News: Insomnia, Fear and Perception

How to get better sleep, appreciate art and find your keys.

By Alice Oglethorpe, Amy Kraft, Mary Diduch, published on May 1, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

Sleepless No More

People spend a lifetime battling insomnia. How about a single weekend?

If your nights are spent counting sheep instead of getting sleep, a new treatment could teach you to rest easy. Insomniacs are unfamiliar with the sensation of falling asleep quickly, but a recent study suggests that inducing sleep deprivation can help them learn to do it.

Leon Lack, head of the Sleep Laboratory at Australia's Flinders University, worked with colleagues to improve the condition of 79 insomniacs in one 25-hour session. At the beginning of each half-hour, the researchers let participants fall asleep—they'd been kept up the previous night, so they were exhausted—but woke them after only three minutes and then kept them up until the next half-hour began. The sleep-wake cycle was repeated for 25 hours, and then the volunteers were sent home.

Within a week, participants were falling asleep faster, and the benefits were still measurable six months later. "These people had significant insomnia for years, and in just one day they were able to greatly improve the quantity and quality of their sleep," says Arthur Spielman, a sleep specialist at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Why was the therapy so effective? It trains insomniacs to associate the act of going to bed with the feeling of quickly nodding off. "Over the course of 25 hours, someone experiences that process dozens of times, helping them keep that association once they return home," Lack explains.

There are no do-it-yourself versions of this therapy available now. But the Flinders sleep lab is already exploring the possibility of creating portable sleep monitors with alarm signals that could translate the 25-hour procedure to a home environment. —Alice Oglethorpe

The Art of Fear

Want to be inspired? Boo!

So, the Mona Lisa doesn't move you? Try going to a screening of The Shining first. A new study reported in Emotion finds that fear can enhance an aesthetic experience.

Participants who first watched a scary movie clip rated a series of abstract paintings as more awe-inspiring than subjects who had watched a puppy video, exercised, or sat quietly. "Feelings of astonishment and awe are fundamentally rooted in fear," says City University of New York cognitive neuroscientist Natalie Kacinik. "What we think are high-level decisions are rooted in basic sensory processes."

The findings suggest that our reaction to highbrow art is more primal than it may seem. Previous research shows a link between positive judgment of art and heightened activity in the insular cortex, a region of the brain activated by fear and disgust. When we're afraid, we're hyperaware.

"Fear is a uniquely powerful and gripping emotion," says Loyola University New Orleans psychologist Kendall Eskine, the study's lead author. "It has the potential to consume a person's experience in such a way that gives tremendous focus." A postfear stimulus may be banal—but by then, we already have goosebumps. —Amy Kraft

Where Did I Put My Keys?

Three tips for more fruitful finding.

Why is it so hard to locate something we've misplaced? A study from the University of Waterloo finds that when we're rushing, we often see what we're looking for, pick it up, and then toss it aside without realizing it. Our perceptual attention cannot work as quickly as our hands do when digging through a purse or flipping through a stack of papers.

"Identification and movement are not coordinated," explains cognitive neuroscientist Daniel Smilek. Here are three ways to force your perceptual and motor systems to get in sync so that you can improve your performance when tracking something down:

1. Think out loud. "Perception often can't keep up," notes psychologist Grayden Solman, a study co-author. "It doesn't know what's been picked up before it moves on to something else." Try naming everything you're looking through—even just in your head—before rejecting it. Think: Here is my stapler, here are my pens, here are my... keys!

2. Trust your gut. In the study, participants naturally slowed down when they selected the sought-after item—right before putting it aside. "There seems to be some unconscious recognition that they missed the target," says Smilek. So if you just know your checkbook is in your desk, it's probably worth taking a second peek.

3. Use all your senses. Pay attention to smells, textures, and sounds "to help tease objects apart," suggests Solman. Don't rely only on your eyes. Hearing the jingle of keys or feeling the cold exterior of a smartphone can be just the jolt you need to realize what you're looking at.—Mary Diduch