My TEDx Talk: ‘Attention! This is Why You Can’t Sleep’

by | Feb 3, 2017 | News

My TEDx Talk: ‘Attention! This is Why You Can’t Sleep’

by | Feb 3, 2017 | News

Last year I ticked something HUGE off my bucket list… I delivered a TEDx talk! The talk was just released on the TEDxTalks YouTube channel, which has over 6 million subscribers!

In the talk, I draw on my PhD research in Cognitive Psychology to answer the age-old question: ‘Why Can’t I Sleep?’

I talk about the science of sleep from 3:00 minutes, and provide you with a few tips to improve sleep from 9:00 minutes.

If you would like to get in touch with me about speaking at your next event on sleep, mental health, or psychology, please use the contact page here.

Enjoy watching the talk!

TEDx Talk Script

In today’s busy world, a lack of sleep is worn as a badge of honour. Pulling an all-nighter is a testament to our selfless sacrifice to work and 13-hour days simply show that we’re dedicated to success.

But this is not the narrative we should be glorifying.

Sleep is a basic and necessary process that demands to be satisfied as much as our need for food and drink. Yet, on any night, up to 40% of us have insufficient sleep. Even minor sleep disturbances increase our risk for heart disease, depression, and early death. Despite decades of science telling us that sleep is the foundation from which all else flows – health, sanity, creativity, and performance – sleep is not getting the attention it deserves.

This is where my PhD research comes in. For the past 5 years, I’ve been exploring how attention to negativity affects our sleep, and the benefits of a new approach to improving sleep. Today, I’ll be sharing with you what we’ve found and what it means for you.

I’ve always been a self-confessed sleep enthusiast: I love sleep. As a child, my parents never had to worry – By age 4 I’d put myself to bed, drift off into a deep slumber, and wake up raring to go. My teenage years were much the same. That was, until one day, I arrived at work for the morning shift only to realise that I’d already run out of energy. This happened time and time again. I went to the doctor but all the tests said I was fine. It wasn’t fine though – I was still so tired, like a battery constantly running on low. Frustrated, we visited the doctor again. This time we talked about how I felt. I was stressed, constantly on edge with a hair-trigger temper, and my usual bright personality was replaced by a dull flatness. I was also staying awake for hours at night worrying about the day ahead.

The doctor told me that lack of sleep was affecting every single aspect of my life, causing severe depression.

With support, my sleep gradually returned to normal. I felt better than ever, but I was desperate to avoid slipping back to where I was before. I knew I needed to understand why poor sleep happens and find solutions.

While there are many biological causes of poor sleep, sometimes the biggest causes are psychological processes outside our awareness. Each day, we are bombarded by thousands of pieces of information that compete for attention, but our brains do not have the resources to attend to everything. One type of information the brain is particularly hardwired to attend to is negative information – a phenomenon called ‘attentional bias to negativity’. In our cave-man times, being alert for negativity helped keep us safe from predators. Today, paying attention to what could go wrong in an upcoming exam can give us the push needed to study that little bit extra. However, attentional bias to negativity can work against us by producing overwhelming worry, which my research shows is especially unhelpful in the moments just before we want to sleep.

To demonstrate how this works I need you to think about a big event in your future – a deadline, interview…or a big high-pressure public talk. It’s the night before and you’re in bed. Some of you will be asleep in just under the time it takes to boil an egg. Others just won’t be able to wind-down. Instead, you’ll lie awake in bed while your brain reminds you of all the ways you’re going to mess up tomorrow. The next day, you’re a bit groggy but, thankfully, there’s no major problems. Now that the big event is over, most people who found it difficult to wind-down the night before will go straight back into their normal sleep routine, but… about 2 in 10 won’t. These people will find that their attention is still captured by negativity, so they lie in bed worrying about anything and everything. Over time, what they pay attention to will shift to worry specifically about sleep.

This is what happened to one person in my research, Paul. Paul was putting in long hours at work to meet a deadline and not getting much sleep in the process. He met the deadline and felt more relaxed but his sleep didn’t return to normal. Paul said to me, ‘I’ve tried everything but I just can’t sleep – other people make it sound so easy, why me?’ While Paul may have believed that his focus on sleep was helpful, it likely had the exact opposite effect – creating more stress and a vicious cycle of sleeplessness.

I’ve conducted research with hundreds of people just like Paul, investigating the potential benefits of a new approach that seeks to disrupt the cycle of sleeplessness before it starts. This approach is called attentional bias modification. Unlike traditional talking therapies, attentional bias modification doesn’t require any conscious alteration of thinking and behaviour. Instead, it involves shifting our attention away from negativity through simple computer tasks you can do in your own home.

It works like this: two words flash up on a screen – one that is negative like the word ‘fatigue’ and one that is neutral like the word ‘chair’. A split-second later the words disappear and two dots appear in the location of the neutral word. The person responds as to whether the two dots are horizontal or vertical. Over several hundred trials, the eyes are directed towards the location of the neutral word and snapped away from the negative word, which conditions the brain to pay less attention to negativity.

I wanted to know, could modifying what people pay attention to just before bed improve their sleep?

In our first study, we asked university students to complete the attentional bias modification task before bed and a sleep diary for 6 days. What people didn’t know was that on every second night, instead of completing the training task, they completed a task that did not train attention. We found that completing the training task before bed lessened worry and helped them to fall asleep up to 30 minutes faster, compared to those nights when they did not complete the task. This outcome far exceeded our expectations, so we conducted the same study again to see whether this was just a fluke. Once again, we found that people who completed the training task said they had less worry and fell asleep faster. These results suggest that modifying our bias to negativity reduces the worry that keeps us up at night and helps us achieve much-needed rest.

My vision is of a world where the opportunity for good sleep is available to everyone. Our research represents a first step towards achieving this – paving the way for a novel intervention for poor sleep that gets results within only a few minutes. For now, you can apply the same principles of the attentional bias modification approach to your own life in a few ways:

1. First, avoid looking at e-mails or social media at night if you find it stressful
2. Second, create a night-time ritual that relaxes you – like listening to calming music.
3. And third, when you’re in bed, don’t be tempted to look at the alarm clock and count down the hours until you have to get up.

The aim is to engage in any behaviour that reduces your attention to negative information and worry.

In today’s busy world, we need more than ever to think of poor sleep not as a badge of honour, but as a profound lack of priorities. I know that if I did not put sleep front-and-centre when I lived with depression, I would not be able to do the things that make me happy and healthy today.

Sleep is amazing, and I’m proud to call myself a sleep enthusiast.


Studies Mentioned in this TEDx Talk:


  1. B Milkins, L Notebaert, C MacLeod, PJF Clarke. (2016) The potential benefits of targeted attentional bias modification on cognitive arousal and sleep quality in worry-related sleep disturbance. Clinical Psychological Science, 4(6), 1015-1027.
  2. PJF Clarke, K Bedford, L Notebaert, RS Bucks, D Rudaizky, B Milkins, MacLeod C. (2016). Assessing the therapeutic potential of targeted attentional bias modification for insomnia using smartphone delivery. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 85(3), 187-189.