The Chronicles of Insomnia

I’m awake. Maybe it’s the ringing in my ears or the wind outside or any of a dozen notions that are rolling around in my head. Whatever it is, instead of fighting it, I just got up. Fighting insomnia is a losing battle. I try not to look at the clock, but I can’t help myself. Then, I’m counting the hours until my alarm goes off, and the math keeps me awake. Damn you, math.

So, I was listening to a podcast about the placebo effect yesterday. Ironically — or maybe to the point — the topic was perceived quality of sleep. Test subjects were told they would be given an EMG that would be able to tell whether or not they had a good night’s sleep. It all looked technically accurate, but the EMG was really a sham. The researchers really just wanted to test whether or not the suggestion of a good or poor night’s sleep was enough to influence an individual’s performance on cognitive testing.

When the study participants arrived, they were asked whether or not they’d had a good night’s sleep the night before. What surprised the researchers was that it didn’t matter whether or not the individuals thought they had a good night’s sleep. What mattered was what the researcher reported to the participants about the outcome of their EMG. If the researcher said that the EMG indicated the participant was well-rested, the participant did better on the test even if they had reported a poor night’s sleep. Ultimately, the study showed that as long as an authority figure presented the suggestion, participants would believe it. In other words, self-perception didn’t have an effect. Plenty of subjects reported they’d had a great night’s sleep, but if they were in the group who were told by the researcher that their EMG indicated a poor night’s sleep, they didn’t do as well on the test.

So, this whole notion that we are so susceptible to the power of suggestion has my mind churning. And that’s perhaps why I’m not sleeping. Ironic. Yeah, I guess it is.

I have so many questions. Does awareness of the placebo effect cause a person to be so cynical that it can no longer help them? Can you still benefit from a placebo if you know you might have gotten a placebo? What about all the rubbish on the Internet? There are all sorts of claims made about all sorts of things, and while most of it is rubbish, what does that matter if the suggestion that something works actually helps someone, as long as it doesn’t kill them, that is?

So after hearing this podcast on the placebo effect, I had an idea. What if this susceptibility to the power of suggestion not only allows us to benefit from placebos, but what if it also causes ailments? According to the research, we have actual physiologic reactions to suggestions. For example, if an individual is given a low-calorie milkshake, but they’re told it’s a high-calorie milkshake, the physiologic changes in their body are the same as if they ate an actual high-calorie milkshake.

In Radiolab’s Placebo episode, one of the doctors was telling about how we have receptors in our brains for morphine and other opioids, and when we’re given a placebo, the opioid receptors in our brains are activated. Did you get that? You are given a sugar pill, told that it’s a pain killer, and your brain says, “Hey, morphine!!!” Put another way: We have within ourselves the power to fix ourselves.

Well, what if the opposite is true? What I mean is, what if we make ourselves sick by the same power of suggestion that allows us to benefit from the placebo effect? I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill hypochondriac. We all have that Aunt Marge in our lives who thinks that every sniffle is typhoid (and please, God, don’t let me be her). I’m talking about the suggestions we hear every day from whatever mode of media we’re allowing into our heads — news reports on the latest culprit in the obesity epidemic, web articles on chemicals in our food that are sure to kill us all, GMOs, corn, soybeans, wheat, fossil fuels, McDonald’s french fries. We are bombarded with tiny little snippets of information, and we don’t always have the time to get the whole story. We develop our own perception of what we’ve heard, and that perception develops into a suggestion to our brains. Well, what if those notions are enough to trigger changes in our brains and bodies because we believe, on some level, what we’ve heard?

Somebody who is smarter than me is going to have to take up the gauntlet and figure this stuff out, and when they do, I’m sure I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and read about it.

I hear my family waking up to get the day started. Time to go fill my coffee cup and join them. I predict a nap coming on later. I wish that researcher was here to tell me that I had a good night’s sleep.

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