Boredom and sleep: it's complicated
Are you awake because you're bored or because you're not bored enough?
Being bored makes you sleepy, but it also causes insomnia. Confused how it can do both? Let’s start with the one that’s least intuitive: boredom can keep you awake. A new study by researchers in Singapore found that people who are prone to boredom are more likely to procrastinate going to bed. They’ll hang in front of the TV, searching through Netflix (but not actually watching anything). They’ll stare at their phone and scroll through Twitter. They’re not concentrating or enjoying it, but they just need to feel less bored and all those activities are keeping them from going to bed.
But once you do make it to bed, boredom can also help you sleep. Here, in the dark, some people are being kept wide awake because they’re not bored enough. They’ll get close to falling asleep and then suddenly an idea pops in their head, leading to an endless spiral of thoughts - but not sleep. There are apps that try to push these thoughts away by essentially boring you to sleep. One of these is the Sleep With Me podcast* where each episode ends with an hour-long meandering and somewhat incoherent (but amusing) monotonous story. Even if you try to follow along, it eventually bores you to sleep. It’s like listening to a very boring seminar: even if you know it should be interesting, your brain just wants to sleep.
In 2017, researchers in Japan and China shed some light on what’s happening when a seminar or podcast bores you to sleep. They learned that, if they gave mice a treatment that acts on the nucleus accumbens area of the brain, the mice fell asleep so easily! This is the area of the brain that regulates motivation and pleasure, but the chemical signal these mice received was the opposite of the signal that would make them excited and active. They got a drug that acts in the opposite way as caffeine does, so they essentially got a “boredom booster” -- and they fell asleep. If the same is true in humans (and we’re surprisingly similar to mice in many ways) then that would explain why boring seminars and podcasts can help you fall asleep.
So that’s how boredom affects your sleep in multiple ways: It keeps you awake by making you procrastinate and seek out mental stimulation like TV and social media, but once you step away from those triggers and purposely let yourself get bored, you might actually fall asleep.
*The link to Sleep With Me is a referral link. You can use it to check out a sample of the podcast.
I do hope you’re still awake now, though, because there’s more newsletter below!
I recently wondered whatever happened to the One Laptop Per Child project. Here’s a good summary by David Souter, Inside the digital society: lessons from little laptops
They Hacked McDonald’s Ice Cream Machines—and Started a Cold War. This Wired story by Andy Greenberg explains why McDonalds ice cream machines are always broken and how McDonalds stopped a device that could fix them.
How to Assess Your Risk After Being Vaccinated, by Tara Haelle in Elemental
Freelance writer Anna Codrea-Rado’s book You’re The Business is full of useful advice for new freelancers. I’ve been at it for a few years and still found helpful tips. Some of the tips are quite specific to the UK, though, such as how to handle your taxes. You can also check out Anna’s newsletter LANCE, which is how I originally found her writing.
What I’ve been up to
Here are a few things I wrote recently:
The end of waste as we know it? (Neste)
I also made a YouTube video for the first time in ages. Watch me struggle in Geoguessr but eventually get a perfect score without moving. With apologies to everyone from the country I had such an extremely hard time recognizing in Round 4.
Finally, if you’re a science writer or science communicator and tired of working from home with no one around, you can join the next virtual coworking session on May 20 at 1PM UK time. Join the Discord here (link works until May 7) and/or get a reminder by signing up on Eventbrite.