Drew Ackerman As a kid, I had a lot of anxiety about school. And every night I would stay up kind of worrying about what was going to go wrong the next day, was it going to get in trouble and almost trying to play out the day and predict what was going to happen and plan everything out. And, and then it got to the point where I was like, wait a second, I can’t sleep. Or like, I’m so nervous. And then I got it in my head, it’s like, how am I going to fall asleep now? Now I’m tired, how am I going to get to sleep? And it was this cycle that just went on and on and on. And one of the things that I think about even now, is I’m the oldest of six kids, but how lonely it was. I share a room with my brother, but he’s sound asleep and I’m tossing and turning. And then the idea of, like, just like water, food, like, we need sleep, but it’s not something that’s that we can just turn on and off or just to get, you know. And then the more you try to get it, the harder you try to reach for the worse it gets.
My parents, you know, tell them I couldn’t sleep and they’re like, “Why don’t you think of something nice? Why don’t you, you know, imagine yourself descending a staircase?” And some stuff would work for one night, but then it wouldn’t work the next night and the anxiety would come back.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome to The Science of Happiness. This week we’re exploring the science of sleep: how to get more of it, what happens when we sleep well versus not at all. And on our next episode, we’ll go from sleep to dreams and explore how to have conscious, lucid, dreams.
Today’s guest suffered from insomnia as a kid, and that sleeplessness still creeps back into his nights from time to time.
So we compiled some of the best research-backed tips to help him sleep. We’ll see how that went, and we’ll hear from a sleep expert from the Center for Human Sleep Science here at UC Berkeley where I teach my happiness class. She’ll talk about how sleep affects everything from our brain function and heart health, to how we engage with both friends and strangers. More after this break.
Dacher Keltner I’m Dacher Keltner, welcome back to The Science of Happiness. Sleep loss affects every system in our brain and in our body. When we look at thousands of studies across years, we see that people who sleep less than 6 hours a night are at greater risk for heart attacks and strokes, have impaired immunity and are more likely to have type two diabetes, and also down the line, dementia. We really need sleep to reset and fine tune.
Drew Ackerman, today’s guest, had pretty bad insomnia as a kid, and he still struggles with it as an adult. So about a decade ago he started to record meandering bedtime stories to help lull others to sleep. It’s now a weekly podcast called, Sleep With Me.
We gave Drew a list of research-backed practices to help him fall asleep at night—and we’re going to hear how that went today.
Drew, welcome to The Science of Happiness.
Drew Ackerman Thanks so much for having me on. I’m excited to talk about sleep and sleep practices.
Dacher Keltner Absolutely. And I’m curious about your particular solution to it. So your podcast, Sleep With Me is one of the most popular sleep podcasts out there. You know, we sleep every day. We spend an enormous amount of our life doing it. And yet it’s received very little cultural attention in some sense, until recently.
What’s your sleep like today? I mean, is it still this existential struggle that you had when you were a young kid? Or are you kind of mastering it?
Drew Ackerman I would say I’m somewhere in between. Yeah. Like for me, having a routine is like having a bedtime routine. And some of the practices has kind of reinforced that is, it gives me about a 60 to 70% success rate.
Dacher Keltner You know Matt Walker, a neuroscientist who runs the sleep lab here at UC Berkeley, his research shows that, man, if you’re not sleeping the right amount for your body, you experience more anxiety, more depression, struggles in relationships. And there are even health issues with the immune system and your heart.
And grounded in that, people like Matt have been starting to build out these approaches to sleep. And we shared some of them with you to try out. And I have the list over here:
Alright, get at least 30 minutes of outdoor sun a day; go to bed when you’re tired; don’t drink caffeine or alcohol at night; no screens. And Keep a worry journal …. which is common wisdom, like get your rumination stuff into a place and then you can go to sleep.
And being our soporific hero out there, you recorded your sleep journey for us…
Drew Ackerman Good evening, everyone. It is about 7:30 p.m.. And I haven’t had any caffeine after 2 p.m. I’m going to keep my lights dim in the evening. I’m going to do my best.
Drew Ackerman So I definitely tried some of the practices and the Worry Journal was the one that really drew me in because I had I think I had heard about that. But it’s something I never tried. I tried it out over the past week in doing it a few hours before bed with the idea of kind of capturing it or releasing it, was powerful because it’s like this week, particularly, my parents are coming to stay with me…
Let’s see. What am I worried about?
