You Don’t Have to Sleep, You Just Have to Lie to Yourself

By Alyse Borkan  |  Sep 30, 2014
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You know what the placebo effect is, right? The idea that your body can be fooled – mind over matter – if you think you’re taking a pill that does X but actually doesn’t do anything, your body might just do it anyway, for better or worse.

This has been used as a control in pharmaceutical testing for years, but it’s recently been applied to other uses. Trick someone into thinking there’s a connection between working out and better vision, and they’ll see better after they exercise. If you tell that same person that their job has exercise benefits when it really doesn’t, he’ll lose weight faster than his coworkers who know the truth.

Find a sleepy person, someone who never gets to bed early enough, who hits the snooze button a few times every morning. Give them a cup of decaf coffee, but tell them it’s normal. Placebo caffeine will temper the effects of sleep deprivation, improving cognitive performance and reaction time.

But it doesn’t stop there. Fake coffee isn’t the only way to help the sleep deprived feel better. In a new study, researchers have found that you can just tell them they slept better.

To test this idea, researchers had participants subjectively rate their sleep from the night before. Then, ignoring that, researchers randomly split participants into groups that would be told they had gotten “above average” sleep quality and those who were “below average.” Participants were then connected to some EEG-type machine and told that they could measure the previous night’s sleep by certain pulse and brain wave signatures, which is not true.

Researchers took the fake-data and then fake-determined sleep quality. Those who were predetermined “below average” were told they spent 16.2 percent of their sleep in REM, which is significantly below the 25 percent average. The “above average” sleepers were told they were in REM for 28.7 percent of the night. Everyone then completed a Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), a test of cognitive functioning.

The “below average” sleepers scored 44 percent on the test, while the “above average” scored 70 percent, which is consistent with numbers in research on people who weren’t being lied to, and had actually slept badly or not.

So if you haven’t been sleeping well lately, don’t fret. There’s an easy solution. Drink fake-coffee and just, like, make yourself believe that you slept better than you did. If you need an EEG machine to convince yourself, you can buy one here. $3.893.33 isn’t a bad price to pay for better cognitive performance.

— Josh Segal

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