Ep 32. "Neurons that fire together, wire together."

Jun 26, 2024

Ever wonder WHY you get that annoying jolt of wakefulness the second your head hits the pillow? 

Or why your brain constantly monitors for sleep?

Do you feel an automatic sense of dread in the morning without knowing why?

If so, this episode is for you.

Most people view insomnia as a SLEEP problem; an unrelenting beast wreaking havoc on life.

But I see it differently...

Yes, insomnia is a problem. But it's mostly just a PATTERN.

A looping survival response running on replay.

In my latest podcast episode, I dive into conditioned responses  how they work and what they have to do with insomnia.

Tune in to learn:

  •  The simple theory behind conditioned responses
  • Our amazing ability to change these responses
  • How to avoid turning neuroplasticity into another sleep effort
  •  How a natural, belief-based approach to insomnia can set you free

Our brains are highly adaptable. So, whatever sleep patterns you have today can be changed.

Understanding insomnia from this angle transforms it from a mysterious ailment to a learned fear response that can be unlearned.

And it's not as hard as you might think. 

Join me in this fun-hearted episode where I share tales of tequila and how you can use the mind-body connection to rewire your brain for better sleep.

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Full Transcription Below:


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About Beth Kendall MA, FNTP:

For decades, Beth struggled with the relentless grip of insomnia. After finally understanding insomnia from a mind-body perspective, she changed her relationship with sleep, and completely recovered. Liberated from the constant worry of not sleeping, she’s on a mission to help others recover as well. Her transformative program Mind. Body. Sleep.™ has been a beacon of light for hundreds of others seeking solace from sleepless nights.


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Understanding Conditioned Responses in Insomnia

Hello everyone and welcome back to the podcast. If this is your first time here, I’m so glad you are. My name is Beth Kendall, I’m a holistic sleep coach for adults with insomnia. Having struggled with insomnia myself for 42 years, I developed a profound interest in the mind-body connection and how our brains develop conditioned responses. And I view insomnia through this lens, understanding it as a conditioned arousal response resulting in sleeplessness, rather than seeing it as solely a physical problem.


It's Not Just a Sleep Problem


In this episode, I hope to break down some of the mystery around conditioned responses and why they’re such a major driver of insomnia. So first I’m going to talk about the title of this podcast and where it came from, then I’m going to talk about how conditioned responses work, and lastly, I’m going to share why insomnia isn’t the death sentence you might think it is right now.  


Personal Experience with Insomnia


Like probably many of you listening to this podcast, I found it incredibly difficult to believe that insomnia was anything other than a physical problem. The depth to which my brain seemed unable to sleep like other people led me to think that what I was dealing with had to be some sort of neurological deficiency or genetic abnormality in my ability to sleep.


I had all the usual fears and worries that come from feeling like you have a unique inability to sleep—lots of concerns about sleep medications, and health consequences. I was convinced I had fatal familial insomnia, and they just hadn’t diagnosed me yet. I just had a ton of constant worries about the whole thing which created a relentless cycle of fear and frustration.


And you know, of course I had these worries and beliefs because the evidence I had to support them was pretty strong. I saw dozens of doctors, and psychiatrists, and sleep specialists. I did a couple of sleep studies and I did CBTI twice, which only made me worse, and the general consensus I was getting in all of this was that they were at a loss as to why I had such extreme trouble sleeping. And they basically had one tool to offer which was sleeping pills, which was another whole merry-go-round. Because trying to figure out all these unique ways of achieving sleep with pills and supplements was a constant chase and really just a way to manage the problem instead of actually deal with it. And I did an episode a while back called “Sleep Meds and Inner Conflict” where you can learn more about that.


And you know, there was one doctor on that whole ride that told me that what I was dealing with was anxiety but the way he said it, or the way I interpreted it was that he truly did not understand the depths of what I was dealing with. That he was sort of minimizing it and there really wasn’t any sort of explanation or empathy along with that statement, it just felt like another doctor that couldn’t help me, which was incredibly disheartening.


So, what I want to share with you today is an understanding that would have helped me in a lot of ways. Because one of the hardest things about insomnia is just the total mystery of it. It can be an up and down ride even when you do understand it. But when you don’t understand, it’s nothing shy of a complete mind-bender, so I hope this does in fact help you understand your experience just a little bit more.


Okay, so let’s talk about conditioned responses and the name of this podcast episode.


The Origins of Linking


There’s this well-known phrase in the world of neuroplasticity that was coined by the late Donald Hebb back in 1949 and it says that: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”


What he actually said  was “cells that fire together, wire together,” but somewhere along the way someone must have decided that replacing the word cells with neurons sounded a lot sexier and I have to agree.


But this catchy little phrase is sometimes also referred to as Hebb’s Law or Hebb’s rule. You might hear it referenced as Hebbian theory. And Donal Hebb was a Canadian psychiatrist who is often referred to as the “grandfather of neuropsychology” because of his ability to merge psychology with neuroscience. And none of this is important to know, I just find the origins of these ideas really fascinating.


So, neurons that fire together, wire together — what does that actually mean for insomnia? Well let’s break this down a little more.


I see insomnia primarily as a series of conditioned responses based on a fear of not sleeping. And this understanding really helped me get beyond it even though at the time, there were no programs that approached insomnia from anything other than a physical or behavioral standpoint.