I am worried that I may get my apartment clean from when my parents are here.
I have no idea what time I’m going to get to bed, So I’m already worried about that. I’m a little bit worried if I’m going to fall asleep tonight. Normally, almost every night, I’m worried if I’m going to fall asleep.
Dacher Keltner We’re all over-stressed and worried right now, and if you can just name it, put it into some words, vocal or writing, there’s just something that happens that’s magical about that. How did it affect your sleep? Like what did you notice about your mental state when you went to sleep? That was different.
Drew Ackerman I think it was a little bit more relaxed and it made it easier for me to go from like my wind down routine, which was like I just usually read fiction to to falling asleep, like when I was tired. It’s like, okay, I’m done, I’m feeling tired. I’m just going to close my book and go to sleep where. Yeah. And I think also doing it a few hours before bed did give myself or my subconscious or whatever is a little bit time to process it and be like, “Hey, it’s going to be okay.” Like, “This isn’t that big a deal.” Like “You’ll get the apartment clean,” so that those kinds of natural organic tools were able to be in place before I tried to go to sleep and again try to process it and be like, Oh no, what am I going to do now I better start planning. Just like when I was a kid. What do I have to do tomorrow to be perfect or whatever it is.
Drew Ackerman that’s profound.
Dacher Keltner So How long did you do it for, the Worry Journal?
Drew Ackerman Just a few minutes. Just like with the top things that were at top of my mind worrying me. So just a couple of minutes.
Dacher Keltner Great. What other practices did you try and what didn’t quite line up or work for you?
Drew Ackerman I mean, I definitely, like a lot of people, may be listening. Found it challenging to avoid my phone totally, but I did my best.
Dacher Keltner Now wait, back up. So what do you usually do with your phone before you go to sleep?
Drew Ackerman Well, usually I try to avoid it, but maybe 15 minutes before I want to go to sleep, I’ll be like, “Oh, let me get one last check.” if any critical emails came in or anything that I need to worry about before I go to bed, which is kind of pointless. So that was the toughest thing. A few nights I did, I was able to do that. Yeah, but a lot of the other stuff, like avoiding TV or exercise, trying to cut back on my caffeine, those are really good reminders to be like, “Okay, let’s just not have any caffeine after 1:00 today.”
There’s probably more than one mechanism within us that’s keeping us from sleep. So it is also looking at your body and like not drinking liquids. So you have to wake up to use the water closet or the idea of taking a hot bath or a shower to to help your body cool down and avoiding LED lights. Those are all things that are easy to kind of brush off to or be, like, resistant to. “Oh, no, no. That’s too much work.” But when you think about maybe, again, taking a step outside yourself and say, “Hey, how am I going to prepare my body for sleep, too?” It might be easier.
Dacher Keltner You know, we so often forget the body in this culture and this literature. Like, you know, one of the things we’ve learned about the benefits of being outdoors is a lot of it is just body. It’s like the rhythms of water and the sense of flowers affect your heart rate and your blood pressure. What would you tell people, what would you tell that little kid you used to be about, like, what to do with your body before you go to sleep?
Drew Ackerman For me, it’s always sometimes useful to be more imaginative or for maybe some let’s just be like, “Oh, let’s do a cosplay.” If you’re not a parent to be like, “Hey, let’s look at this little kid that you used to be or your niece or your nephew or your child and say, ‘What would you do for them to to walk them through it?’”
Because sometimes, again, like these messages with our culture, it’s like, “Oh, you’ve got to be tough. You’ve got to be resilient.” Like, what does resilience mean? “Oh, I want to be a leader,” or whatever, but it’s like, “Hey, how would you walk this kid through taking care of themselves?” If it’s harder for you to do it for yourself, it’s like, what are your best friend or someone you’re in love with? Like what? How would you offer them the advice to take care of themselves and then just, you know, turn it around on yourself, like sneaking. I always have to sneak stuff past my critic, like past that goalie. So, yeah.
I mean, I think about this a lot. Like I think that it is something that maybe the idea of fixing it is, is not helpful. It’s like maybe the idea of being there and soothing and saying, hey, I know it’s really tough for me. It was like, “I know you’re really having a tough time at school. And I don’t know exactly what we’re going to do about it, but I’m here to help you right now. Maybe I could tell you a story or, you know, we could talk about driving in the car, but I’ll be here for you now to comfort you.” Instead of offering a solution it’s like, kind of offering a presence. Like, a loving presence.
