Stories. Everyone loves a story. They take us on an evocative rollercoaster ride of adventure and intrigue. We pleasure in the Great read. We luxuriate in the vivid descriptions of the curious incident that start with:
“…you’ll never guess what happened to me!”
We lean in as our interest is peaked and our eyes fixed as the object of our attention paints a word picture of insight and wonder.
But, what happens to our brain when these word pictures captivate our mind? And, how do these stories help us sleep better?
A neurohumanities study discovered that when we read a great piece of literature, like Dostoyevsky’s The Karamoz Brothers, our brain is actually experiencing what we are learning compared to just a summary of the book.
We see the colours, we smell the scents, and we feel the emotions the author intends for us to experience. You might have also noticed that these curious word pictures take us out of analysis paralysis because our visual cortex and occipital lobe are engaged, and the analytical pre-frontal cortex quietens down. When our mind is swirling, with the facts and thoughts of the day, shifting gears like this before bedtime is a fantastic way of gently preparing the mind for sleep.
There is a phenomenon known as the Sleep Paradox: the more you 'try' and sleep, the more elusive sleep becomes. Instead, we have to set the stage for good sleep to become apparent. Both our mind and body need to release and let go of the day's tension so that you can glide into the sleep state.
The evocative journey literature takes us on serves many purposes for adults and children alike; embedding listening and reading tales into our pre-sleep ritual help us let go of the stress and bridges our conscious mind over to dreamland.
The Bedtime Routine:
There are few routines more precious than that of our bedtime ritual. Our earliest memories are cradled by the warm, comforting voice reading us a much-loved bedtime story. This sacred habit marks the end of our day as Roald Dahl's iambic pentameter gently carries us off to the sweet land of Nod. So why have we so easily discarded this happy habit when we meet the grown-up world to the detriment of our health and wellbeing?
Rituals are marked by the symbolic intention to invoke a specific response. True, routines can fall into habits but what separates them from mindless habits is the mindful, conscious intention that precipitates the desired behaviour. The wisdom of human experience tells us that listening or reading stories regularly before bed is an excellent foundation for establishing sleep routines.
Research shows that developing a bedtime routine improves overall sleep quality. With children, Dr Mindell and Dr Kurtz, of The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and Johnson & Johnson, found that a consistent bedtime routine was crucial to sleep quality and continuity. However, bedtime routines are not just for children. With adults, the University of Haifa also found that maintaining habits is associated with a reduced rate of insomnia.
However, establishing a new routine can hard work. When we are exhausted after a long hard day's work, we lack the energy and motivation to invest precious resources into a cultivating a new habit. Because of our technology-driven life, we have thus fallen into unhealthy habits by relying too heavily upon screens for escape and distraction from the stresses of life. Little do we realise that it is the very devices we are dependant upon that is contributing to our insomnia.
Our screen-age society means our eyes are increasingly fatigued at night. It’s starting to sink in that Blue Light before bed is delaying the release of the sleep hormone, Melatonin. As we are becoming more reflective about our bedtimes habits, we appreciate the value of less pre-bed screen time as we switch from Sky-time to Storytime. However, for those of us with active minds - and needing to decompress - we’re looking for more creative avenues to explore before bed. People are increasingly tuning into to audiobooks as a means of switching off. - this is not surprising then that as the creative centres of our brain shift us from a stressful beta brainwave state to a more relaxing alpha brainwave frequency - the pre-sleep state!
Insomnia's aid may not be found at the bottom of a bottle but rather between the sheets of William Shakespeare, Roald Dahl, and Neil Gaiman. Losing ourselves in a good read before bed could be the ultimate relaxation before bed. Cognitive neuropsychologist, Dr David Lewis, found that this simple activity reduces our stress levels by 68%! The act of entering into the literary world focuses the mind and distracts it from the daily stresses thereby releasing the muscular heart tension and lowers breathing rate necessary for restful sleep.
Today the wellbeing currency is in soundbites. Losing ourselves in a world painted with words and sounds is an excellent way of dialling down those stress levels and getting the most out of your sleep.
Cognitive neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis also found that listening to music before bed reduced stress levels by 61%. Professors Good and Lai found that listening to the soothing sound of soft music before bed significantly better sleep quality.
Audiobook sales have doubled in the last five years, and Major publishers are reporting a 28% increase in audiobook download from 2016 to 2017. This rise of the guided voice correlates with awareness of the screen-based stress; this may mean that people are reading with the ears as a way of relaxing.
As we sleep, our sense hearing is the last things to shut down, and it is the first senses to come back in the morning – which is why the birds chirping is often what bring your mind to consciousness. Using audio in the evening habitually helps to systematically shut down the rest of the senses and better prepares the mind and body for that familiar sleep state. However, it's not just the act of reading or listening that relaxes us. It's what we read! A page-turner is not conducive to a relaxing state of mind but rather a story that unfolds, that has pace and flow, that takes us on a sensory journey with ambient sounds and soft tones.
Resurrecting an old embedded routine, like our childhood storytime, is not only energy efficient but taps into nostalgia. Revisiting our favourite books from our childhood is an excellent way of not only reminds us of an early brain-encoded bedtime habit but also igniting our imagination.
Bedtimes Stories are a Shortcut To Dreaming:
As we are becoming more reflective about our bedtimes habits, we appreciate the value of less pre-bed screen time as we switch from Sky-time to Storytime. For many, tucking in with a good book is not just comforting but also relaxing. My clients tell me they find that listening to audiobooks and podcasts in the evening – and even when they can’t go back to sleep – helps them relax.
Hearing or reading fiction at night builds the bridge toward creative dreaming. Even though we are reading words it's rare we are thinking about the words, but instead, we’re imagining the pictures the words are painting for us. In the dreaming part of the sleep cycle, REM, we dream in pictures, not in words. Switching on the imaginal centres of our brain before bed is a sure fire way of preparing the mind for deep sleep. The analytically driven language centre of the brain is off as the visual, imaginal centres of the brain are lit up. This coaxes us toward the peaceful, alpha brainwave state necessary for getting good sleep.
Reading Before Bed Makes Us Smarter:
Routinely engaging with fiction influences connectivity in cortical areas for social cognition, language skills, and how we make sense of experience. Professors Willems and Hartung of Netherland's Radboud University asked their participants to listen to literary narratives while they watched what happened to their brains in a fMRI machine. They watched the neuro-narrative, (empathy skills, sense-making, and language skills )brain grow by both the amount and regularity of listening and read fiction.
Cognitive and emotional intelligence growth is not just limited to the child's brain. Brains scientist, Dr Spencer, observed the correlation between sleep and learning novel words and semantic generalisation with adults!
During stage 2 and 3 of sleep, we consolidate the learning of the day. In state 4, the slow-wave delta deep sleep state, we begin to link up the new learning with stored information creatively. In the dreamscape, we are capable of creating novel solutions to complex problems. Knowledge is embedded, and ideas ignited!