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Sleep and the Senses

April 10, 2014

Saint Augustine once wrote, “Suggestion takes place either by means of memory, or by means of the bodily senses, when we see, or hear, or smell, or taste, or touch anything” (Sermon on the Mount, 1, 12). In other words, as sentient beings, we are affected by the external stimuli we encounter in daily life. Our five senses are continually provided an array of stimuli that call for a response and make suggestions for action. At the time for sleep, it is important to regulate and reduce such stimuli for the sake of the bodily inactivity that characterizes sleep. Some such stimuli like television or radio are easy to reduce in the bedroom by removing them altogether. Other stimuli such as associations our mind makes with work, family life, or relationships are more difficult to control or reduce, especially during the time set aside for sleep.

Perhaps we don’t even think about it, but we act upon these associations all the time. When we want to relax, we choose a favorite book, a television program, or watch a sunset because in the past, these things have been associated with feelings that lead to relaxation. The same principle applies to associations that are stressful or anxiety producing.

In her work, “A Comparison of Three Cognitive Behavioral Treatments for Insomnia: Paradoxical Intention, Coping Imagery and Sleep Information,” Lynn Petras Gould notes the importance of stimuli reduction for insomniacs. “Stimulus control therapy is based upon the premise that insomniacs frequently engage in activities incompatible with sleep prior to bedtime, preventing the establishment of appropriate discriminative stimuli for sleep. The therapy seeks to reduce sleep-incompatible behaviors, thus permitting bedtime stimuli to become associated with the behavior of falling asleep.”

Alfonso Marino makes a similar point when he writes, “Sometimes problems arise when people engage in activities at bedtime that are incompatible with falling asleep. For example, they use their bedrooms for reading, talking on the phone, watching television, snacking, listening to music, paying the bills, planning the next day’s events or worrying. The bottom line is that the bed and bedtime become cues for arousal rather than sleep.”

Many domestic arguments take place in the bedroom which then can become associated with anxiety or sorrow. Stimulus reduction therapy seeks to reduce both stimuli and cognitive associations that arouse rather than relax. Therefore, it’s important to keep activity in this place and at this time to a minimum.

William Simpson Sampson notes in his doctoral dissertation, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia in a Primary Care Setting,” that “these procedures are based on classical conditioning principles and seek to increase the strength of the bed as a conditioned stimulus by pairing it with sleep as an unconditioned response to the unconditioned stimulus of drowsiness until sleep becomes a conditioned response to reclining in bed. By avoiding pairing the bedroom with any other unconditioned stimuli the technique increases the discriminative power of the bed as a cue for sleep and not for any incompatible behaviors.”

Orthodox spirituality recognizes the importance of stimulus control and cognitive associations. This is most clearly demonstrated by the use of beeswax candles, oil lamps, incense, icons, the human voice, and human movement during prayer. All of these stimuli are sacred suggestions offered to all the senses to help Christians worship God with all their strength and all their soul. Their presence is meant to put the Christian in the proper state of mind for prayerful worship as well as to help the Christian avoid the distractions by incompatible stimuli present during the times set aside for prayer during the day.

Sleep stimuli and associations are just as important when it is time to get proper rest. As the sacred writer of Ecclesiastes notes, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

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From → Insomnia

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