Media Responses to the Cognitive Shuffle: Much Ado about a Research Programme

My R&D on sleep onset and insomnia (including the cognitive shuffle / serial diverse imagining) has received several waves of media attention.  The last one started c. 10 days ago with the May edition of O Magazine (the print edition of Oprah), and then went crazy from there. Last week, I accepted over 20 interview invitations from TV stations, radio stations, web sites, and a magazine who were curious about this topic.

I’m often asked why the cognitive shuffle has gotten so much attention. That’s an empirical question in itself. I’m sure it’s partly a positive feedback loop —press about or in response to press,  “meta-media”. Of course, journalists know that people are sleep-challenged. But I think there is more to it than that. There are 100+ apps out there that deal with sleep, variants on a handful of techniques (music, meditations, beats, white noise, etc.).

It seems to me that many of the journalists covering the cognitive shuffle understand that I am not merely proposing a new “mind hack”.  For example, David DiSalvo walked walked by the poster at the SLEEP-2016 conference where I was presenting results of a study led by Prof. Nancy Digdon, Kelly O’Neill and Geoffrey Ranchor. I excitedly explained the theory behind the technique. He clearly understood my reasoning, which seemed to resonate with him. He left, remarking “I’ll follow up on that”. I had assumed he was a fellow researcher. But then he told me he was a science writer, without telling me who he is was with. Soon after that, he published an article covering our research in Forbes Magazine.

When I explain my research to journalists they always seem to be genuinely interested in it. To be sure, sometimes it’s because they themselves have sleep issues. But often they also seem interested in the underlying mechanism. And that is what got me hooked into cognitive psychology as an undergraduate: when I learned that the discipline sheds light on the very fine-grained mechanisms of the human mind. As an undergraduate, I realized that by deeply understanding information-processing mechanisms, we can develop techniques to manipulate them to our advantage. (In the conclusion of my 1994 Ph.D. thesis, for instance, I alluded to applications of the theory I described to the problem of obsessive-compulsive disorder and to emotions.)

The cognitive shuffle is more than a simple hack. For one thing, the cognitive shuffle is a class of techniques of which Serial Diverse Imagining is a member. And  Serial Diverse Imagining itself is a class (there are variants). The entire set of techniques, although quite simple, is based on a theory that’s rather involved.

CogZest initially did a private pilot test, which was very promising. It was followed by a study at MacEwan University (2015-2016). This was followed by a further study at MacEwan (2016-2017) , the results of which are not yet available. At the Université de Montréal, Professor Julie Carrier, Dr. Sheryl Gulloy, Zineb Selham and I are also conducting a study, comparing the cognitive shuffle with another technique. (Incidentally, that study was a long time in the making. Only preliminary results are available).

There are many, many apps marked to help people fall asleep. But CogSci Apps seems to be the only such app developer that is proposing new techniques based on cognitive science and actively engaged in empirically testing them. There are also several apps to quantify your sleep (update 2017-05-11: Apple just purchased a company in this space.) But there is no research to suggest detailed monitoring sleep patterns (with or without technology) will actually  improve sleep onset latency. If anything, research suggests the contrary, which is why mySleepButton only provides basic analytic support. Moreover, I do not believe in logical induction. I believe that mySelfQuantifier is a better option for self-quantification, as I argued at length earlier.

But these are still early days. It will take a long time for scientists to tease out all the implications of the theory, particularly given the number of information processing interactions it posits. Moreover, I’ve further developed the theory and technique since the original paper in 2013. mySleepButton will soon be improved accordingly. At least we expect the changes, which are based on psychological research that has to my knowledge never even remotely been applied to sleep onset and insomnia, to be significant improvements.

(You’ll notice that much of what I do with sleep onset and self-directed learning R&D is to apply research that has not been previously applied to the problems, at least in the ways that I am applying them. Obviously, that has risks; but the potential payoffs are huge.)

Furthermore, two colleagues and I are working on a new paper for  peer-reviewed journals that describes the theory itself. I want to publish this theory independently of the data for methodological reasons. (First, I have from my undergraduate days believed, with Karl Popper, that data do not support theories. Also, as Sylwia Hyniewska, Eva Hudlicka and I alluded to in a recent paper on perturbance, we believe that a proper response to the replication crisis in psychology is to publish information processing theories from a designer-based perspective aside from new data. This has many benefits, one of which is to remove the conflict of interest between the theoretician and experimentalist. That’s also partly why data collection and analysis in my R&D is done by a Principal Investigator rather than me; I’m their collaborator. )

Moreover, my colleagues and I at several universities are planning new empirical research on various aspects of sleep onset and insomnia. (This will call for grants. Thus far, my research has been self-funded. If you’ve got deep pockets and have insomnia. Get in touch, we [our research] can use some help too! We will soon do grant applications for this.)

More generally what I have proposed with respect to sleep onset and insomnia is not just a theory but a (potentially) progressive research programme. (That’s a concept developed by Imre Lakatos; cf. his The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes and applied to cognitive science by my colleague, Rick Cooper 2007 in “On the role of falsification in the development of cognitive architectures”.) What I mean is as follows. The theory involves a new approach and new concepts. The theory is sufficiently general to be improved as new data are discovered. It raises new questions that could not previously be asked (or if they had been asked they would not have had a theoretical rationale.)  For example: just how much diversity is required for the Serial Diverse Imagining principle to hold? When and to what extent is deliberate globally-incoherent mentation effective at reducing sleep onset latency? How does the brain compute mental coherence? What are the potential forms of diversity? There are of course manifold forms of imagining. How can and should these various forms be personalized based on the participant’s personality, state, meta-cognitive capacity, concerns, and situational variables? Etc.

The theory of sleep-onset and insomnia I am proposing makes use of the concept of perturbance , which I mentioned above. At AISB-2017 in Bath, England last month, my co-author and I lamented that the concept of perturbance has not yet taken off in psychology, and we made a case for this idea, which is one of Aaron Sloman’s ‘sleeping beauties‘. We also tried to explain why this powerful concept has not yet taken off. One of the reasons is that while the Cognition & Affect project that developed the concept worked with psychologists (including the late great Professor Glyn Humphreys, who was my Ph.D. thesis co-supervisor) and presented the ideas at conferences attended by empirical affective research scientists, we never hired psychologists to run studies on the concept. We should have and should still. This is one of the reasons why I am collaborating with Dr. Sylwia Hyniewska, an  empirical psychologist who specializes in affect. She, Dr. Hudlicka and I now have a couple of journal articles in the works on the topic; and we will apply for grants to research its application.

Back to the eponymous issue of media responses to my work: I was delighted to discover that the term perturbance was used in the press today by  in her article in Chatelaine Magazine: “Can’t sleep? Here’s a new technique that might help”. She also tried to define it. Bully for Chatelaine magazine for being the first to use this word in the popular media (25 years after I first introduced it)! (I don’t think CogZest qualifies yet as ‘popular media’!) I would suggest that there is a lot more to be said about the concept of perturbance. (The term is mine, but the concept was originally proposed by Aaron Sloman and Monica Croucher in 1981. Sloman and I extended the original specification of his emotion concept to include “meta-management”, or reflective, processes.)

I would also like to congratulate Lila MacLellan of Quartz (New York). We have had a ton of great coverage in the last few years by great writers. But her article, “KNOCKED OUT“, knocked it out of the ballpark: a very entertaining, informative and imagery rich read. I’ve since read several of her articles, all interesting and well written. I’m now following her on social media.

And that brings me back to what CogZest is mainly about, which is to understand the workings of beautiful minds, and to develop new science-based tools to support them.


Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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