Rough Night’s Sleep? Convince Yourself Otherwise


Losing focus from lack of sleep? An altered mindset can counteract symptoms of sleep deprivation.

It’s 7 am and you’ve got an exam in an hour.  Feeling groggy as you open your eyes, you   think back to your night of sleep.  If you conclude that you got a peaceful eight or nine hours, the grogginess subsides and you’re feeling great, ready to go. You have no excuse to be tired. If you calculate a restless three or four, things aren’t looking up. You worry that you won’t be on your A game and that your focus will be lacking. But beware, dwelling on your lack of sleep may be as harmful as the quality of sleep itself. A recent study suggests that your beliefs about how you slept the night before can affect attention and learning the next day, regardless of how you actually slept.

When we think of a placebo and its effect, we most often think of drug placebos. However, a drug placebo is not the only type that can overcome the limitations of the body and brain. For example, the taste of higher priced wines are rated more favorably and activate greater feelings of pleasantness in the brain than lower priced wines do, regardless of actual quality.

In an effort to explore the role of sleep quality perception in cognitive functioning, researchers Christina Draganich and Kristi Erdal conducted a study in which students were told that by monitoring brain frequency, heart rate, and pulse, the experimenters could tell how much REM sleep – the deepest type of sleep – each student had received the night before. In actuality, the students were either told that they had spent 16.2% (below average) or 28.7% (above average) of their sleep in REM.

The fake assessment of sleep quality worked as a successful placebo. Students who were told that they had received below average sleep quality performed worse on a test of learning and memory than those who were told that they had received above average REM sleep, regardless of their initial self-reported sleep quality. The test performance of students in the below average condition was similar to what it would have been had they actually had a restless night. Concerned that the results might have been affected by expectations of what the students believed the experimenter was looking for, a second experiment was conducted to disguise that sleep was the focus of the experiment. Still, students who were falsely told that their sleep quality was below average performed significantly worse than those who were told that it was above.

While the researchers have not actually assessed what the expectations of sleep quality are among the public, it seems reasonable to assume that people believe better sleep will result in better attention and learning. Sleep quality likely worked as an effective placebo due to these expectations. In short, mind over body actually works. So next time you roll out of bed feeling exhausted and unprepared for a day of focus, don’t dwell on your restless night. Change your clocks, lie to yourself, or most appropriately, consciously recognize the effect that mindset can have on the body and brain. By doing what you need to do to alter your mindset, limitations can be overcome.


Draganich, C., & Erdal, K. (2014, January 13). Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive Functioning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0035546

About Daisy Bodman