Changing a behavior without first understanding why your brain is doing it in the first place can be a difficult task in my opinion, especially if you’re a left-brained kind of person which I definitely I am. A lot of times I need to understand the “why” behind something before I can pass it on over to the right side of my brain to integrate it in all magical ways that it does.


So how does Hebb’s Law apply to insomnia?


Exploring Conditioned Responses


So basically, the concept of neurons firing together and wiring together is built on associations and connections. One neuron needs to be firing at the same time another neuron is firing, at which point a pattern develops, especially if done repeatedly. So ultimately, it creates a link.


Freud had an earlier version of Hebb’s theory back in 1888 when he called it “the law of association by simultaneity,” but I guess Donald Hebb has gotten most of the credit even though Freud was saying it well before 1949.


So, an association takes place when neurons fire at the same time and this is why you might automatically crave a Coke with your popcorn, or a beer with your pizza. In the experience of insomnia, this can look like:


  • Automatically feeling wide awake the minute you go to bed
  • Feeling a sense of dread as bedtime approaches
  • Worrying about sleep throughout the day
  • Feeling compelled to hop on google after a bad night


And from an evolutionary and survival standpoint, these conditioned responses are important. If you eat something that makes you sick, your brain tags it as dangerous, so you don’t eat it again.


I don’t know about you, but I had a tequila hangover in my 30’s that was so bad, that I’ve literally never touched tequila since. If I even smell tequila, my brain automatically pulls up that nausea imprint from my 30’s, and it’s just a no-go. So that was the end of my relationship with tequila.


But all that to say that conditioned responses can protect us from repeating dangerous behaviors.


Now, let’s just say that the illness I felt during that momentous tequila hangover wasn’t solely due to tequila. What if I just happened to catch a stomach bug that day or eat something that didn’t agree with me that night? It doesn’t matter, the brain is going to put up a danger sign on tequila whether it was the tequila or not because that was the association at the time.


Let look at another example of how conditioned responses work…


Examples of Conditioned Responses


Imagine someone enjoying ice cream at an ice-cream shop when they get a phone call with some really bad news. Maybe it’s a death, or an accident or something with a lot of emotional intensity. And then, as they move forward in life, they might suddenly notice that they’re unusually sensitive to dairy. Or they’re bothered by fluorescent lights. Or they get emotional when they hear the song that was playing softly in the background of the ice-cream shop even though they didn’t consciously notice these things at the time.


These reactions are normal because all of these elements have become associated with the emotional impact of hearing that bad news.


So, it’s very much the same with insomnia which is a conditioned arousal response as a result of an emotionally charged experience with wakefulness or not sleeping.


Usually there’s an initial event that causes some sleep disruption that alters our relationship with sleep or rattles our faith in our sleep. Perhaps a link occured in childhood as it did for me. I can’t tell you how many kids in my era created a negative association with nighttime after watching the Wizard of Oz because of the flying monkeys which let’s be real, are a little scary. Or, think about the movie Jaws… I mean seriously, how many people became afraid of being in the water just from watching Jaws. Which would probably be a pretty mild movie by today’s standards.


But this is how associations are formed.


Insomnia As a Misguided Survival Pattern


I’m sharing these examples with you to illustrate that insomnia isn’t so much a sleep problem, as much as it is a misguided survival pattern.


The brain has linked wakefulness as something dangerous and thus creates hyperarousal.


And the thing about patterns is they can be changed. Every human being over the age of six has learned and unlearned patterns throughout life.


Neurons That Fire Apart, Wire Apart


So, there is a secondary principle of neuroplasticity that says: “neurons that fire apart, wire apart.” And what’s so exciting about this is that we can manually shift the gears of our own brain and change the links and associations it’s currently holding.


So let’s just say that I wanted to start drinking tequila again. This is highly unlikely because I barely drink at all anymore. But let’s just say that I did. I would have to create a new experience with tequila. I would want to get the proper education about how much my body can realistically handle, I would want to create an awareness of my thoughts and beliefs about tequila, I’d want to engage with tequila in a more helpful way. I don’t think it would take that long to change my relationship with tequila and the subsequent link that comes along with it as long as I didn’t push myself too far into tequila martini’s.


Re-Linking Insomnia


But again, this isn’t unlike our situation with insomnia. Conditioned patterns of hyperarousal can be changed by how we’re in relationship with sleep which is basically all the things I talk about in my podcast.


Now, I want to leave you with one little caveat (because I like to throw caveats into the end of my podcasts quite a lot). But where I see people get tangled up with the wonderful principle of neuroplasticity and changing the brain is that it can become another sleep effort. And a sleep effort is anything we do with the intention of producing or protecting sleep.


So the thinking goes: "If I rewire my brain, THEN I can have sleep."


Rewiring as a Byproduct of Change


But here’s the thing, you guys… you don’t need to do anything to have sleep. It’s the belief that you need to do anything to have sleep that keeps us in the struggle. And it’s from that understanding and working with that belief, that the conditioned pattern known as hyperarousal starts to come down. It comes as a byproduct of how we’re thinking, believing and perceiving our relationship with sleep rather than through direct effort alone. Links and association unwire organically as a consequence of changing our relationship with sleep.


This is super important to understand.


So, I hope that makes sense. If this podcast has been helpful, please do take a moment to hit the five stars on your favorite pocast platform. That allows me to keep making content talking about all the things that I love.


Have a wonderful weekend everyone and thanks for joining me. I’m Beth Kendall and you’ve been listening to the Mind. Body. Sleep. podcast, I’ll see you next time…

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