“We were hoping to find if certain lifestyle changes corresponded with falling asleep faster,” said Dr. Ellen Taccone, the leader of the study and head of the neurology department at Johns Hopkins, “such as avoiding use of laptops or smartphones in bed, drinking less alcohol, increased physical activity, and so on, but it turns out that in spite of their best efforts, people can’t actually fall asleep. It simply can’t be done.”
This official report confirms what many have known for years: there’s nothing anyone can do to make falling asleep any easier, or indeed humanly possible.
Part of the problem, the study concludes, is the human brain itself, which lies in wait for its unsuspecting host to remove itself from all distractions — other people, entertainment, conversation, visual stimulation — before striking. Lying very still and quiet in a dark room is in fact the worst thing a person can do, as it gives the brain an unparalleled opportunity to flood the body with invisible horrors and anxious, waking nightmares.
“It turns out that lying down by yourself in total darkness is the least restful thing a person can do,” Taccone added. “It’s a recipe for setting your brain on fire.”
If, by some miracle, a person finds him- or herself approaching the horizon of sleep, the brain has a way of short-circuiting this process by performing a helpful self-check: Are we asleep? Have we fallen asleep yet? The very nature of asking such a question, of course, flings the victim back into startled watchfulness, often accompanied by an involuntary jump and a horrible sense of falling.
“We had made some progress, at first,” Dr. Taccone said in an official statement, “with watching TV shows with our laptops resting on their stomachs until we reached a point of dazed insensibility, but then the next thing that happened was it was morning, and we didn’t remember falling asleep at all.”
“So that was a real bust,” she added.
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.