What is this thing called good sleep? By Prof Gradisar

If you haven’t seen The Matrix movies - please let me tell you one thing about them (not really a spoiler alert by the way …)

The main characters are able to ‘download’ knowledge, and make immediate use of it. Whether it’s flying a helicopter, or Tae Kwon Do.

So imagine that you were able to download my decades of knowledge and experience of sleep therapy. Then, you’re sitting in a clinic, with a client across from you - an English fella, in his 30s.

You’re part way through your interview, asking questions left right and centre, to understand all aspects of his bad sleep.

Then you realise you have a partner in crime sitting beside you, ready to ask his questions - so you let him.

In a thick Scottish (or is that Shrek-ish?) accent - he asks:

“What do you think good sleep looks like?” remarks Prof Colin Espie.

The English fella blinks. So do you.

What sort of question is that to ask of someone who is experiencing insomnia?

Well, at the end of the day - the land of ‘Good Sleep’ is where we hope everyone heads. Whether you’re experiencing a clinical sleep disorder, or could do with optimising your sleep.

But what is this thing called ‘Good Sleep’?


When we recruited people with insomnia into our research studies, we could ask a bunch of questions and see if they matched the diagnosis of insomnia.

But when we wanted to compare their insomnia to good sleep, we had no diagnosis to benchmark against.

This begs the question of whether good sleep is just not insomnia?

But insomnia is not an ‘on-or-off’ light switch.

If you don’t match 1 of the 5 criteria for insomnia - then technically you don’t have an insomnia diagnosis. But you will have insomnia symptoms.

So is good sleep just the absence of insomnia symptoms?

Well, if I let you into the rest of the conversation Prof Colin Espie had with that English fella …

“Even good sleepers have the occasional bad night sleep.”

This suggests that Good Sleep is susceptible to ‘triggers’ that can disrupt it.

But why is it that sleep reacts to triggers in different ways?


When one is working hard to help people sleep better, it feels very strange when you intentionally do something to make it sleep worse.

Cue Dr Cele Richardson, who for her Honours thesis, was interested in the effects of trauma on sleep - and whether insomnia is a given.

On behalf of Cele - let me tell you that trying to recruit people into a study where you have to warn them of all the possible things that can happen to them - is damn hard!

But in the end, she managed to do it. And what we learned was really important.

Cele found that insomnia began to happen the night after people were exposed to what’s called an ‘analogue trauma’ (ie, something that’s awful - ie, watching a godawful French movie - but not a true traumatic event - ie, perceiving a threat to your life).

However, within days, people’s sleep returned to normal. That is, good sleep returned.

This tells us that there are many people who possess sleep that is resilient to triggers. A concept that has been theorised by Prof Colin Espie himself.



Prof Espie proposed the idea that ‘sleep is plastic’ - meaning, that whilst sleep can be disrupted for various reasons, sleep may return to good sleep automatically for many people.

So is Good Sleep the ability to be able to possess this Sleep Plasticity?

Yes - and No.

As Prof Espie stated to the English fella, good sleepers can have a bad night of sleep. Their sleep can be disrupted. But there is a great chance that sleep will automatically return back to a good state.

For people with insomnia, their sleep can shift from bad-to-good - with the best methods being Behavioural and Cognitive Therapies.

But when their Good Sleep becomes affected by a trigger, their sleep isn’t likely to automatically return to Good Sleep. They need to re-implement the therapeutic skills they learned to return to Good Sleep. It takes effort on their part.

Nevertheless, it is possible for Good Sleepers and those who have improved their insomnia, to live in the land of Good Sleep.


A sleep diary asks a person to log their sleep for an entire week. It’s one of the best measures of sleep, as it can:

  • help diagnose sleep problems,

  • be used during treatment to see if certain techniques are working (and what might be getting in the way),

  • classify whether a person is sleeping well.

You can download a copy of a sleep diary for free! 

Written by Prof Michael Gradisar 



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