Getting to Sleep—Apps Can Help


Recently, one of my neighbors (a well-read school teacher) sat down with a few of her grandchildren to read a bedtime story—Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. “They were utterly bored,” she reported. “They couldn’t relate. Instead of being lulled to sleep, they were bouncing off the walls. What happened to their imaginations?”

What this grandmother didn’t know is that children’s stories today are mostly videos. And they’re rendered in such detail that one has to wonder, “What’s the point of having an imagination, anyway?” Every sweet, comical, enchanting, bizarre, demented, and even violent fantasy is realized so vividly, there’s nothing left for the imagination to do! For kids growing up in this 4K world, there’s no comparison between a picture and a thousand words. A picture makes complete sense. A thousand words . . . doesn’t.  

By contrast, when I was growing up, I’d lay on the floor in front of our family Hi-Fi (high fidelity stereophonic record player) listening to vinyl LPs of an old radio show called “Let’s Pretend.” The program opened with a whimsical children’s chorus and a greeting from the host: “Hello, Pretenders!” To which a happy band of children (and I) answered, “Hello, Uncle Ted!” From there, a portal opened in my mind. The beige shag in our living room became a magic carpet, taking me to lands and people that are more real in my imagination than a Pixar cartoon. That imaginary world—teased into existence by spoken words—is one I still long to inhabit.

So, what does all this have to do with getting to sleep?*

When I was young, the imaginary world of dreams marched so closely on the heels of reality, I couldn’t tell where one ended and the other began. When I’d say to my parents, “I fell asleep,” I was really describing the experience of letting go of one reality in order to enter another. That transition is, frankly, very difficult for those whose imaginations have atrophied. This is not because sleep itself requires imagination, but because getting to sleep requires letting go of the reality around us. And that’s something imaginative people delight to do.

Engaging the imagination is one of the reasons stories and lullabies are so effective in getting children to sleep. The simplicity of fairy tales and folk songs—their low tech, low-res delivery—allow children to fill in the blanks with their own imaginative thought. You’ve seen it happen.  As they slip into sleep, you often hear them mumbling odd words, describing the images washing over them. This is the rising tide of creative thought that allows them to relinquish their grip on the present world and be swept off to the Land of Nod. How do we learn—or re-learn—to do the same?

Contrary to some published advice, apps can help. Experts caution that light-emitting screens and mind-engaging software can be disruptive to sleep, and that’s true. But sleep-related apps, specifically, aren’t primarily about what’s on the screen. And the way sleep apps engage our minds actually helps, not hinders, passage into the world of slumber. The good news is, there are many portals into that world.

For some, the ideal portal is changing the “atmosphere” of everyday life—gradually lowering the level of light, diffusing aromatic oils, formally turning down the bed, or dressing in favorite pajamas. Some sleep apps provide reminders to begin setting the stage for sleep long before bedtime comes around.

For some, the best portal into sleep is physical action and activity—such as going on a walk, stretching, taking a warm bath, lowering the room temperature, or crawling under a heavy blanket. Some apps lead users through meditative or sequenced breathing. This is an especially effective way to quiet the mind and engage the imagination.

For most people, an effective doorway to sleep is through the ears—being immersed in a soundscape that awakens the mind to a new time and place through music, sounds of nature, and white noise. Binaural frequencies (sound waves that influence the brain) can be especially helpful (see the Brainwave app, below). Most sleep apps provide some kind of aural experience, and they should. After all, most of us learn to sleep listening to the heartbeat of a mother.

Finally, and not surprisingly, many are returning to the proven portal of bedtime stories—especially those broad-stroke narratives that stimulate imaginative engagement. Many sleep apps now include storytelling as a key component, overtly inviting listeners to imagine a location or situation, and to put themselves in the place of a major character. When we’re tired, this becomes a powerful sedative, because reading (or hearing someone else read) activates the imaginative focus that can carry us to slumber.

Of course, what apps cannot do is develop our personal path to sleep. That path is forged by what we choose to do before we close our eyes. If, over time, our choices have been haphazard and unpredictable, sleep will be undependable and elusive. Or, if our pre-sleep pattern locks us into the grind of daily life, we’ll want to forge a new path.

Gratefully, establishing a pathway to sleep is not difficult. It’s about creating for ourselves an enticing narrative, such as “An hour before bedtime I’ll turn down the covers, diffuse lavender oil while I take a warm bath, meditate with a breathing app for 15 minutes, and climb into bed.” Or, “I’ll play a favorite soundtrack, read a chapter, and spend a moment in silent devotion.” Many apps offer timed audio programs—music, stories, breathing sequences—specifically to get us into the first stage of sleep.

Whatever your get-to-sleep narrative turns out to be, enjoy creating it. And remember, consistency is the key. By reinforcing a deliberate pre-sleep routine, you’ll find the portal to slumber opening wider and more quickly as the days go by.

One final note: with few exceptions, sleep requires that our eyes be engaged differently than while we’re awake. That’s why the closer to sleep we get, the heavier our eyelids become. We needn’t fear closing them. Our years on earth assure us that the light of the imaginative mind will shine brightly, especially while we’re asleep.

And, having been immersed in that light while sleeping, we shouldn’t be surprised that we wake up with new insights about life—new understanding, new hope, new thoughts about facing the challenges ahead, and new courage to try. Our deep, renewing slumber will become a portal back into life—a life that is more meaningful than Alice’s wonderland, and more wonderful, too. There’s no better reason to get to sleep.

Here are a few apps that may be helpful (in alphabetical order):

·      Aura

·      Brainwave

·      Breethe

·      Calm

·      Headspace

·      Rain, Rain

·      Slumber

*If you can’t get to sleep or stay asleep even when conditions are ideal, you may have a medical problem and should seek professional help.