio, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Queen Zenobia.

    The episode on “Heat” has the best explanation I have ever heard of what is a remarkably slippery concept.

    I’m opposite to you – I couldn’t go to sleep to music, but “In Our Time” sends me right off reliably. I find listening to really bright people who really know and love what they’re talking about just talking about it enormously relaxing and reassuring. I hope you like it.

  8. says

    sonofrojblake@#7:
    I’m opposite to you – I couldn’t go to sleep to music, but “In Our Time” sends me right off reliably. I find listening to really bright people who really know and love what they’re talking about just talking about it enormously relaxing and reassuring. I hope you like it.

    That is SO interesting!!

    I feel a definite sense of guilt if I start nodding out while someone is talking. So if I were to put on a podcast of some academic talking interestingly about something interesting, then I’d never be able to shut down at all.

    There is some music I consider so interesting that I can’t sleep to it. For example, Arvo Part’s “Stabat Mater” would have me sitting up bolt upright in bed straining for every note. Beethoven’s 9th or Mozart’s Requiem do that, as well.

    I have also experienced visual trance-states while listening to some techno music, or to Hasu Patel’s sitar music; I think it’s probably acid/whatever flashbacks from the late 90s.

    I appreciate your suggestion of the podcast and have now subscribed to it. It sounds great. I should do an open comment thread on podcasts, like the “book club” thread, which – happily – resulted in my “to read” stack tripling in size.

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