Ideomotion: Muscle activity that can keep us awake!


Nic Lucas here – invited by Elizabeth to contribute to this great blog of hers. And I wanted to share something that many of you may not have heard about. But first, who the heck am I and why has Elizabeth let me loose on her site!

I first trained in biomedical science and then clinical science. I then completed a masters degree in health science – then a masters degree in pain medicine – then a grad dip in clinical epidemiology – and now I’m 2/3rds through a PhD looking at the reliability and accuracy of diagnostic tests. I’m also an osteopath and so work with people who present primarily with physical pain – many of whom also suffer with either anxiety, depression, insomnia – or all three.

I’m also a recovered anxiety-disorder sufferer and have published on this topic. I kicked that anxiety habit about 7 years ago.

Anyway – what is ideomotion and why is it useful for you to know about?

Ideomotion was first described about 100+ year ago by William James and it is movement that is associated with a ‘dominant idea’. It is not movement that is highly conscious – like threading a needle (or making sure you don’t go out of the lines in your colouring in book!). And it’s not reflexive – like blinking if something small (like a bird!) lands in your eye – or the knee jerk reflex when someone like me taps your knee to assess nerve function.

Ideomotion is most of the movement that we perform in between these other two types of movement. Think of the stretch you do without really knowing you’re stretching. Think of the hand movements some people make when they’re talking – but who aren’t consciously moving their hands. Think of how you shift your weight from one leg to the other. Think of all the movements that you do all day long that you don’t even know you’re doing.

That’s ideomotion.

Now the movements I’ve mentioned above are mostly beneficial. But we also perform movements that serve a purpose but may have unwanted side-effects. Think of the person who can’t keep their nails out of the mouth, chewing the nail down to the nail bed. Think of the person who grinds their teeth or even just clenches their jaw. These movements are in response to ‘a dominant idea’ and they serve a purpose – but their continued activity can result in unwanted side-effects. Maybe they get jaw pain and headaches from clenching. Maybe they go out on a date and their bleeding fingernails scare of a potential partner!

The fantastic thing about ideomotor movements is how ‘unconscious’ they are – and you’d be hard pressed trying to stop these movements. In fact, you’d have to concentrate so hard to stop them that you’d probably start doing some other unconscious movement instead.

Ideomotor movements are a classic example of how much we are not in conscious control of our bodies. It’s more like we’re going along for the ride.

Now, what’s this got to do with sleeping – and sleeping difficulties in particular? For some people – having trouble getting off to sleep may well be due to ideomotor activity – that is, active muscle contraction whilst they’re lying down but that they’re not aware of. It may be teeth clenching – that’s common. But the example I wanted to give is one that comes up quite often in my practice as an osteopath.

I can’t provide any data on this – it’s just a personal observation – but here it is anyway. Years ago I noticed that when some people were lying on their back on the treatment table, they were slightly holding their head off the pillow, and I’d have to say to them, “just let your head relax into the pillow”. They would always comment, “I thought I was relaxed”. So, that was ideomotion at work…

I then began to suggest to people who found it difficult to go to sleep, “If you’re lying there and you can’t get off to sleep, check to see if you’re slightly holding your head off the pillow. Your head will be touching the pillow, but just check and see if, when you relax, your head sinks further down into the pillow”.

Such a simple thing really – but I have had numerous patients over the years who come back and exclaim that that’s exactly what they were doing – and hadn’t noticed it. And after they consciously let their head sink into the pillow, they’d then go off to sleep.

Is it any wonder they were finding it hard to go to sleep? Have you held a head lately – they’re heavy. And holding it up off the pillow – even if it’s just slightly – places strain across the neck, squashes the neck joints, fatigues the muscles – and probably stresses the person out and they don’t know why.

How many people fall into this category? I have no idea. But, it’s worth the mention all the same.

So, here’s the take home message. Next time you’re lying in bed and you’re finding it hard to get off to sleep – ask yourself if you’re contracting any muscles without really knowing about it. Check to see if you can relax your head, limbs, trunk, pelvis. If you do relax and you do feel that particular part of your body sink further into the bed or pillow – then you’ll know that you were lying there trying to get to sleep and trying to defy gravity with some levitation at the same time.

And then stop doing it and see if it helps. And if it does help, or if any of this rings true for you – please leave a comment on this post and let me know. I’d be very interested to find out your story.

Sleeping difficulties are a real pain – literally. Your pain threshold is reduced if you haven’t been having good quality sleep. Then you get grumpy etc etc. So, it’s important that you get good sleep so that you can successfully play your unique and important role in the lives of your family, friends and society.

I will enjoy reading your reply to this post,

All the best,


And a PS from Elizabeth

Nic Lucas will be featured as both an expert and case study in our upcoming “Sleep with the Experts” webinar series.?

Nic effectively learned how to manage his anxiety without drugs – and I’m sure there are more than a few people who are reading this who would like to know exactly how.

I’m sure you will enjoy the way he mixes his soaring intelligence with his creativity and easy style.  Don’t miss this webinar.  We are honored to have the opportunity to feature his work on “Sleep With the Experts”.

Not only that, but he has also written a book on the topic.? You can find out more about Nic by visiting his anxiety website

Finally, if you haven’t opted in to leave your name and email address with us, please do so, because without those details you probably won’t hear about the dates, times and featured experts in the Sleep with the Experts webinar series starting soon.

Sweet dreams


Sleep With The Experts training program is available at

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Vicki Ryan October 28, 2009 at 9:44 pm

Thanks for that interesting article, it discussed relaxation ideas I have had since young. I have never had any trouble getting to sleep, usually only takes me 1-5 mins, and then if longer I do 3 deep in and out breaths and I’m in the land of nod. My problem is that I must clench my jaw whilst alseep. Yes I had a stressfull several months earlier this year, and first symptoms were ear ache, sore jaw joints, aching back bottom teeth, this has also progressed to the sound of rushing in my ears etc..Had all checked by doc’s and ear specialists and dentists. dentist suggested I was clenching, my first response was, me! no way! But I decided to try and monitor myself on waking in the night or morning, and noticed I did have to loosen my jaw on conciousness. My stress was work related and conditions have now changed, but I still can’t get rid of this jaw clenching. Before reading your article I had considered getting my concious to talk my subconcious in my dreams to say ‘don’t clench your jaw!’. Not as crazy as it sounds, when i was a child and realised my dreams were dreams, not reality, i decided to try and tell the people in my dreams they were not real, just part of my dream. It was extremely hard, and only managed to do it once. I also developed a trick to wake myself from nightmares. Maybe it’s time I tried again.


Kathy November 14, 2015 at 6:30 am

I have back/neck problems that are worse when I use a pilolw, so no pilolw for me. If you try a really flat pilolw it may be enough considering how puffy you mattress topper seems to be. It will depend on your sleeping posture.


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