SPRINGS, Colo. — You’ve likely heard of the placebo
effect, an outcome that cannot be attributed to a specific
treatment or therapy but rather is caused by a patient’s
mindset alone. As it turns out, the force behind the placebo
effect — namely our beliefs and perceptions — might be one
of the more powerful health tools in our arsenal.
by a Colorado College senior found that students who were told
they’d gotten a good night’s sleep, even if they hadn’t,
performed better on tests that assessed attention and memory
skills than students who were told they’d slept poorly, even
if they were well rested. Christina Draganich based her
results on two experiments with 164 students, and a paper
about the study, "Placebo Sleep Affects Cognitive
Functioning," was published this year in the Journal of
Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition.
placebo effect is potent, time-proven medicine. In fact, it’s
speculated that between 60 percent and 90 percent of drugs and
physician-prescribed therapies work, at least in part, because
patients believe they will.
"nontraditional" placebo effect has been found to
cause poison ivy in test subjects exposed to fake plants,
physical improvements in people who’d undergone fake
surgeries and a coffee high in those imbibing placebo
caffeine. A team of Harvard researchers even found that a
group of motel maids’ beliefs that they were logging
significant exercise for the day — absent any other factors
— led to weight loss, improved blood pressure and decreased
body fat over the course of the monthlong study.
known about the regular placebo effect for thousands of years,
but most of the time we hear about it in drug studies,"
said Kristi Erdal, a psychology professor at Colorado College
and faculty supervisor for the study. "It’s only been
in the last decade or two that people have begun exploring the
nontraditional placebo effect, branching out and pushing the
envelope to see how far that can take you. I think our mindset
affects a lot more of our behavior and our physiology than we
senior thesis in neuroscience, Draganich decided to see if the
same concepts and manipulations could be applied to sleep.
college, I saw how students focused on their lack of sleep
before taking an exam. I wondered if their scores were maybe
influenced by their attitude regarding how tired they thought
they were," said Draganich, who graduated in 2012.
the study hinged on students’ believing researchers could
assess the quality of their previous night’s sleep,
Draganich had to devise a legitimate-seeming fabrication. As
setup, she first asked participants to fill out a
questionnaire about how well they believed they’d slept the
previous night; the, they were brought into the lab for a
five-minute lesson about sleep.
told them sleep quality can be measured by the percent of time
spent in REM sleep, and sleep quality often predicts cognitive
functioning," Draganich said. She then told them about a
new, cutting-edge technique that allows researchers to assess
an individual’s REM sleep from the night before by measuring
lingering biological markers such as heart rate and brain wave
know that sounds far-fetched — I did make it up," said
Draganich, "but we had a lot of things on our side to
lend authority." There were "complicated
drawings" up on the board in the lab and students were
connected to an EEG machine that responded to their movements.
then were given real tests to measure cognitive functioning.
Generally, those who were told they didn’t get enough sleep
scored lower, while people who were told they’d slept well
achieved higher-than-average marks.
we were doing is looking at how an authority figure can affect
a person’s thinking and therefore their performance,"
now works with spinal cord and brain injury patients at Craig
Hospital in Denver, and plans to put what she learned from her
sleep study to work in the exam room once she becomes a
always been very interested in how attitude interacts with
health," she said. "As a physician, it’s important
to remember how you frame information for your patients,
whether positive or negative, can affect a patient’s
motivation or willingness to comply with care and therefore
potentially their outcome."
18 years at Colorado College, this is only the fourth time one
of her undergraduate research students has had a paper
published in a prominent journal, which then led to coverage
from media outlets including the BBC, Reader’s Digest and
this says to me, proud mama of the study, is that science and
the scientific method is at the disposal of anyone who will
use it correctly," Erdal said. "Even if you’re a
21-year-old in college, you can find enormously fascinating
things if you do your homework and do the research."