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Review of "Getting a Good Night's Sleep"

By John Selby
Simon and Schuster Audio, 2004
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Dec 15th 2004
Getting a Good Night's Sleep

Being a philosophy professor who specializes in a critical scrutiny of psychology, I often doubt that I represent the typical consumer. I tend to find self-help programs simplistic and even stupid. My chosen profession suits me because I tend to be a critical person. Maybe it is no surprise then that I have some difficulty sleeping. It also might be related to the fact that as an academic, I'm constantly interacting with other critical people. Whatever the reason, it is not at all unusual for me to wake in the middle of the night and find it impossible to quell the stream of thoughts about tasks I need to do, replay exchanges at various committee meetings from recent days, and occasionally dwell on some events from my personal life or the latest family squabbles.

John Selby tells his listeners that this is pent up anger and anxiety. People who cannot sleep feel threatened, but they need to realize that unless they are in immediate danger, they need to let go of their fears and simply accept that they have 8 or more hours to sleep. He recommends that when trying to get to sleep, one identifies the person one is angry with and say out loud several times, "I'm angry at you," with the aim of expelling the anger from oneself. Readers, I have to admit that I haven't tried this exercise. It would probably wake my wife, who would not be at all pleased, and would likely make me sleep in the guest room. I also haven't done it because, probably due to being in deep denial, I don't actually think I'm angry at particular people. I just have lots to do and I even find it helpful to remind myself of what I need to get done. For those who do have anger, Selby recommends forgiving those with whom one is angry in order to be able to relax, which might be a good idea, but I'm not sure that forgiving is such a simple process. Furthermore, while this may be a symptom of my emotional immaturity, I'm not inclined to forgive people who have intentionally hurt me. I just don't think about them.

Selby makes some questionable claims. Maybe it is true that anxiety is the primary cause of insomnia but when he says that people only worry about the future and not about the past, that seems to contradict the experience of all those people who worry about what has already happened. Worry requires uncertainty, but there can be uncertainty about the past as well as the future. However, his recommendation that the future should take care of itself sounds like a good one, and I'd add that the past can take care of itself too. He uses some meditative techniques of focusing on one's breath and paying attention to one's body, encouraging the listener to surrender and let go. He asks the listener to simply be in the present and let one's awareness move to the good feelings in one's body. When I focus on my body, I notice lots of tension in my back.

I would be very interested in learning what empirical work has been done on the effectiveness on these relaxing techniques as a way to get to sleep. It is clear that they work for some people. However, I'm equally sure that many people are like myself: they find it very easy to fall asleep when watching a boring TV program, or indeed their favorite TV show, but when using relaxation techniques of focusing on breathing and letting go of bodily tension, they just lie there wondering when sleep might eventually come.

In Getting a Good Night's Sleep, Selby talks in a slow calm voice, with synthesized ambient music in the background. As the CD progresses, he talks less often, and obviously it is all meant to be very soothing. I don't find it relaxing though. I listen to the way he pronounces the word "pleasure" as "play-zir" and wonder what's up with that. I think to myself that the music is annoying. The second CD of this 2 CD set is music only, with light new-age sounds lacking any tunes, which sounds like the music one hears when put on hold with the phone company. I hate it.

I also wonder how people who sleep with other people are going to listen to this. Either you can play it out loud, so one's partner is going to have to put up with Selby going on about soft bird songs wafting through the air and letting the love flow in, or you can listen to it on headphones, which will likely mean getting the headphone wire tangled around your neck in the middle of the night. Of course, it you end up getting a good night's sleep, it is a small price to pay.

Personally, I find the best way to get to sleep when awake in the middle of the night is to listen to some spoken word that I find relatively interesting, and focusing on that helps me stop thinking about other things. Audiobooks or the night time transmission of the BBC World Service on my local public radio station are excellent. While my own psychological tendencies may be atypical or even abnormal, I suspect that intentionally relaxing tends to be somewhat self-defeating for many people. My guess is that for a large proportion of the population, it is far more effective to divert one's attention away from oneself and one's state of calmness or tension, and to focus on something else that you find relaxing.

So I have to say that I didn't find Getting a Good Night's Sleep at all helpful, but I suppose that some other people might, if they enjoy insipid new age music and they are not so critical to begin with. But those people probably don't have so much difficulty sleeping in the first place.


2004 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.


Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Academic Chair of the Arts & Humanities Division and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.