Intelligence Levels in Insomnia Patients

At the forum, a question was raised about my frequent comments in my book, Sound Sleep, Sound Mind, about higher intelligence levels among insomnia patients. The following is the post I wrote on that issue:

Human Intelligence

Human intelligence, as everyone knows, is a complex dimension to measure, and I am no expert in measuring it. However, as a sleep doc, I’ve formed some fairly clear perceptions about patients with insomnia, who I believe often ‘suffer’ from a higher than average level of ‘intellectual’ intelligence, for lack of a better term.

TFI System

This insight emerged in my own thinking once I realized that most human behavior is coupled to a fairly prominent system of consciousness called the TFI System. (T = Thoughts; F = Feelings; and I = Images.) I write extensively about this system in my book, Sound Sleep, Sound Mind, because the balance within any individual’s TFI system predicts who is most likely to suffer insomnia, who is most likely to have difficulty adjusting to PAP therapy, and who has the capacity to engage in sufficient, self-generated cognitive restructuring (‘changing your mind’) to overcome or adapt to either of these difficulties (insomnia or PAP issues).

To simplify, before you eat, you THINK about the need or desire for food, FEEL hungry for food, or PICTURE (IMAGE) in your mind’s eye the sumptuous Caesar salad you crave. Each of these three activities represents the unique and overlapping components of the TFI System. If you spend time ‘observing yourself’ throughout the day, you will notice you spend at least some time with each component preceding, during or after various behaviors.

In unusually well-adjusted individuals, great awareness of all 3 components is the norm, leading to a balanced system in which the individual freely moves through all components at any given time as needed to adapt to and interact with their environment and the people in it. Having said that, you can no doubt imagine a hundred interpretations of what a ‘balanced system’ entails or feels like. Without wishing to be cryptic, however, let me just say that tasting the experience of a balanced TFI System is a much easier way to know it than someone trying to explain it to you.

Lacking Balance in the TFI System

It’s much easier to explain the opposite’a lack of balance, in which one component of the system tends to predominate or one component tends to be relatively absent. Most of us learn to keep our TFI systems out of balance, and we usually adopt this jaded system some time in childhood or adolescence. As the most classic and relevant example to our discussion, many insomniacs show a high intellect that arguably developed out of a desire (usually unplanned) to adopt an imbalanced system dominated by thoughts and lacking in emotion, which turns out to be a perfect setup for insomnia.

Let’s assume you are a smart person, and your intelligence is obvious to those around you as early as childhood. More importantly, let’s suppose you begin to notice in school or elsewhere that your mind is sharper or quicker than many others at certain intellectual tasks: solving math problems, remembering grammar rules, knowing more words, how to spell them and what they mean and so on. In a short time, you would receive a great deal of reinforcement (grades, praise, requests for advice/answers, etc.) buttressing the belief that your ‘thinking capacity’ is more advanced than others. Very soon, you will turn repeatedly to your powers of intellect to solve the problems you face. So far so good; this example describes a fair number of people who end up with graduate degrees in engineering, physics, medicine, other sciences and so on. In these individuals, ‘Thoughts’ are the predominant component of the TFI system and up to a point have served them well in society.

The question or problem arises at some point as to what happens to the other two components of the system: Feelings and Images. The answer for a lot of individuals is the person grows far too comfortable solving life’s problems with thoughts and conversely grows more uncomfortable attempting to manage emotions or mental imagery. Why so? Because the latter two components of the TFI system seem or feel chaotic; whereas, thoughts seem more controllable.

Over time, some individuals who go down the intellectual path will see a decay in their innate capacity to work effectively with feelings and mental imagery. In the single most classic example of this phenomenon, individuals no longer readily access their own emotions in direct fashion. Instead of ‘feeling their feelings,’ they ‘think about their feelings.’ If you describe this distinction to someone with a healthy and balanced TFI system, they immediately and fully understand the difference. If you make this point to an insomniac, they often need much more explanation (still more intellectual discussion) just to come close to understanding the distinction between ‘thinking about vs. feeling an emotion.’

