How to Trick Your Brain Into Better Sleep

It’s recommended that adults get seven or more hours of sleep each night. Unfortunately we live busy lives and often do not get the sleep we need. How many times in the past week have you joked with your coworkers about being tired? Or griped about a case of the “Mondays”? Feeling tired or that we didn’t get enough sleep is a pretty common complaint.

Poor sleep quality can impact our mental and physical health. When we are sleep deprived our thinking is slower and less efficient. We are more likely to make mistakes, forget to complete tasks, become distracted, and have trouble coming up with words. Sleep deprivation increases the risk of obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes.

The simplest way to increase the hours we sleep is to go to bed earlier or get up later. Easier said than done! There are also many ways to improve the quality of our sleep, but they require work like getting regular physical exercise, eating a healthy balanced diet, sticking to a regular sleep routine, and turning off electronics like the computer or phone for several hours before bed.

Researchers at Colorado College might have found a way to trick our brains into feeling like we had better sleep without much work!

This research relies on a concept called the placebo effect. You’ve probably all heard about placebos before. The placebo effect occurs when there is an outcome that is not attributed to a specific treatment, but rather to an individual’s mindset about the kind of treatment they are receiving. In other words it doesn’t matter what’s in the medication. What matters is what you believe the medication will do. For example research shows that people given placebo pills and told they contain caffeine (when in fact they do not) have more energy and perform better on cognitive tasks.

Like I said research on placebo effects has now been applied to sleep. Christina Draganich and Kristi Erdal published an article in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2014 that demonstrated this concept. Here’s what they did in this study:

  • They asked undergraduate students to rate how deeply they had slept the night before on a scale of 1 to 10 (with 10 being very deeply).

  • Next, all participants were told that on average normal adults spend between 20% and 25% of their sleep time in REM sleep and that individuals who spend less than 20% of their time in REM sleep perform worse on tests of learning and memory.

  • Participants were then hooked up to a machine that recorded EEG readings (their brain waves) for five minutes. They were told this machine would help estimate their REM sleep the night before (which wasn’t true, the researchers made this part up).

  • Participants could watch their brain waves being recorded and they were told that their data was being automatically downloaded to the database.

  • Students in the study were randomly assigned to an “above average” or “below average” sleep quality condition. This group assignment had nothing to do with how they reported their sleep the night before, and nothing to do with their brain wave ratings, it was random.

  • If they were in the “below average” condition they next watched the experimenter calculate that they had obtained 16.2% REM sleep on a fake spreadsheet. If they were in the “above average” group they watched the experimenter calculate that they obtained 28.7% REM sleep on the fake spreadsheet.

  • Next participants completed a number of tasks that look at their ability to maintain attention, quickly respond to information, and quickly come up with words.

What they found in this study was that self-reported sleep quality didn’t impact performance on the cognitive tests. In other words, participants that said they had a bad sleep the night before didn’t do any worse than participants is said they had a good night sleep before.

What did impact cognitive performance was what participants were told about their fake REM sleep quality data. Participants who were told that their brain waves suggested they had below average sleep quality did worse on the cognitive tests than participants who were told they had above average sleep quality. Remember, these REM sleep quality numbers were made up by the experimenters. They had nothing to do with their actual brain waves or sleep quality.

What this study showed was that our mindset can impact our performance. If we think we had a good quality of sleep we do better on tasks in daily life. The opposite is true as well. The more we complain about how tired we are or how bad our sleep was the night before the worse we will perform in daily life.

In this way we can trick our brain into feeling more alert and performing better simply by convincing ourselves that we had a good quality sleep.

Try this for the next few weeks. Every morning when you get up think to yourself “I had a great sleep I’m going to feel rested all day”. See how you feel at the end of the two weeks. I bet you will feel better than if you had woken up each day and told yourself “I had a crummy sleep today is going to suck”. Our minds are powerful tools and have great influence over our body. This means we can use our mind and our mental strength to perform better and feel better in our daily lives.

Check out this link from the Mayo Clinic if you are interested in more tips to improve sleep quality.