Sleep is like an orgasm – the more desperately you pursue it, the more elusive it becomes. Like trying to force a sneeze, or induce labour simply by willing it to happen, ordering yourself to go to sleep is almost guaranteed not to work.
Instead, you lie awake fretting about not being able to sleep, which ensures further sleeplessness, leaving you sleepy, dopey and grumpy the next day. You can't focus, you're less productive, and you feel like snapping peoples' heads off. Oh dear. And so the cycle continues.
One in three Britons and one in two Americans suffer from insomnia. In Ireland, the figure is also one in three, according to the last survey conducted on sleeplessness in 2010. Never mind Seattle – it's everywhere.
Throughout the developed world, anxious, bleary eyed individuals are lying awake in the dark, trying to ignore the march of time blinking away on their alarm clocks, as the tyranny of getting up for work bears down on them. And off they stumble, cranky, exhausted, fed up.
Maybe we should blame capitalism. To fit in with the working day, we have bent our circadian rhythms out of shape to maximise production and accommodate office hours.
Nine to five dominates the structure of the day – not including overtime and commuting time, never mind family time or time for ourselves – and we have shoe-horned our sleeping time around it, instructing ourselves to sleep as the alarm clock dictates, and to be awake and performing the rest of the time.
Eight hours is traditionally the recommended amount of sleep we need, and if we don't get it, we worry. Will we age faster, work slower, feel awful, look awful, if we don't get enough proper sleep? The short answer is: yes.
I am going to make you a bit sick now by saying that I never suffer from insomnia. Every night I experience the sleep of the dead without any fuss. I don't know why, other than luck and lifestyle. Especially lifestyle. No booze, no drugs – including no sleeping pills – no tobacco, no meat, no dairy, no processed foods.
No caffeine after lunchtime. Loads of walking and fresh air, plus regular exercise. And, maybe most significantly, my own schedule, instead of an imposed nine-to-five.
That may be the crux – I get up early, go to sleep early, but I don't own an alarm clock and haven't for years. My body has sorted its own rhythm out, and I follow it accordingly: up at 6 or 7am, bed around 10 or 11pm. Deep and lovely. A kip during the day as required. The odd late night, but not many.
That might sound disgustingly holier than thou, but it wasn't always like that. I used to stay up for entire weekends, from Friday morning to Sunday night, wide awake from dance drugs. After three days and two nights without sleep, everything goes shimmery and surreal, as your cognitive function plummets; cartoons make you laugh, but you couldn't do a crossword.
You can also experience aural and visual hallucination from sleep deprivation.
Midweek, my sleep patterns were equally bonkers, usually from 4am to noon, and I wouldn't have recognised my own circadian rhythms if I had tripped over them. Not that I was alone in my self-induced sleeplessness – we were all at it.
At the time, a favourite dance record label (which is still going today) was called Stay Up Forever. We certainly did our best.
Youth has long experimented with sleep patterns, exploring the far reaches of sleeplessness. Mods had blueys, punks had sulphate, hippies had acid, rock stars had coke. Keith Richards is famous for staying up for a fortnight, or something similarly ridiculous. Then again, he had access to pharmaceutical-grade cocaine, rather than cheap E.
The last official world record for staying awake for ages was in 1965, when a 17 year old stayed up for 11 days and nights without any of Keith's Merck; after that, the 'Guinness Book of Records' stopped keeping sleeplessness records as awareness emerged of the dangers of staying awake for too long. Sleep deprivation is an economical and bloodless method of torture used all over the world. Victims go a bit potty from it.
The term circadian rhythm was coined in 1959, just a couple of years after America opened its first 24-hour supermarket. Could there be a link between 24-hour society and insomnia? Or what about the link between mass insomnia and the light bulb? Obviously, individuals have always suffered from insomnia. Napoleon lay awake at night thinking about battles, as did Florence Nightingale, thinking about the bloody consequences of battles. Leonardo da Vinci's ideas kept him up half the night.
Margaret Thatcher only survived the Brighton bombing because she was still up writing a speech at 3am, and Bill Clinton doesn't sleep much either. The novelist Dan Brown lies awake plotting potboilers, and Madonna exists on limited sleep, probably because she is super-human, or possibly part-machine.
