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Last night I had the following experience. It happens to me about four
times a year. From talking to others I gather it is quite common. It
raises interesting questions about how memes inhabit brains (or brains
deal with memes).
I was tired but had to do some work, so when I went to bed I was
"over-tired". The same thoughts kept going round my head repetitively
and I could not get to sleep. The solution is to get up, have a warm
drink and read for 15-30 minutes and then return to bed. One can then
sleep. The repetitive thoughts can be worries but need not be (in this
case they appeared to be simply a catchy tune).
This raises several questions:
1. Why does this repetition happen when one is over-tired?
Is there some active boredom mechanism that usually prevents such
repetition when properly awake? It is notable that (when I remember
them) my dreams are not usually repetitive like this. This suggests to
me that boredom is an active ability that requires some 'energy' (either
asleep or awake).
2. Why does this repetition apparently stop one going to sleep?
This is more difficult and puzzling. What is it about this 'fugue'
state of mind that prevents the transition to sleep? One would have
thought that such endless repetition combined with palpable fatigue
would be ideal sleep inducers, but experience tells me that this state
will persist for many hours preventing sleep. Does the brain 'mistake'
this repetition for a state of worry and hence bar sleep as a sort of
protective mechanism - a sort of "did I remember to stoke the fire to
keep the predators away" mechanism?
3. Why does the 'cure' work?
Two parts of an answer: the warm drink temporarily heightens the blood
sugar level so we have the energy to avoid the repetitive 'meme'; the
book provides displacement thoughts that interest the brain. But why
does not the content of the book echo around one's brain in the same
A few connected observations and further questions:
People will sometimes experience a similar phenomena with, for example,
tunes when not tired (especially, it seems children). Does this mean
that children are just less bored or have not yet learned to how be
The tired 'fugue' state happens more often when I work late, rather than
read late. What is the cognitive difference between working and
reading? Reading a very boring book can send one rapidly to sleep.
Centre for Policy Modelling,
Manchester Metropolitan University, Aytoun Bldg.,
Aytoun St., Manchester, M1 3GH. UK.
Tel: +44 161 247 6479 Fax: +44 161 247 6802
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