Placebo Sleep Brain Hack Offers Promise of Better Rest

By Rosie Osmun Certified Sleep Coach

We all know that humans and most living creatures need to sleep to survive. Having the right amount of high quality sleep is important. Improper sleep has been shown to…

Last Updated On March 7th, 2023
Placebo Sleep Brain Hack Offers Promise of Better Rest

We all know that humans and most living creatures need to sleep to survive. Having the right amount of high quality sleep is important. Improper sleep has been shown to diminish cognitive functions and reaction time.

However, a recent study suggests that we can trick our brains into thinking that we’re getting better sleep than we actually are. The idea of “placebo sleep” tells us that we can be told that we slept better or worse than we actually did and it can affect how we perform throughout the day.

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These interesting findings have real implications for today, and may offer some promise for a future where sleep is much different than what we experience now. This study can also help you think about how you’re sleeping and how you can improve your well being with a different way of thinking.

What is the Placebo Effect?

The placebo effect is a well-documented phenomenon in which physical or mental changes result when person believes that they are receiving a real medication or treatment, when in reality they are receiving a sugar pill or other ineffective substance or action.

This effect is usually seen in scientific tests because researchers need to see if a treatment is actually effective or people just think it is effective.

Placebos can create changes in how we feel subjectively (more or less pain, happy, tired, etc) as well as in non-subjective measures like blood pressure or healing.

The placebo effect is thought to work as the mind anticipates symptoms or changes, and then perceives change or enacts change (also known as the “expectancy and conditioning” or “self-fulfilling prophecy” theory – we expect that the placebo is a beneficial, effective treatment and are conditioned to experience the response).

Building on this concept, a group of researchers attempted to test how people perform if they were told that they got either great or poor quality sleep.

Doctor's notepad
Photo by Flickr user, kokopinto

Placebo Sleep Study

The study, which is published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Verified Source National Library of Medicine (NIH) World’s largest medical library, making biomedical data and information more accessible. View source explored how people’s perception of rest quality may influence feelings and performance. They posited that if people thought they slept better than they did, then they would perform better on cognitive testing.

Researchers from Colorado College assigned 164 participants to four conditions: “above average” sleepers, “below average” sleepers, and two control groups.

The participants were first lectured on the effects of REM sleep on rest quality, and told that average REM sleep comprises 20–25% of total resting time.

Those assigned a sleep quality were fitted with sensors that were said to monitor vital signs and REM sleep duration, which was false.

The “below-average” group was told they got 16.2% REM sleep, while the “above-average” group was told they got 28.7% REM sleep. These numbers were not accurate to how they slept. Participants were also provided with false brainwave and formula spreadsheets to bolster the placebo effect.

After the sleep test, the researchers administered several cognitive tests involving basic mathematical and verbal skills.

Those told they had low-quality sleep performed worse on the tests than the control and high-quality sleep group. Interestingly enough, self-reported sleep quality had no effect on test performance.

What Placebo Sleep Means for You

The results of this study and other placebo studies demonstrate the a person’s expectations, attitude and mindset can have real implications.

In order for the placebo effect to work however, you must have full belief in the placebo and firm expectations for the results. Gaining this effect on your own might not be possible, but you can leverage these findings to your advantage.

Affirm to yourself that you will get better sleep, that you are getting better sleep, and that you can feel the real effects of being well rested, such as more energy, greater concentration, and better endurance.

Believing these affirmation wholeheartedly will allow better rest to take its full effect. In addition to a more positive mindset towards rest, you can also employ good sleep hygiene practices designed to improve the quality and quantity of rest you receive.

Some well-researched tips provided by the Harvard Medical School’s School of Sleep Science Verified Source Harvard Health Blog run by Harvard Medical School offering in-depth guides to better health and articles on medical breakthroughs. View source include:

  • Avoid stimulants before bed: e.g. caffeine (six hours).
  • Keep your bedroom cool, quiet and dark, and eliminate activities like TV and work in bed.
  • Relax before bed with a routine, such as a warm bath, reading, stretching, or journaling.
  • Don’t go to bed until you are tired.
  • Don’t watch the clock or stress about the time.
  • Get natural sunlight first thing in the morning.
  • Follow a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Avoid naps or take short naps before 5pm.
  • Have lighter evening meals.
  • Drink more fluids earlier in the day and less at night.
  • Finish exercising three hours before you go to bed.
black and white bedroom
Photo by Flickr user, Robert S. Donovan

Practicing good sleep hygiene, making your bed and bedroom as comfortable as possible, and using the power of your mind can all help contribute to higher quality rest and better nights.

Upon waking up in the morning, you should also be positive about the sleep that you got the previous night. If you truly believe that you slept well, or poorly, then you can impact your alertness and how you feel during your day. Waking up with a positive attitude towards your energy levels will help you be more productive and will make sure that you aren’t lagging in the morning.

It is important to not lie to yourself. If you slept only for a few hours or truly slept poorly, you don’t want to dilute the positivity of other days.

The study’s demonstration of placebo sleep highlights that our mindset can play a big role in sleep and wellness, implications that are worth noting and that are sure to receive much attention in coming years as medicine advances and expands. You can improve your well being just by thinking that you slept better than you did the previous night.

Would you try this placebo sleep hack if it promised better rest? What techniques are you using to ensure you’re getting a restful sleep?

About the author

Rosie Osmun regularly contributes to the Amerisleep blog writing about topics including, reducing back pain while sleeping, the best dinners for better sleep, and improving productivity to make the most of your mornings. She finds the science of sleep fascinating and loves researching and writing about beds. Rosie is also passionate about traveling, languages, and history.

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