But these people are exceptional. What about the rest of us? Can we connect mass insomnia with electric light? Thomas Edison was an insomniac; did his 1879 invention come from the frustration of being awake in the dark?
For millenia, the sun and the moon governed our sleeping; today, it's the light bulb and the alarm clock. Is this fact linked to the fact that there are currently 2,000 sleep clinics operating in the US? Even in peaceful Ireland, more than one million sleeping-pill prescriptions were dispensed in 2011. For a country of four and a half million, that's a lot of sleeplessness.
Or could our insomnia be self-induced? There are lots of reasons we think we can't sleep. Stress, anxiety, worry, excitement, heat, cold, wrong bed, wrong partner, not enough exercise, too much exercise, hunger, being too full, being drunk, being sober, the wrong sleeping pills, no sleeping pills, or perhaps non-specific existential dread.
But perhaps the real reason in our increased sleeplessness is that we have been sleepwalking into digital enslavement, messing up our bodyclocks and alpha waves along the way.
Do you bring your laptop to bed? Keep your phone next to you on the bedside table? Some people don't even turn it off during sex. Do you have a telly in the bedroom, permanently burbling and flickering? Even if you don't, you probably still tweet, shop, download, upload and update around the clock – and that's before you ever answer an email at midnight.
Modern sleeplessness has thrown up a whole lexicon of insomniac terminology: electronic sundown (having a digital cut-off point every evening), semisomia (low-quality sleep when the brain is still active but the body isn't), FOMO (fear of missing out), and tired but wired (a precursor to insomnia).
And beyond common or garden insomnia, there's a whole raft of sleep disorders which don't sound like much fun at all: fibromyalgia (physical pain and discomfort while trying to sleep), sleep apnoea (restlessness and snoring), delayed sleep phase disorder, REM sleep behaviour disorder, restless leg syndrome, night terrors, sleep paralysis.
That's an awful lot of syndromes and disorders to take to bed with you.
Naturally, this is all big business. Now that we are officially aware that booze is not a cure for insomnia – although millions of us still try it nightly anyway – Boots the chemist has a whole department devoted to selling you stuff to make you sleep. Over-the-counter pills, anti-snoring spray, light bulbs that mimic dawn, electric blankets, herbal supplements to soothe you, or even an online six-week CBT course "clinically proven to help you overcome poor sleep" by providing online support and a sleep diary.
Hang on, isn't being online all the time the very thing that might be addling your brain waves and keeping you awake all night?
There is also an extensive market for soothing sleep CDs, sleep masks, blackout curtains and pillow sprays.
Sleep is now a science, rather than something you do when you're tired. Sleep clinics staffed by sleep doctors have become the stuff of reality television, although you really cannot imagine sleeping too well knowing that you're being filmed and broadcast into the living rooms of strangers. That would definitely keep me awake.
On a more serious note, the anti- depressant mirtazapine is non-addictive and one of its side affects is that it counteracts insomnia – taken before bed, it knocks you out. The hormone melotonin helps regulate our circadian rhythm, and is useful both for sleep disruption and as an antidote to jetlag.
Also, fitter people sleep better, providing you don't try to sleep directly after exercise, when your body is still coursing with endorphins and adrenaline.
Perhaps one of the cheapest, healthiest antidotes to insomnia is yoga. You don't have to be Gwyneth Paltrow or Russell Brand – anyone can do it. As well as working the body, it calms the mind and leaves you with a sense of well being.
Don't take my word for it – a study at Harvard Medical School, reported last year in 'Psychology Today', showed that insomniacs who did a simple yoga practise every day had improved sleep time, fell asleep easily, and felt fresh and awake during the day, after just eight weeks.
Another natural, and free, sleep aid is an orgasm – the body releases endorphins, which are stress-busting and relaxing. It's also more fun than camomile tea.
Obviously, this is not to trivialise the hell of serious clinical insomnia. But for the rest of us, the one in three of us who can't get to sleep, there are lots of things we can do, starting with snapping off the technology and getting into a few simple yoga poses. Maybe a bit of meditation, or even just focused breathing. Sex, a good book, whatever. Just maybe not booze and pills.