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My TTS sleep hack: a hi-tech cure for insomnia

For as long as I can remember myself I've had trouble falling asleep. I think there might be a genetic component to it because there seems to be a history of insomnia on my mother's side of the family. If you've never had this problem, consider yourself lucky. Even mild insomnia can royally screw with your quality of life. Actually I think that's an understatement considering the incompatibility insomnia can induce with the normal rhythms of society. Insomnia can royally screw your life.

Especially if like me you don't tolerate sleep deficits very well. Some of my friends seem fine getting 4-5 hours of sleep on a week night, racking up a mild sleep deficit they make up for over the weekend. Not me. I doesn't take a lot of sleep deprivation to turn me into a zombie. A shell of my usual well-rested self. Physically slow, tired, poorly motivated, somewhat stupid (and haunted by an insatiable hunger for BRaaiins...)

Cruelly enough, my insomnia seems to be self aware and often downright malicious. The more I want to sleep, the more I need it (e.g., early meeting next day) the more difficult sleeping becomes. It's a vicious self re-inforcing feedback loop.

I'm not taking this lying down!

Over the years I've tried various interventions, with varying levels of success. Supplements such as Melatonin and Valerian root. Meditation. Polyphasic sleep patterns. An alarm application on my smartphone that uses the acceleration sensor to track my sleep cycles and figure out when would be the best time to wake me up within a specified time window.

Back in my mandatory military service days I was even sent to one of those sleep laboratories where they hook you up to a surprisingly uncomfortable array of scientific-looking instruments and monitor what happens when you try to fall asleep cocooned by a tangle of restricting wires in a strange hospital bed. That was fun.

Interestingly enough one the most effective countermeasures was to stop fighting evolution and go all natural. Go to sleep early. Avoid bright artificial lighting before bedtime. Rise with the dawn, letting natural sunlight keep my circadian clock in sync. Unfortunately, I'm a bit of night owl and find myself most productive working when normal people in my timezone are fast asleep. It's an old habit I'm not ready to give up yet.

Lucky for me a few months ago I stumbled upon the first full proof solution I've found to my sleeping woes.

Text to speech: the best thing since sliced bread

These days I do most of my reading on my phone using Moonreader+ in combination with the Ivona text-to-speech engine. The British Amy voice is my favorite. But my love affair with text to speech began a few years ago with the Kindle 3 (later renamed the Kindle Keyboard). Sadly, this was the last version of the eInk Kindles with Text to Speech as Amazon have inexplicably discontinued my favorite feature.

When I first got it, the first thing I was excited about was the novelty of the eInk display. Also, I had already heard that it was running Linux inside, and was enthusiastic about hacking into the little device.

It took me a while to figure out that was what really revolutionary about the Kindle was how I could use its text to speech engine to read books to me reading while I was doing various mindless chores (e.g., laundry, cooking, cleaning). Suddenly I had a lot more time for "reading". At first, "reading" this way was a bit uncomfortable and I found myself drifting off. Gradually though I got used to it and was comfortably following what was being read at the fastest Kindle speed.

I didn't realize at the time was how much of an impact this cheap, unassuming little device would have on my life. Besides living up to its name and fully re-kindling my interest in book reading that is. I probably read more books in the 6 months after getting my Kindle than in the preceding decade. Fact is, I was a bit of a book worm as a kid but found myself reading fewer and fewer full length books as a busy adult.

Thanks to the Kindle I cut all the fast food out of my information diet. I stopped watching television, and reduced to maybe couple of hours a week the time spent reading online feeds. My attention span has been miraculously rehabilitated, after years of erosion by Internet quick-fixes. This just sort of happened, without any conscious planning or effort.

If the value I was getting out of my Kindle stopped there I would still be an incredibly passionate fan, but then by accident I discovered something extremely interesting and totally unexpected. Turns out I can use text to speech to induce sleep faster and more reliably than pretty much anything else I've ever tried so far. Think of it as the adult, hi-tech version of bedtime story telling.

Text to speech as a sleeping aid

I'm lying in bed, in the dark, with my eyes closed, listening to a text-to-speech engine whispering through the earphones at full speed. 5 minutes ago I had started reading at full volume, but I have been gradually reducing the volume until now I can hear just the faintest discernible whisper.

I concentrate to follow the voice but then after what seems like just a few minutes I realize I must have dazed off because I no longer understand. I've lost track of the plot, and the meaning of the prose seems to be mixing with dream logic.

In the dark I fumble for the media pause button on my bluetooth headset. The flow of whispers stops. I put the headset aside and slide back immediately to sleep. I'm not fully awake at this point so this part is easy.

When I wake up I usually have to go back at least 20 minutes worth of reading to reach a part of the text I can remember. If I'm in a philosophical mood, I wonder about the time gap. I never remember falling asleep. Do I not remember the text in the gap because I never experienced it in the first place? Or did I experience and comprehend the text and it just never reached long term memory for some reason? Or maybe a mix of both?

It doesn't really seem to matter what I'm reading, though I think I may have fallen asleep fastest reading Charles Darwin's Origin of Species. Darwin's verbose scientific prose was a bit tiring to follow even when fully awake. Hmmm...

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