Placebo Sleep? Simply Thinking You Slept Well Improves Brain Function, Says Study

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What if you could get the benefits of a good night’s sleep without actually having had one?

In great news for insomniacs everywhere, a new study has found that the simple power of suggestion might be enough to improve the cognitive functions associated with a well-rested body.

The placebo effect — most commonly demonstrated when someone takes a sugar pill that makes them feel better — has fascinated researchers for years. But new research takes the concept beyond inert pharmaceuticals to reveal that people can get placebo sleep, and even placebo exercise. By simply being told they were sleeping well and exercising enough, they received beneficial effects.

In one study, Christina Draganich and Colorado College psychology professor Kristi Erdal recruited 164 participants who were told they would be undergoing a new technique to measure sleep patterns. The technique was a fabrication.

The volunteers were given a short lecture about the importance of REM and how better sleep improves cognitive function, and then they were hooked up to phony sensors before going to sleep. They were then divided into two groups, “above average” quality sleep and “below average” quality sleep.

The “above average” group was told that the sensors recorded 28.7 percent REM sleep while the “below average” group was told they received 16.2 percent REM. Of course, since the sensors were fictitious, these recordings were not true.

They were then given a test to measure cognitive function. The “below average” group did significantly worse on the tasks, while the “above average” group had superior performances.

A follow-up phase that added more controls and additional cognitive tests confirmed the initial results.

“These 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,” the researchers concluded.

Meanwhile another study, published in the journal Psychological Science, further supports the idea of intangible placebos — this time as they pertain to exercise and health.

Researchers studied a group of 84 female housekeepers from seven hotels. The housekeepers in four of the hotels were told that their work fulfilled the exercise requirements for good health, while the women in the other three hotels were told nothing.

After four weeks, the women were examined to ascertain changes to their health; the workers who were told they were exercising adequately lost an average of two pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, BMI and waist-to-hip ratio. These changes were notably higher than those from the group who didn’t think they were exercising enough and were especially remarkable given the time period of only four weeks, according to the study’s news statement.

The findings suggest that simply thinking you got a workout could actually make you healthier, said Ellen Langer, Harvard University psychologist and author of the study.

“Whether the change in physiological health was brought about directly or indirectly, it is clear that health is significantly affected by mindset,” said Langer.

Both studies conclude that moderating one’s mindset can prove beneficial for health. Now all we need is a group of scientists duping us into believing that we are sleeping wonderfully and exercising enough.

Watch the video below for some fascinating facts about the placebo effect: