The Power of Positive Sleep Persuasion
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The Fiscal Times
January 24, 2014

There is no question that getting a good night’s sleep help keeps us healthy, mentally and physically – and that most of us need more sleep than we’re currently getting in a 24/7 society.

But if you tell people that they got a better night’s sleep than they actually did – reminding them how important good sleep is for brain functioning – do their brains actually end up working better?

Related: 6 Smart Ways to Pay Down Your Sleep Debt

A new study from the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition suggests a placebo can have a positive effect on sleep. 

Colorado College researcher Christina Draganich and Kristi Erdal, a psychology professor at the same college, enlisted 164 participants in a “fake” sleep study. Students were hooked up to machines and told their brainwaves would be measured throughout the night – and the next day were shown spreadsheets containing the “dense” and detailed results.

One group was told their REM sleep was above average, making them more mentally alert – while the second group was told their sleep fell below par. All were given a brief lesson on the importance of sleep quality and how it impacts reasoning, judgment and other mental processes.

They were then given real tests to assess their listening and processing skills – and those who believed they got a good night’s sleep performed far better on the tests, compared to those in the poorer performing group.

Eric Horowitz at the blog Peer-Reviewed by My Neurons explains it this way: “Draganich and Erdal found that participants who were told they had below average sleep quality performed significantly worse on the [tests they were given]…. In addition, the performance of participants on a verbal fluency test called the COWAT [controlled oral word association test] showed that not only does telling people they had below average sleep quality lead to inferior performance, telling them they had above average sleep can lead to superior performance.”

Related:  10 Ways Sleep Is Now Big Business

“Given the global importance of getting a good night’s rest, the idea of placebo sleep seems potentially far reaching,” adds Horowitz, a social science writer and education researcher.

Hotel maids who were told their work was “good exercise” in a separate study scored higher than a control group on a range of health indicators, Horowitz reports. “Another study found that when participants were told athletes had excellent vision, they demonstrated better vision when doing a more-athletic activity relative to a less-athletic activity. Many studies have also shown that placebo caffeine can have an impact.”

Much more study and analysis is needed to assess whether the placebo effect holds true for sleep and for a whole range of life activities and situations. If you tell someone he’s the smartest person in the room, does that make him unleash his inner brilliance? If you tell me I’m thin – and I believe you – does that actually make me thin? How far does the placebo effect go? How far can it?

Say sleep researchers Draganich and Erdal, “[Our] findings supported the hypothesis that mindset can influence cognitive states in both positive and negative directions, suggesting a means of controlling one’s health and cognition.”

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Managing Editor Maureen Mackey oversees scheduling and work flow and also writes and edits features and reports on a wide array of subjects. She spent more than 20 years as a senior book and features editor at Reader’s Digest.