Insomnia and the TFI System

And, therein lies the basis of my observations and theories. In my clinical and personal experience, people with balanced TFI systems rarely have trouble closing out the day at bedtime. Because they’ve spent much of the day processing a wide array of thoughts, feelings, and images, they fall asleep faster than you can say ‘lights out.’ But, for the individual with too much reliance on intellect, the lack of balance throughout the day means that emotional or imaginative residue probably lingers at bedtime and prevents the necessary closure that leads to the Land of Nod. In fact, among the majority of insomniacs, the single most common complaint is ‘I cannot turn off my mind,’ which means racing thoughts or other ruminations actively fuel the mind with too much alertness to permit sleep.

Returning now to the balance concept, the intellectually inclined individual has spent far too much time in life developing their ‘thinking smarts’ but now they pay for it with insomnia. Why would too much thinking lead to insomnia? Because thinking represents a very active component of consciousness within the TFI System, whereas feelings and imagery represent more receptive components.

When you fall asleep, can you guess which components are closer to the final point of wakefulness where sleep onset begins? The answer appears to be feelings as in feelings of comfort and sleepiness, followed by mental imagery as in little dreamlets that flash across your mental landscape just as you fall asleep.

In other words, active thinking is antithetical to sleep; but if you spend more of your day in the world of thought, there is no easy way to turn off the spigot of thoughts at bedtime. In my book, I describe at length how excess thinking in most insomniacs has actually become a ‘defense’ mechanism, which individuals use to avoid feelings and imagery. But, as I’ve just pointed out above, sleep does not follow from an active and ruminating mind; it follows from a receptive mind based on comfortable feelings and dreamy images.

Summing Up

Most insomniacs I’ve treated have a marked imbalance of the TFI System. The thinking system is so powerful it blocks most feelings and some images throughout the day. Eventually, it prevents the individual from fully processing the day’s experiences, because the system directs the person to think and self-talk about the day without processing deeper emotions or clearer images about the actual experiences during the day.

Finally, SDB patients with similar or other imbalances of the TFI System tend to have greater difficulty adjusting to PAP therapy, because the imbalance makes their personality somewhat more rigid. Their ability to ‘change their minds’ and adapt to the foreign nature of PAP therapy is less than it could be if their minds were more balanced.

In sum, in a large proportion of insomnia patients and some proportion of poorly adapting PAP therapy patients, I routinely see this highly intellectualized intellect, which in fact frequently correlates with a higher IQ. In my opinion, these patients ‘suffer’ a great deal from this lack of balance as they try to solve their sleep problems.

8 Responses to “Intelligence Levels in Insomnia Patients”

  • Insomniac:

    Very interesting theory. As i’ve always thought – our minds are so active that they just don’t let us fall asleep. We focus so much on our minds that we can’t let other things flow. By the way, if you read this – I think there is also a connection between Insomnia and ADD(Attention Deficit Disorder), because an individual that suffers for ADD is more likely to introvert his thinking, and have difficulties to observe his surroundings. This is why i think it’s related to Insomnia, because the individual is so introverted that he can’t pay attention to his sourroundings, in our case – falling asleep.
    Again, I highly appreciate your theory and i find it extremely interesting. thanks.

  • Nicki:

    I agree somewhat with your theory but I am interested if you see this phenomenon with children (toddlers especially)?
    Thank you

  • devin avery:

    ive had insomnia since i can remember. i have had night were i would sit in bed a stare. wanting to cry and wanting it to just be normal. right now it is 1:34am my time. i have been laying in bed since 9pm on a day that i woke up at 5am for work just like everyday. i couldnt sleep so i turned on my laptop. i googled insomnia looking for anything to help. i found this page. as i continued to read on every word you said applied to me and my life. it was as if you were reading my mind. it was the first time that i felt someone knew my problem.

