Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 10)

Long ago, talking about scientific discovery, Pasteur said “chance favors the prepared mind.” In my case, I now realize, this generalization can be improved on. The underlying pattern can be described more precisely.

I’ve made several discoveries because two things came together, as Pasteur said, with one element a kind of chance and the other a kind of knowledge. The two elements were:

  1. I did something unusual.
  2. I knew something unusual.

Here are the discoveries and how they fit this pattern:

1. Breakfast. Discovery: Eating breakfast caused me to wake up too early more often. Did something unusual: I copied one of my students, who told me about his experiences during office hour. This eventually led me to vary my breakfast. Knew something unusual: I had detailed records of my sleep. The combination made it clear that breakfast was affecting my sleep.

2. Morning faces. Discovery: Seeing faces in the morning improves my mood the next day. Did something unusual: I watched a tape of Jay Leno soon after getting up. Knew something unusual: From teaching intro psych, I knew there was a strong connection between depression and bad sleep.

3. Standing and sleep. Discovery: Standing a lot reduces early awakening. Did something unusual: I arranged my life so that I stood a lot more than usual. Knew something unusual: I had detailed sleep records. They made the reduction in early awakening easy to see.

4. Sleep and health. Discovery: At the same time my sleep greatly improved, I stopped getting colds. Did something unusual: To improve my sleep I was standing a lot and getting a lot of morning light from a bank of lights on my treadmill. Knew something unusual: I had records of my colds going back ten years.

5. The Shangri-La Diet. Discovery: Drinking sugar water causes weight loss. Did something unusual: I went to Paris. Knew something unusual: I had developed a new theory of weight control.

6. Flaxseed oil and the brain. Discovery: Flaxseed oil improves my mental function. Did something unusual: One evening I took 6-8 flaxseed oil capsules. Knew something unusual: I had been putting on my shoes standing up for more than a year and knew how difficult it usually was. The morning after I took the flaxseed oil capsules it was a lot easier.

7. Standing on one foot and sleep. Discovery: Standing on one foot improves my sleep. Did something unusual: In order to stretch my quadriceps, I stood on one foot several times one day. Knew something unusual: I knew that if I stood a lot my sleep improved (Discovery 3).

The unusual actions ranged from things as common as foreign travel (Paris) and stretching to the extremely rare (watch a tape of Jay Leno soon after waking up). The unusual knowledge ranged from quirky and casual (knowing how hard it is to put on shoes standing up) to sets of numbers (sleep records) to generalizations based on numbers (what scientific papers are about) to the sort of stuff taught in science classes (a theory of weight control) to the sort of knowledge derived from teaching science classes (connecting depression and bad sleep). To call this stuff unusual knowledge is actually too broad because in every case it’s knowledge related to causality.

Only after Discovery 7 (more precisely, this morning) did I notice this pattern. Read the discussion section of this paper (which is about Discoveries 1-5) to see how badly I missed it earlier.

More on Discovery 6. Discovery 7.

9 Replies to “Science in Action: Why Did I Sleep So Well? (part 10)”

  1. Seth, I think that keeping detailed records of your sleep and colds (and perhaps other things) is extremely helpful to the self experimentation process. Could you say a bit more about what kinds of records you keep, which details you track, and how you notate them? I am thinking about starting to keep sleep records and am looking for ideas on how to set up a journal, log, or computer data sheet.

    For years I have kept careful records of 3 different things. I keep a journal in which I record every mushroom and wild food that I’ve found. (This journal also has photos I’ve taken and looks beautiful as well as being a tremendous resource.) I keep careful track of my hormonal/menstrual cycle and many things related to it. I record a certain kind of dream that I regularly have. My records are a source of tremendous knowledge/self-knowledge and I consider them my most valuable possessions.

  2. Outcome measures: At the moment I record details of my sleep, weight, fasting blood glucose level, and blood pressure. My sleep records consist of when I went to bed, when I got up, how rested I felt when I got up, and if I took a nap, how long.

    Treatment measures, all related to sleep: when I was outside in the morning, when I looked my face (in a mirror), how often & how long I stood on one foot.

    What’s crucial, I believe, is to make it easy to do and look at. I write the sleep & weight info in a standard college-note-taking-type lined-paper notebook, one line per day. The blood pressure and blood glucose data I enter into my computer using R.

