Quick! Get me some placebo sleep!

I’m travelling a lot in other time zones these days,  Austria one week, Calgary the next, now Sweden and Scotland. It’s lovely really (though I do miss my bike) but crossing time zones makes sleep complicated. Not to mention Sweden’s lack of dark which made for sunset at 11 pm and sunrise at 4 am.  (But Sweden was good for exercise and aspirational bike rides.)

You might think–as my Samsung health app does–that I ought to track my sleep. It turns out you’re both wrong.

That’s because not getting a good night’s sleep is bad. Knowing about it is even worse.

And the converse is also true. Thinking you’ve got a good night’s sleep even when you didn’t turns out to improve performance on cognitive tests. See Placebo sleep improves cognitive skills.

If you can’t get real sleep, perhaps you can make up for it with placebo sleep. Or such is the suggestion of a new study that found that people did better on cognitive tests after being told that they got a high proportion of REM sleep, even if they didn’t.

It turns out that those who were told they got better sleep did better on a test of information processing speed called the Paced Auditory Serial Addition Test (PASAT), which involves adding many numbers together, as well as on a verbal fluency test called the Controlled Oral Word Association Task (COWAT). Those who were told they got lousy sleep did worse. The same relationship didn’t hold for self-reported sleep quality–those who thought they got better sleep didn’t generally do better on the PASAT than those who thought they hadn’t had a good night’s slumber.

Placebo effects are pretty powerful. Should you decide to take a drug for sleep issues most of the drug’s effects turn out to be placebo. And the strangest thing about placebo effects is that they work even if you know that it’s a placebo.

What’s interesting here is that when it comes to health and fitness more information isn’t always a good thing. Maybe what we need are sleep apps that lie to us, tell us we got a great night’s sleep even when we didn’t. If you decide to write the app and market it, please let me know.

And, while we’re on the subject of sleep, I’m still pining for a Jeeves alarm clock.


This is the alarm clock that faithfully reproduces the subtle wit employed by P. G. Wodehouse’s most famous character–the valet Reginald Jeeves–as he politely affirms the beginning of the day. The clock plays 126 different wake-up messages in the reserved voice of Stephen Fry, the original actor from the English comedy Jeeves and Wooster. When the alarm sounds, Jeeves speaks softly as he assuages your displeasure that the morning has indeed come: “Excuse me sir, I’m so sorry to disturb you, but it appears to be morning… Very inconvenient, I agree… I believe it is the rotation of the Earth that is to blame, sir,” or asks “Shall I inform the news agencies that you are about to rise, sir?” If you are not roused sufficiently, a series of beeps will ensue; a press of the clock’s rosette cancels the beeps, prompting Jeeves to interject “Sir has a firm touch, but fair” as one of ten possible snooze replies. A press of the rosette at bed time initiates a three-minute relaxation message with ambient music. Made of wood and handpainted in a subdued lacquer. A button on the back illuminates the clock’s face.