While lying in bed, do your racing thoughts keep you up? Or do you wake up inexplicably at 4AM and can't fall back asleep? Turns out this happens because of an overactive prefrontal cortex.
For the last nine months I’ve been writing a book on the neuroscience of depression, and the final draft is almost due. On top of that, last weekend I traveled to Cincinatti, Ohio to coach the UCLA women’s ultimate Frisbee team at the national championship tournament. It’s an exciting time in my life, but I’ve been sleeping terribly. I haven’t been particularly anxious, but while trying to fall asleep my brain keeps popping up with tidbits for the book. Or I wake up in the middle of the night thinking of new Frisbee strategies. Fortunately, while researching for my book I began to understand why.
As discussed extensively on this blog, the prefrontal cortex is the planning and worrying part of the brain. And in order to get a good night of quality sleep, it has to wind down. One study on college students with insomnia found that worrying before bedtime makes insomnia worse(Brown 2002). And since worrying and planning both utilize the same parts of the prefrontal cortex, planning is not conducive to sleeping.
Another study looked at what activity in the brain made people wake up in the middle of the night (Nofzinger 2006). While the brain is supposed to be relaxing into long slow electrical rhythms for most of sleep, in some people the prefrontal cortex stays hyperactive, which causes them to wake up. This same hyperactivity in the worrying and planning prefrontal cortex makes it harder to fall back asleep again.
So don’t do work in bed until midnight and then just turn out the light; your prefrontal cortex will be too activated for quality sleep. To help prepare your brain for sleep, have a relaxing bedtime routine. On top of that while lying in bed, try not to schedule your day, or write a paper, or figure out your five-year plan. If you can’t get the worries and plans out of your head, then write them down. The best thing to do is to remind yourself of calming, positive parts of your life. Sweet dreams!
Brown, F.C., Buboltz, W.C., Jr., & Soper, B. 2002. Relationship of sleep hygiene awareness, sleep hygiene practices, and sleep quality in university students. Behav Med, 28(1): 33-8.
Nofzinger, E.A., Nissen, C., et al. 2006. Regional cerebral metabolic correlates of WASO during NREM sleep in insomnia. J Clin Sleep Med, 2(3): 316-22.
If you liked this article then check out my book - The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time