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Banana! Trucks! Pluto! … Feeling sleepy yet? SFU researcher creates app to help people sleep

Counting sheep to fall asleep? An amateur mistake.

A cognitive researcher and enterprising businessman at Simon Fraser University has developed a new phone app that aims to “shuffle thoughts” around to help people fall asleep.

 Luc Beaudoin, associate member of SFU’s cognitive science program.

Luc Beaudoin, associate member of SFU’s cognitive science program.

Luc Beaudoin, creator and associate member of SFU’s cognitive science program, said the app helps fire random thoughts into the user’s head, emulating the scatter-brained nature our minds have when falling asleep.

“People think what they need to do is have their mind blank to fall asleep, but that’s not what the science says,” Beaudoin said. “What you actually need is engagement, paradoxically.”

Our minds are always “sense-making” Beaudoin said, where, for example, we see something on the street like a man wearing a suit and we subconsciously make sense of him (Who is he? Where he's going? What's he doing?) through what we’ve seen.

The only point of the day where that breaks down and nonsense begins to take over is right before falling asleep, and it’s this time Beaudoin is emulating.

"You’re going from thinking about one thing, perhaps quite coherently, like a banana," he said. "You might visualize a banana tree or a kitchen or whatever, but then the next thing you know you hear 'Pluto', and you imagine Pluto, then the next thing thing you know you’re thinking of an automobile or an old girlfriend. So we’re basically shuffling your thoughts, and that’s not something you do at any other time unless you’re just falling asleep."

Brain functions like planning, worrying and problem solving that are vital for helping us make sense of the world during waking hours can delay sleep when they don’t switch off.

Prompting users of the app to interpret and visualize certain words can help deactivate those functions, Beaudoin said.

“Just think of it like shuffling music, but instead of shuffling music you’re shuffling your thoughts to help sleep,” he said.

The app is called mySleepButton and is available for free on the iPhone and iPad.

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