x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Too sleepy to see if those are goats or sheep in the distance

When my mother told me to count sheep to fall asleep, I ended up naming them

Where is the Sandman, that mythical figure who sprays sand into your eyes to help you fall asleep and dream sweet dreams?

Almost daily I find a note left on my BlackBerry from a friend who couldn't sleep the night before.

"Hey, you awake?" Sometimes it is sent at 2am, sometimes 3am, and sometimes 5am - a mere two hours before my friend has to start her working day. Other friends are stay-at-home mothers or wives, and so make up for the lost hours by sleeping through the day until the early afternoon.

It is difficult to break that unproductive cycle once you have done it for a couple of nights.

We have all seen Twitter or Facebook updates from friends who are up in the middle of the night, posting random videos and photos out of sheer boredom. I have caught myself looking at funny cat videos at 3am - after going to bed at 11pm and then getting up after sleep never came.

It turns out I am not alone. There have been recent articles about how cat videos are a particularly popular interest among insomniacs. Animal videos in general are supposed to be soothing, which helps people go to sleep eventually.

Apparently it is not boredom or repetition - take the popular notion of counting sheep - that helps you go to sleep.

According to a study by Oxford University in 2002, imagining a beach or a waterfall is actually a more effective soporific. Those who imagined waterfalls fell asleep 20 minutes earlier than usual - and also had to go to the washroom more often.

My mother once told me to count sheep jumping over a fence, and I imagined colourful goats hopping over my bed, since we had goats next door to our house in Saudi Arabia. That kept me wide awake and I ended up naming them.

I wasn't so far off base. One of the earliest reference to counting "sheep" is in Don Quixote, the 17th century classic by Miguel de Cervantes, although in that case Sancho Panza is recommending that his master count goats crossing a river.

What a difference there is today. When I was a child, I whined and complained when I was forced to bed early. Now, we rush to finish everything before bed, and sometimes end up pulling all-nighters depending on our work.

Our minds are busy with noisy thoughts and worries, so no wonder we can't sleep properly. I have also noticed that spending an hour before bed on the computer or a smart phone really disturbs my sleep.

It feels like time is passing more quickly - everyone says this, regardless of age, which is perhaps a consequence of our globalised, interconnected way of life.

Researchers are still trying to understand sleep, and its many stages. It is still a mystery. There is also a lot of research on napping, and how a quick nap is more effective than drinking coffee or any of the energy-booster drinks.

Research involving Nasa pilots has shown that a 26-minute nap in flight (of course, with a co-pilot present) enhanced performance by 34 per cent and overall alertness by 54 per cent. Imagine if we were all allowed to nap at work for just a few minutes?

Whatever your battle with sleep, try turning off the electronics around you - the mobile phone, the router for the internet - and make sure it is nice and dark in your bedroom. It always works for me. I don't even have to read before bed, as I usually do, which turns out to be bad for your eyes anyway. I fall asleep like a log.

 

rghazal@thenational.ae

Twitter: @Arabianmau