The Science of Sleep

This post is inspired by conversations that end with Zzzs

A long time ago, I used to suffer from really, really bad insomnia.
Really bad.

Night after night I would lay awake, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the sandman to take me and yet night after night I’d be lucky if I scraped two maybe three hours at best.
Not good.

A few days of this is enough to drive anyone crazy, but this went on for months.

Jack‘ nailed it best when he said:

With insomnia, nothing’s real.
Everything is far away.
Everything is a copy, of a copy, of a copy.

My then partner, who no doubt was being kept awake by my incessant restlessness herself, was fantastically supportive and eventually, when it finally started to have a knock-on effect on my working life, she insisted that we sorted this out as – if my work was going wrong, then the next thing after that would no doubt be our relationship…


First thing first – We took the TV out of the bedroom.

I know this seems like a no-brainer, but at that time I didn’t even think about it. I could quite happily sit on the bed, watching TV, (back in the days when I actually watched TV anyway), for ages… It had a built-in video player so on the nights when the insomnia was really bad I’d just stick some Blackadder on or something. Yeah, ‘cos that helped.

After that – Lavender

Lavender spray on my pillows. Lavender bubble bath before bedtime…
Just lots and lots of lavender.

Next – Kalms… or more specifically, Valerian

We found the latter while doing research into natural treatments for sleep troubles etc… I steadfastly refuse to take any form of sleeping tablets and herbal remedies are about as far as I’ll go. The only thing that we could find in the UK that had Valerian in it were these tablets called Kalms. Two of those before bed every night to ‘relieve worry, irritability and stress’ and you’re sorted. Well I say ‘sorted’, I’m not entirely sure if they helped that much, but everything was so gradual.

Finally, and this is one of the biggest things for me by far – Associations.

So what does that mean?

Well, I’ve already mentioned that I took the TV out of the bedroom to aid in my search for slumber. That helped a lot. Not only with not keeping me awake via mere distraction but what it also did was stop me from just sitting on the bed… i.e.: Sitting and not SLEEPING.

Let me explain, y’see – when you allow this to happen, your brain kinda gets used to your bed being just another chair, or a rather in this instance; a big flat sofa, (one for sitting on, not for sleeping).

Once I’d realised this I point-blankly refused to go to bed unless I was so so so so so so SO tired I was falling asleep on my feet. That way, by eliminating all other activities bar sleeping, (TV, Reading, Nintendo etc.), from the bed I managed to train myself associate that physical environment and situation with sleep. Brilliant.

Looking back, this was probably the best thing that I did to get over my insomnia. Obviously the other ideas and actions were also contributing factors… But really, learning to move my work and play away from my place of rest was without doubt the best thing I could’ve done.

You might’ve noticed that the name of this blog is ‘this is my happy place’…
That stems from a number of reasons – all of which resonate quite nicely with the kind of guy that I try to be – but one of those reasons actually relates quite nicely to the accompanying picture…

I like sleeping.

Having had it gone from my life for such a long time I now have the utmost respect for sleep as an activity… and dedicate proper time to it as often as needed.

This isn’t to say that I am lazy, not by any stretch. I just know when I need to rest.

Tying off with associations is a good way to bring this back to my inspiration for this post. I have this habit, when talking on the phone late at night, of falling to sleep mid-conversation.

I kid you not.

I must’ve lost count the amount of times I’ve woken up to find a phone in my hand wondering what the hell was going on. It makes me laugh every time it happens but the caller on the other end tends to get quite miffed. Heh.

Word to the wise – if we’re speaking late at night and I say:

‘Ok, cool. Just headed to bed, will call you back shortly…’

Just. Say. No.

The chances are I will fall asleep…


Night night.

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Author: James Whatley

Chief Strategy Officer in adland. I got ❤️ for writing, gaming, and figuring stuff out. I'm @whatleydude pretty much everywhere that matters. Nice to meet you x

16 thoughts on “The Science of Sleep”

  1. Super post! As a fellow imsomniac myself, have recently discovered so many others that are the same, or have found ways to counteract it! The only one that works for me is a long walk out with the dog, and only a small dose of modern fangled media during the evening. (but rarely do the last bit as often as should as I often work late into the evening, though do no matter what just a couple of nights a week for keeping my sanity!)

    Cheers for sharing 🙂


  2. Nice post; I know I don’t suffer from insonmia but I can relate to making sure that the sleeping place stays a sleeping place. When I moved into my new apt, one of the things that I did was to ensure that my sleeping place was not a work place. And while I’ll take my N800 in there to read from time to time, I’ve found that its a resting place.

    As for falling asleep in the mist of a convo… I don’t know nothing about that 😛

  3. I had middle of the night insomnia for years, I could sleep 2 or so hours and then I would be AWAKE! I could go back to sleep by 7am until about 9am, but this was not good.

    What I found out for me is that this was blood sugar problem, it got so low that I couldn’t sleep. Now I make sure I have a good dinner around 7–8pm, and then I have a small snack (usually non-sugary, like 1/2 an apple or 1/2 a banana) just before bed. Now I sleep the whole night through.

  4. Melatonin, taken about an hour before you plan to go to bed. It’s the only supplement that actually works… the brains own “I’m sleepy” hormone. Not sure if it’s sold in the UK though.

  5. Thanks for this post James.

    Sleeping is one thing that many just take for granted, and it really shouldn’t be. Only those who have experienced ‘not’ getting to sleep, are maybe the ones who have any appreciation for it.

    When I returned to the UK after doing my bit in the Gulf War in 2003 I had a real bad sleep problem. I would maybe get an hour per 24 hour period. If I was lucky.