  • Renorack:

    Im 13, pretty much everything you’ve brought up in this ‘observation’ shall I say, apply to me as an individual.

    I smiled when I read Devin Avery’s comment. Mainly because its 1:29 over here and i googled: does insomnia have anything to do with intelligence? and it came up with this page. I googled that because as I was lying in bed, my trail of thought floated off from being upset about the insomnia, to what the possible causes may be.

    One thing though, I’ve found that I only mainly block off emotional input/processing, but im fine with thinking and mental imagery. See? I’ve gone off topic, damnit.

    Brilliant thereoy, it makes me more ‘happy’ with the choice of thought over sleep.. kindof.

  • Kristina:

    This is my 2 year old toddler to a tee. He never can fall asleep because you can just see that his mind is racing. Have you done any research with toddlers? He is extremely intelligent–saying 10 word sentences by age 22 months, etc.

  • David:

    I disagree with your theory doc.

    first of all, how did you test this or did you just formed opinions through observations ? I have insomnia myself and from what you described, I’m completely different. One cause for the higher intelligence could be the mind compensating for the lack of sleep, higher ability in one area and lower in another, such as lower memory. This higher mental ability does not have to be from neglect of the other stuff such as feelings and imagery. My mind is not racing at all when I lay down at night. This compensation is not enough to out weigh the cons and in the long run, you’re doing yourself harm. If you ask your patients what caused their troubled sleeping, my guess is it will most likely be because they disrupted their normal sleep routine. I myself in my late teen years, stayed up late and didn’t take care of myself. That’s how I developed insomnia and although it’s getting better, I must be more discipline and keep a better routine with repetition. Its very unlikely that someone developed insomnia out of thin air from focusing intellectually and neglecting feelings etc. If this was the case, most geniuses would be insomniacs which I don’t believe so. The doctors, professors, and all other individuals with high intelligence would be insomniacs according to you doctor. That would mean they’re not functioning properly because that’s what insomnia is, when your lack of sleep affects your ability to function properly.

  • Dreamscape:

    I have to say i disagree with david. I think that david’s perception is represented by the idea that Insomnia is when you are awake all night but can sleep later in the day. To me his case has more to do with his sleep schedule than insomnia that a person stays awake for days and can’t possibly, no matter how much they try, fall asleep. That then leads to less functionality in their life. But as far as your opinion doctor, i agree %100. I have always thought in life, that your mind can control whatever your body does, in some way. Even if it takes a routine to do so, if you tell yourself to think “im going to get sleep and get my routine in check” it could happen. I am not saying that every insomniac has insomnia due to their routine, but As an example, the more I tell myself something in my head, the more conscious of that idea I seem to be so I don’t know if it would help others, but i do know it helps me once in a while but I also have a very hard time getting motivated to remind myself of this. This could just be an illusion i am placing on myself but whenever i have my mind set on something, As an average outcome result, it happens. This has worked on most things for me throughout the day, high school Diploma, A place to live, and a way to provide myself food on a somewhat regular basis. It hasn’t worked for sleep yet but I, like Devin and Renorak, also went on google. I searched for “insomnia and IQ” and this was the second link. Do you think your theory could work in a reverse role as well? Like If someone were to somehow stop their mind from focusing on thinking just with thoughts and could manage to balance out their thought process on their own if they could, in a sense, cure themselves of their insomnia issue?

  • Alisson:

    I’m 17 and I feel much better now that I know I’m not the only one. It’s 1:24 a.m. now and I was lying in bed trying to sleep and wondering what would be the causes of this insomnia, then I went to my computer and googled “Insomnia and IQ” just like ‘Dreamscape’ did. Well, I can say this doctor described exactly what’s happening to me.
    I feel like I cannot turn off my mind, just like he said. And I get this feeling of wasting my time as I try effortlessly to sleep.
    Though it sort of feels good choosing intellect over sleep.

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Dr. Barry Krakow
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