Growing up, my favourite joke was always:
“In psychology class, we learnt about Pavlov’s dog and we laughed about how silly animal behaviourisms were. Then the school bell rang and we all went for lunch.”
Sure enough, we as a society are bound by rules and routines, but while it is normal for us to program ourselves to sleep, wake up and eat at set times to follow a schedule, is it possible to condition ourselves (much like Pavlov’s dog) to have good sleep every night?
Enter: “placebo sleep”, as coined by the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Psychologists at Colorado College conducted a study wherein they assessed 50 undergraduate students’ relation between sleep quality and task performance. In a nutshell, the undergraduates were told that people who spent 25% or more of their slumber in REM sleep tended to perform better in learning and memory tests, whilst those who spent less than 20% often did poorly. The students were then given fictional results of their own sleep (fake machines were used to either present 16.2% or 28.7% of REM sleep) regardless of how well they rated the quality of their sleep. The participants finally took part in strenuous assignments that tested verbal fluency and memory capacity.
And what do you know? The placebo effect worked!
Despite any original perceptions, students who were told they had high-quality sleep performed far better than those who were told slept badly. Does this mean that performance is a self-fulfilling prophecy?
The researchers suggest that humans are very susceptible to anxieties attached to good and bad news, which may have impacted performance during the assignment; or perhaps we are mere human editions of Pavlov’s dog, prone to classical conditioning to presume better sleep, and thus a more productive and efficient day in the following.
And in a world where we thrive on sleeping for as few hours as possible, and fuelling our lives with sugar and caffeine to get by, maybe all we need is conviction and the right frame of mind as a little pick-me-up to get us through a busy day at the work space.
So there you have it. Good sleep or bad sleep, you can definitely talk yourself out of it.