  3. Seth,
    Regarding standing on one foot improving sleep: I think you’ve just independently discovered yoga šŸ™‚ In fact, a friend of mine who does yoga informs me that standing on one foot is a form of “The Tree Pose”. I’d be interested to see if replacing the one-footed balancing with a more traditional yoga improves your sleep and if it does so any more than your few minutes of tree-posing a day.

    The connection between better sleep and better overall health and well being seems obvious and I’m sure has been empirically demonstrated (I’m too lazy to google for that right now). So it looks like you’re demonstrating the connection between yoga and sleep, which in turn validates the connection between yoga and overall health and well-being that’s often claimed for it.

    My guess is that yogic traditions that have been developed over thousands of years are more finely tuned to produce various benefits than the one-footed-balancing you’ve stumbled upon (no pun intended). For example, if you combined your tree-pose with the mind-clearing, meditative aspects of yoga, your sleep may improve even more. Likewise, there may be other benefits apart from better sleep that result from practices like yoga and meditation.


  4. David, you may have something there. Maybe some of the benefits of yoga derive from better sleep. On the other hand, I recently did a month of yoga classes, and never noticed that my sleep was better. The poses, including the one-legged poses, lasted about a minute, whereas I stood on one foot for a few minutes each time. And it is a million times easier to stand on one foot for several minutes a few times than take a yoga class.

  5. Ok, perhaps it’s the other way around then. You’ve discovered that yoga, as it’s sometimes practiced, is suboptimal because the poses aren’t held long enough. I’ve done very little yoga and know nothing about what’s considered the right way to do it and what specific goals it has. My guess is that there are many types of yoga, some more rigorous than others and some with more specific goals. I know that people who do meditation are often studied by psychologists and they usually pick people who’ve done a lot of meditation (in these examples, one is people who’ve just done a three-month silent retreat and the other is people who’ve meditated daily for three years):

    So you might want to look for a more rigorous form of yoga. It may also be worth looking to see if yoga and sleep have been studied already by sleep researchers.

    I also wonder if there’s not a ‘lowest common denominator’ effect in yoga classes, so that the poses are only held as long as the weakest members of the class can hold them. You mentioned that you hold your pose until you can’t anymore. I wonder if in the yoga class, the poses are only held until the bottom third of the group starts to fade.

    Finally, I don’t know what the stated purpose of yoga classes is. Is it just to teach you the poses so you can do them on your own? Do instructors tell you to hold the poses as long as you can when you do yoga on your own? Or is the expectation that you only do the poses in class and not on your own at home?


  6. Hi Seth, I’ve had problems with sleeping for a few years now, so I’ve been trying out your possible solution for the last week.

    I’m curious about something. You mentioned you stand on one foot until you become exhausted, usually 2-6 minutes. Unfortunately for me, I seem to be able to stand on one foot indefinitely, or at least I haven’t reached a point where I feel exhausted enough to stop. This is really surprising, since I have an office job and standing isn’t exactly something my body is accustomed to. I usually have to stop after 10-20 minutes simply because I have other things to do. I do get a slight pain in the arches of my feet. I wear sandals while doing this, on a hard wood floor. Do you feel “exhausted” in general, or is there some specific kind of physiological sign you use to tell yourself to stop?

    Initial observation is that if I do this standing routine right before bed, my sleep is extremely shallow, causing sleep interruptions and early waking, but there could be other factors to that. Today I’m trying it throughout the day instead.

    Thanks for your thoughts.

  7. Adam, I found that if I stand on one foot with the other foot just barely off the ground I can stand that way much longer (10-15 minutes) than if I stand on one foot with the other foot pulled back such that its muscles are stretched (5-8 minutes). I’ve been doing it the second way. This probably explains the difference between your times and mine.

    Doing it doesn’t make me feel exhausted. What happens is my legs and foot start to hurt after a while, then I stop.

    I suggest you try the second (stretching) way of doing it.

    David, the yoga I took (Bikram) was done in a heated room that would be hard to duplicate at home. And there is a kind of motivation supplied by doing it in a room with an instructor and many other students. The poses incorporate all sorts of difficult elements that make them harder to do — I usually stopped not because my muscles were tired but because I wasn’t flexible enough. I don’t know why poses were held for a minute rather than a shorter or longer time.

    Thanks for the links about meditation. The yoga I did was a constant struggle, not meditative at all. I liked it, I should add, but it was very time-consuming, not to mention tiring and expensive.

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