Do Those Meditation Apps & Videos Actually Hypnotise You Into Falling Asleep?

Photographed by Rochelle Brock.
If you're someone with insomnia, you know that there's a point each night when you get really desperate and turn to your last-ditch effort to fall asleep. For me, that point is when I check the clock and start doing calculations about how many hours of sleep I'm going to get before I have to wake up. That's usually when I fire up my meditation app, Meditation Studio, and cycle through a handful of the 19 recorded meditations that are specifically for sleep.
Recently, I tried a 7-minute mindfulness recording called "Let Go Of Muscle Tension." "Let your arms become heavy and relaxed, heavier and heavier, more and more deeply relaxed," the soft voice cooed in an almost ASMR-like tone. That phrase — "more and more deeply relaxed" — was repeated over and over in the recording, and sure enough, it lulled me fast asleep. I can only describe the sensation as "hypnotic," which got me thinking: Was I just hypnotised into a sunken place, or is this just what falling asleep is supposed to feel like?
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A quick Google search had me convinced that I was, in fact, hypnotised. According to the National Sleep Foundation, hypnosis can help people with insomnia relax their body and mind before sleep. But hypnotism doesn't always involve a clinking teacup (like in the movie Get Out) or a swinging watch — it can simply be caused by listening to specific verbal cues that draw you into a trance-like state or make you fall asleep completely. One 2014 study found that hypnosis increased people's time in deep-wave sleep by 80%, which sounds pretty promising, even though that's just one study. Another 2015 study found that hypnosis could be used to treat sleep disorders because it's so relaxing. And people can learn to hypnotise themselves, according to the American Psychological Association. Indeed, there millions of YouTube videos with recorded sleep hypnosis tracks for people to use on their own.
So, I decided to get to the bottom of this and speak with the person who recorded the particular meditation that I used, Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioural sleep medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center. (And trust me, getting to pick the brain of the voice I meditate to was akin to meeting a rock star.) Turns out, I was wrong about hypnosis and meditation, because they are completely different things, as Dr. Harris wrote in an email. The mindfulness exercise that I listened to was not hypnosis at all. "In the field of medicine, sleep hypnosis doesn't exist," she wrote.
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Many people who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep have 'noisier brains' than people without sleep issues.

First thing's first, the mindfulness exercises on the app (and apps like this one), aren't meant to induce sleep, they're just meant to "quiet the brain and set the stage for sleep," Dr. Harris says. "You can't force sleepiness on someone (aside from taking medications!) — all we can do is set the stage for sleep, and our body will sleep when it wants to or needs to," she wrote. Many people who have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep have "noisier brains" than people without sleep issues, according to Dr. Harris. For example, you might be worrying about things you have to do, ruminating about something weird you said during the day, or just questioning the meaning of life (it me). Mindfulness can quiet those thoughts, or "refocus your attention on some deep breathing or relaxing your body while going to sleep, instead of thinking about all the things you have tomorrow and how you'll feel if you don't sleep," Dr. Harris wrote.
As for the repetitive phrases used in meditation apps and YouTube videos? They're just there to help you focus on the exercise and relax your body and mind, according to Dr. Harris. "There's really no rhyme or reason to it," she wrote. Anything from washing the dishes or going for a walk outside can be considered a "mindfulness" exercise. The point of "mindfulness" is just to help you get better at recognising that your mind is wandering off, then bringing it back to the present moment or exercise at hand, according to Dr. Harris. And many people use a recorded mindfulness exercise, in which someone talks about being relaxed or calm, to do so.
If you are having trouble sleeping, talk to your doctor, and they might be able to recommend some approaches that might work for you, like mindfulness exercises or hypnosis. In my case, I'm going to keep on doing my mindfulness exercises on the app (and perhaps attempt to get a grip on my stress). While I wasn't actually "hypnotised" by the recording in question, it did help me achieve a zen, euphoric, restful state that lasted hours — a.k.a. "sleep."
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