BBC Radio 4 has just concluded another run of its fantastic series Am I Normal? which looks at the science of differences in our minds, brains and abilities.
The series has done a remarkably good job in exploring the psychology, psychiatry and neuroscience of common human concerns and how they differ across the population.
This stretches from distinct pathologies and medical disorders at one end, to normal variation at the other – although ‘normal variation’ itself contains a diverse array of differences.
The latest series looked at shyness and social phobia, dyslexia, maths and selective mathematical difficulties and, finally, insomnia and sleep.
Insomnia is particularly interesting because psychological concerns are known to play a huge role in maintaining the patterns of broken sleep and subsequent anxiety.
For example, a well-replicated finding is that people with insomnia vastly under-estimate the amount of sleep they get during the night, sometimes sleeping several more hours that they think they do (Tom discussed some of this research in on Mind Hacks back in 2004, and the full text of a recent scientific paper on the topic is available online as a pdf).
Evidence also suggests that worry feeds into this biased perception of sleep, and that there is also quite a discrepancy between how people with insomnia perceive the impairments they experience in their waking life, and what neuropsychological tests actually find.
This isn’t to suggest that people with insomnia are exaggerators (it’s worth noting that they do have genuine sleep difficulties), simply that one of the main difficulties is how they evaluate their sleep and its impact – which tends to prolong or make the problem worse.
This is why psychological and behavioural treatments (such as cognitive therapy or changing the environment or daily routines) are particularly effective in treating sleep difficulties.