Dacher Keltner That’s cool. And we’re so solution-focused, so just creating a safe space. Drew, being steeped in the sleep world and having your own novel perspective on it, what are the two or three essential tips?
Drew Ackerman I mean, I think for me it’s just validating and prioritizing your sleep.
It is okay to say you deserve a good night’s sleep to yourself and say, “Hey, I want to prioritize this,” because there’s a lot of shame in our world of like, oh, well, you can’t put you should be putting all this stuff first, but don’t put yourself first. Yeah, but it’s like taking some empathy and compassion to say, “Hey, you really do deserve this rest.”
But in a sense, if you’re already struggling with it, kind of getting out of the idea that you’re doing it wrong or that you know, you’re dysfunctional, I think a lot of stuff, people already feel disempowered, like, “Oh, this is hopeless.” You have to kind of go through the process. It is a process and some of the result is falling asleep. But we can only really control the setup part. Yeah, but if it is grounded in empathy and compassion and kind of the self self-soothing thing, I think you just have a better chance at easing yourself into sleep.
Dacher Keltner I hear you. And the real risk of the happiness literature and the sleep literature and my colleague Iris Mauss and June Gruber have called this out like we can get obsessed with this stuff and then we’re in our worry cycles. Right? And it’s just like, here’s some tips and try it out and see, see what works.
Drew Ackerman Yeah, I think it’s always like a process of going towards happiness or going towards good sleep, but it’s also a natural inclination to be like, Well, I want the results, I want the happiness, I want the sleep now. And it’s like, okay, I get that you want to now, but let’s just try this process, try these things. And just keep doing them. It’s like living in both worlds or something.
Dacher Keltner It is. It’s always the paradox. Well, Drew Ackerman, thank you so much for being here. And thank you for your work.
Drew Ackerman Thanks so much for having me on. Thank you.
Dacher Keltner Up next, we hear from a sleep expert about how sleep loss affects loneliness.
Eti Ben Simon Sleep loss not only affects the individual, but also the people around them and their desire to be with the people around them. And I think it’s fascinating.
Dacher Keltner More, after this break.
Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been looking at different actions you can take to help you fall asleep.
We spoke with Drew Ackerman of Sleep with Me podcast. And man, I really recommend you check out his podcast for he offers a really unique, comforting way to fall asleep at night. Next up we’re going look at what the literature says about what happens when we’re sleep-deprived.
Our executive producer of audio Shuka Kalantari spoke with Eti Ben Simon a neuroscientist and sleep expert about what happens to our social life, when we don’t get enough sleep.
Shuka Kalantari I spoke with Dr. Simon about a series of experiments she did at the Center for Human Sleep Science, here at UC Berkeley. I think my biggest takeaway was that if we don’t get enough sleep, it makes us feel lonelier, and it fundamentally messes with the way we perceive other people, and how we interact with them. Here’s part of our conversation—we started by talking about her experiment where she tested people’s desires to be physically close to others after a night of no sleep.
Eti Ben Simon So we had young, healthy individuals stay awake for one night. They visit the lab twice. One time they are allowed to sleep, the other time they stay awake, unfortunately for them with me. And then we do an in-person, it’s called a social distance task. This is before the pandemic, so nobody knew what it was. But you have the participant facing the experimenter and we ask the experimenter to slowly walk up towards the participant.
And the participant has to tell us how close or far they want the experimenter to be. And whenever they say, “Stop,” that person stops. And we measured the distance. And this was done outside, like in the lab, outside the scanner. But then we also asked them to go into a functional MRI scanner, and we looked at the activity of their brain while other people were approaching them on screen, so on camera.
Eti Ben Simon For both this sort of virtual task and the task where the people were actually physically walking up towards them, we found the same effect: they prefer others to stay further away when they had no sleep. We found that 18 to 60% larger distances following lack of sleep.
Shuka Kalantari How did you get these people to stay up all night?
Eti Ben Simon Oh, you pay them.
Shuka Kalantari But how do you know they’re awake?
Eti Ben Simon We keep an eye on them. They are never alone. We just stay with them. It’s kind of funny, by 3:00 AM. They can’t think anymore, so they just watch movies or YouTub. By 5 AM they wonder why they chose this study. They don’t like us. They don’t like the research assistants. By six or seven AM the biological clock kicks in a bit. Suddenly they have a bit of that arousal response because this is the time they usually wake up. So they feel slightly better but still very, very tired.
