The Dangers of Digital Stupor


According to a report on BBC News today: “Researchers at Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital believe there may be evidence that lullabies can help sick children by reducing pain and improving their well-being.” (You can read a report of the research here).

“They sang the songs to a group of children under three, some of whom were waiting for heart transplants, and monitored their heart rates and pain perception. The scientists then compared this with two other groups, one in which the children had been read to and the other where they had been left alone, and found only those who had been sung to showed a reduction in pain or heart rate.”

It is only an indicative study but it offers a few interesting insights for digital workers and players, especially if the results are transferable to the child in all of us.

I find it particularly interesting that the state of calm and “settled” feeling induced by a lullaby is fundamentally different from reading a book, playing a game, or catching up on a few emails or social media updates.

A lot of people justify their bedtime digital activity as a means of relaxation. A relaxing Sudoku or a few rounds of Angry Birds, an episode of Friends or a chapter from a Stephen King Horror. We let go of the day by activity of one kind or another.

We’re on dangerous territory here because attempts to suggest what might or might not be good or bad for you are often met with irritation and even angry “mind your own business!”. Yet this research points to benefits to our health from allowing music to do the work of helping us to let do of the cares of the day.

Letting go. That is an act of surrender. In this case we surrender to rest. We allow the processes of recovery and mending to occur, and they occur better when our usual mental and physical activity stops for some hours. The heart rate finds a calmer level, and even our attention on our pain can ease and we can settle into a restoring night’s sleep.

Music does it. It helps us to let go. Calming lullabies, music where melody has the repetition of gentle rocking, can ease us into the vital rest state. A book may also relax us, but it also fills us with more content and this can invade the emptier space we need to allow dream content to work its mysteries and for physiological processes aimed at restoration to take their course. Five minutes of calm before sleep, sinking into the relaxed state, music that has a lilting quality to it, music that mirrors easier breathing, the rhythm of the rocking chair or the cradle, these can all allow the content of the day to settle, for the curtains to close on our busy performance of the day, and for wellness to seek us out through sleep.

Digital activity, no matter how relaxing, is unlikely to calm us in the way that music can. Certainly there’s plenty of repetition in gaming, and even in social media interacting. But we are active. We create the threads, follow the threads, and respond to the threads of content. We add more content to our already tall pile of thoughts and impulses needing to be processed and resolved through restorative sleep. The repetitive processes of digital interaction can give us a certain physical and mental calm, but they are often more likely to induce a kind of parody of the rest state induced by quieting music. This is the state of “stupor”. Many people wake up in the morning with the laptop still warm on their lap or the smart phone in their hand, perhaps no different from the empty vodka bottle that sent the alcoholic into a state of unconsciousness.

Music can help us change our flow state from awake to gently letting go of the day, into restful sleep. It can relax both body and mind in the evidence from the health care of children seems to support this. Digital processes at bed time may also do that for some people. Yet for many, it tends to offer us stupor, rather than the more subtle relief our body and mind needs. Digital stupor is when we pitch into sleep having exhausted ourselves, and through digital content overload. It is similar to when the book falls from our fingers and our head flops forward, cricking our neck, and we dribble our way into the night.

Now this might sound a bit like an attempt to spoil your night time gaming. But it needn’t be that. If you consciously decide to “Place” some digital activity at night, then it need not be the nightly habit, especially if you are finding your sleep feels disturbed. You might decide to “flow” digitally late into the night. When you have finished, settle into bed and calm your way towards sleep with some gentle breathing, some calming music and don’t digitally tap, tap, tap until the last possible moment.

I’m not suggesting you need this ritual every single night (though some might). You might wish to carry certain thoughts and impulses over into your sleep. However, the research at Great Ormond Street offers some useful pointers to those nights when we feel stressed, or when we are in physical pain. Parents have known through their own common sense gained over millennia about the power of the lullaby. It serves as a useful reminder to those who imbibe the digital until their eyes droop, that such things are allies to our day time activities, not rivals. Music can enhance your sleep, and that’s an investment in waking more refreshed and able to work better the following day. But it might also improve the health or your heart and do a better job than a couple of Ibuprofen. And that might also become of measurable interest to leaders and employers, for we might just find that quality of work, absence through sickness and late arrivers all show better markers as well.

Experiment with it. If you have back pain or a headache, try to create half an hour before sleep to “slide” into dreamland – breathe in the night air a few times through an open window, settle into bed, and let a music box play you to sleep. That music box could literally be playing you a lullaby or it might be some calming music. The danger of the radio is that the adverts and news soon defeats the whole process. The danger of digitally delivered music is that it is just more digital content. So, I know it might sound crazy, but hum a little lullaby to yourself, or sing with your partner, or yes, buy a music box. So, what kind of music? Well, it will be different for different people. The generic quality of the timeless lullaby is simple melody, nothing to engaging for the ego to actively grab hold of. Repetition is the music is like the gentle waves on the sea, or rocking to and fro. The music is better for being acoustic, free of a drum beat, and a sound that “eases” rather than engages.

Listen you intranet managers, you digital coders, pay attention, you night-time gamers…

The sea is rising, falling on the spray

The river to the sea does wend its way

Sleep now soft and sure, sleep now


Into the river comes the stream to sing

Before the winding stream there is the spring

Sleep now soft and sure, sleep now


It bubbles gently from the mountain gray

Like notes upon the water’s gentle play

Sleep now soft and sure, sleep now


And flowing like a lullaby to sleep

Its pebbles, sands and crystals in the deep

Sleep now soft and sure, sleep now

About Paul Levy

Paul is a writer, thinker, facilitator, theatre-maker, and conversifier. He is the author of the book, Digital Inferno.

Posted on October 29, 2013, in Key themes. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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