One of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of medical research has always been the “placebo effect.”
Basically, you can tell someone they are taking a drug that will have a certain effect on them, give them a sugar pill that does nothing, and their brains will still create the effects of the fake drug. Mind over matter in real life.
The effects of the placebo effect were first documented by Henry Knowles Beecher when he witnessed soldiers react to a saline solution that he told them was a painkiller. The same thing happens in medical trials all the time, and it actually used as the measure of how effective a drug actually is.
So if we can trick our brains into not feeling pain because we think we’ve been given a painkiller, how else can we use the placebo effect to our advantage?
Researchers Christina Draganich and Kristi Erdal from Colorado College have figured out that the placebo effect can be used into tricking our brains thinking that we’ve gotten more sleep than we have, and therefore, will perform better than if we’d gotten less sleep.
The experiment involved taking students and giving them a lecture on sleep quality and its importance to cognitive function. They were told that people who spend between 20% and 25% of their sleep in the REM cycle historically performed better on cognitive testing. The students were also told that their amount of REM sleep could be measured by lingering biological effects the next day (which they can’t). All of this information was conditioning the students to think that if they got enough good sleep, that they would test better the next day.
When students returned the next day they were randomly selected to be in a group that was told that they spent 28.7% (above average) of their sleep the night before in the REM cycle, and groups that were told that they only spent 16.2% (below average) in the REM cycle.
Knowing what they’d been told about sleep quality and cognitive function, the students then took test focusing on their cognitive abilities. Naturally, they students that believed that they had gotten more quality sleep scored higher on the tests. Between the conditioning before the experiment, and the student’s believing the results of the “lingering biological effects” of good sleep, their brains actually performed better.
In their report of their study Draganich and Erdal say, ” 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.”
Could it be possible to trick your brain into working better?
The results from this study imply that it is, you just need to find a way to condition yourself, and trick yourself. The problem with tricking yourself is that it’s basically impossible in this sense. You’d have to have someone else tell you the results of your sleep analysis (even if they are completely fake). Oh yeah, and you can’t know that they are fake. Still, experiments like this one prove the power of the brain to function according to what we think to be true. Now all I need is someone to lie to me about how well I slept.