Insomnia? There’s an app for that

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If counting sheep isn’t enough for busy university students looking to tuck in after a long day, a new app from SFU cognitive science professor Luc Beaudoin may be just the ticket to curing sleeplessness.

Beaudoin’s new app uses audio cues to interrupt the problem-solving and sense-making nature of our minds that keeps us awake. The app, mySleepButton, presents users with a variety of content which has been specifically chosen to induce sleep, shuffling the suggestions every five seconds.

Sleeplessness can be a big problem for university students, interrupting cognitive function the next day. Explained Beaudoin, many people before bed tend “to engage in problem solving, ruminating, imagining or thinking. One of the worst things is worrying that you’re not going to fall asleep.”

“The brain is in the business of making sense,” Beaudoin continued. “During sleep onset there is actually something special going on, and that is when you successfully fall asleep, you give up on controlling your mental processes.”

This understanding led Beaudoin to come up with the idea of a signalling mechanism within the brain which triggers sleep onset. “You can’t just say, ‘Let’s go to sleep.’ Your brain needs a signalling mechanism,” he said.

Beaudoin took it upon himself to develop such a trigger that would help users to suspend “sense-making, prediction, and thought-control” — all of which inhibit sleep.

The app is very simple. Users enter the launch screen, press the “put me to sleep button,” and the application reads words and phrases depending on one of the three available modes: Simple Things (single words or short phrases), Scenes (multi-word phrases, e.g. “Bird on a branch”), and Things to Draw. Explained Beaudoin, “Your job is to imagine each word or phrase that is spoken to you and let yourself fall asleep.”

The images included in the three mySleepButton packs were carefully selected by Beaudoin and his team based on the imaginability of images, the affective state, and common sense. “We didn’t always agree. Sometimes people thought, ‘Insect is ok, or ant.’ I personally said ‘No! It’s not good! People do not like ants or snakes when they’re going to sleep!’[. . .] Oh god. . .” exclaimed Beaudoin.

Recognizing the differences in peoples’ personalities, Beaudoin acknowledged the possibilities of creating personalized or specialized sleep packs in the future. “This opens the door to all kinds of cool things. We could tailor streams of content for particular concerns and types of users,” said Beaudoin.

Beaudoin admitted that with his busy schedule of interviews and marketing his new product, the app is coming in rather handy: “My mind is a very busy place, so I just reach for the thing, and it works.”

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