    I tried as hard as I could to find a reason for my problem. Actually laying there trying to sleep, but also trying to work out in my head why I wasn’t sleeping was actually making the problem a lot worse.

    Was it ‘shellshock’? We had come under indirect (mortar) fire for weeks before my return. Indirect fire is much worse than direct fire for your brain. You constantly ask yourself “Is the next one going to get me?”.

    Was it guilt? I felt bad knowing that some of my mates were still out there, and I was now sat at home with my feet up?

    Was it fear? Way back in 2003 when we first went over the border, we all still thought Saddam had chemical weapons. Sleeping with your respirator and chemical suit within arms reach was a necessity. It kind of became like a comfort blanket. Think of it like a child’s teddy. If you take the kids teddy away, it’s unlikely they’ll go to sleep.

    Whatever it was, my brain was constantly racing trying to work out what was wrong with me.

    I turned to sleeping pills in the end. Bad idea. They work, but I became reliant. They masked the problem, but didn’t fix it. It took me many more months to get myself off the reliance of the pills. That is something that I never want to experience in my life again.

    Whatever my problem was, it just sort of eventually went away as the months passed by. Maybe it was all just me being weak.

  6. Excellent post. I’m having a shit time of it sleep-wise at the moment, trying to do the same. My main weapons are Pavlovian conditioning and anti-hystamines. Unfortunately I’m writing this on my bed, using my laptop.
    Good post though, cheers for sharing

  7. Hey Super Whatlio.

    Yeah man, I check your blog. Whats the RSS reader you speak of though?…I could do with one of them maybe. To keep me more up-to-date on things rather than manual checks.

    Anyway, Whatley I’m an insomniac too. Have been for as long as I know, but I can date it back to about year 10 (14-15 years old). There are billions of things in my life that could cause it.
    However I’ve somehow got used to it and learned from it. Like those times I’d lay in bed for hours worrying etc, I’d always wish I’d stayed up and played on the N64 or something. Then when I did a stint at college, I was on about 4-5 hours then…I kinda looked like a smackhead then cause of the tired baggy eyes etc, heh :p

    Now…me and body kind of high five each other and get along. In high school I used to hate not being able to sleep, I couldn’t sleep, and then from there my mind would wander and bring up loads of worries (making things worse).

    Nowadays…I come home from work…and I try to counter-attack the hours of the day I spent working with getting in time to do the stuff I like to do. Friends, Video games, films, just havin a laugh, whatever.

    I tend to stay up to about 2am most nights because I feel like I’m wasting hours of the day I could be doing stuff in.
    I get on average about 5-6 hours a night (sometimes 4, sometimes 7 if I’ve worn myself out from being out somewhere or skating etc).
    Every now and then I’ll hit 0 energy and give in to an early night to recharge, but mostly the weekends sort me out (with about 8-10 hours).

    Going on about 5-6 hours in the week, then staying up late the next day and repeating mon-fri seems impossible to some of the people I talk too, but for me it’s the norm.

    I couldn’t offer people tips to get to sleep…usually now if I was to force myself to sleep at a normal amount of time I could probably get to sleep because it’d seem like what I was doing with my time was boring compared to the entertainment possibilities in the lounge…so I’d bore myself to sleep so to speak.

    I think they recommend you have no less than 6 or 7 hours each night, and the ideal amount is 8.5 hours I think.

  8. Cool post – you should read Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep.

    Many, many, many moons ago before the internet existed I set up a little mail order catalogue with products on getting people to sleep which my ex husband thought was ridiculously ironic as I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat and rarely have problems sleeping. It actually did quite well and was featured in the Daily Mail’s YOU magazine & other women’s mags. Lavender pillows and oils and anything with Lavender in it sold like hot cakes.

    You also missed a really good preso at Interesting08 on how listening to bad BBC Radio audio books or talking books cured one guy of really bad insomnia

    They had to be not too exciting or interesting but also not too dull 😉

  9. I’ve never even come close to suffering insomnia, but for someone who loves sleep so much, i can kind of imagine the horror that it must be. I try to keep myself to 6 hours a night, i can, and have, slept for 30 hours + before now without any trouble, it’s crazy. I know when i go to bed i will be asleep within minutes, which is awesome, I developed this thought technique about 8 years ago now, which i called the ‘Endorphin Highway’ and it helps no end.

    If basically involves you ‘self inducing’ a steadily increasing rush of endorphins, which inevitably relax you to the point of falling calmly and serenely into a nice sleep. This is simply done by running over and over in your head the most pleasurable thoughts you can think of. whether it’s a walk down by the river on a warm summer evening with an old lover, or it’s a day out at a theme park that had you in hysterics all day, or something completely imagined you think would bring you pleasure. then imagining them in such detail that your brain releases its endorphins associated with having fun.

    i’ve been doing this for years and works every time, i’ve also described the technique to numerous friends throughout the years and they have always come back to me saying that it works. so that’s a freebie for you there 😉

  10. James,

    Thanks for this post as my partner suffers from near insomnia like symptoms and these tips from you may help her, besides she doesn’t like listening to me. 🙂


  11. Great post James, Hope you have had a great day today in Helsinki at the Open Labs event, I never got an invite, so Im gutted.! Your a man of my own heart, and reading your posts sounds like Im reading about myself, spooky!

    I have also travelled around the world with my past profession, which was also for Nokia, however, I was a field based engineer, planning new mobile phone networks, from surveys, to installation, and commissioning. Im not trying to get into the social media field, the very field you are in now. Wish me luck!

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