Shuka Kalantari And how did you feel at 5 a.m.?
Eti Ben Simon Oh, my God. After about a month of this, I just started crying from every song, every pop song on the radio. And I realized that I’m experiencing the emotional imbalance and, and the mood impairments that come with sleep loss.
Shuka Kalantari Why do you think that sleep loss specifically causes this desire, or at least this action, towards physically wanting separation from people?
Eti Ben Simon Yeah, that goes back to the brain activity that we were looking at. So when people were looking at others approaching on camera, when they were in the scanner, what we saw is that there is a network that tends to monitor anyone within a hand’s reach around us. It’s sort of like an alarm system and it goes off whenever someone comes too close. And what we saw that after sleep deprivation, that this network is highly sensitive. So imagine you have an alarm network at your house and it would tell you whenever someone gets to the door when you’re sleep-deprived, it would warn you when someone’s already across the street.
And then that sensitivity of that network made it so that people who are sleep deprived but for greater distance from others.
When you think about sleep, it’s really a solitary function. Even if we sleep next to other people, we are completely disconnected from the environment, we are disconnected from others. And I think that that movement towards that disconnection actually begins even before that, we withdraw ourselves from the environment slowly and as preparation for going into sleep. And I think that process intensifies when we sleep deprive someone, when we don’t let them sleep, that desire to withdraw inwards, to start disconnecting
Shuka Kalantari This just reminds me of, like, being a new mom.
Eti Ben Simon Yeah sleep loss is one of the greatest risk factors for postpartum depression.
Shuka Kalantari One of the other pitfalls of sleep deprivation is that not only is there this social distance and loneliness, but it also affects our ability to perceive correctly what others are thinking or feeling. Tell me about that.
Eti Ben Simon A network of regions in the brain known as the theory of Mind is highly impaired without sleep. It’s called The Theory of Mind, because it’s activated when we think about other people’s minds, when we think about what are people like, what do they think, what are their motivation? And in two studies we’ve done so far, we saw that this network is significantly impaired without sleep. Our ability to think about what other people want is really impaired.
Eti Ben Simon A lot more studies also show that people are less empathic towards others without sleep. We’re not able to entertain other people’s minds if we don’t have that sleep, if we are not ourselves calm enough and rested enough.
Shuka Kalantari So how does this affect how others perceive us?
Eti Ben Simon People who come into contact with someone who is sleep-deprived choose to not interact with them as much and also not to collaborate with them.
You know, does this person seem nice, intelligent, healthy, and we see impairments in all of these domains. And one of the reasons we think that this is happening is also because they seem more sickly. People who are sleep-deprived, they appear to others as less healthy. And when you think about it in evolutionary terms, it makes sense. You want to keep away from someone who might be sick.
Shuka Kalantari So I think we’ve clearly established that not sleeping sucks all around for your brain, body and social life.
Eti Ben Simon Yeah. I would also add to this “Why would we want to sleep less?” That’s something that I want to study more. When you think about sleep, it’s almost like a magical creature, and yet we struggle with it so much.
Shuka Kalantari Eti, thank you so much for sharing the science of sleep. And thank you so much for being a guest on our show.
Eti Ben Simon My pleasure. Sleep well.
Dacher Keltner Thanks, Shuka. On our next episode of the science of happiness we go from sleep to dream.
We have guests try some practices shown to help people become aware that they’re dreaming, while they’re still asleep
Marylee Williams Like, before you go to sleep, you set an alarm for about 5 hours after you’re going to fall asleep.
…And then you wake up and when you wake up, you need to assert or kind of meditate on the fact that you are awake. And then before you go to sleep, there’s a specific phrase you need to say…
but I can’t actually remember what it is.
Michaeleen Doucleff I will know that I am dreaming. Right? Like I will know that I’m going to be dreaming. I’m going to know that I’m, I’m dreaming.
Dacher Keltner We explore lucid dreaming, and the expanding scientific literature on how it affects us.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness. Have you ever experienced a lucid dream? Tell us about it! Email happiness pod at Berkeley dot edu or use the hashtag happiness pod.
You can learn more about the science of sleep, and get more tips and articles on how to get a good night’s sleep, by visiting our show notes, wherever you’re listening to this podcast.
Our Executive Producer of Audio is Shuka Kalantari. Our producer is Haley Gray. Sound designer is Jennie Cataldo of Accompany Studios. Our editor-in-chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.