I was fascinated – but ultimately unsurprised – to read of a study conducted in the 1970s that showed that insomniacs given placebo relaxants stayed awake while those who were given placebo stimulants were more likely to fall asleep.
Many insomniacs obsessively ‘self monitor’ what is happening as they lie in bed with their eyes shut (or open). “Am I asleep yet?” “How alert am I right now?” and so on. It seems that the insomniacs in the study who were given the fake sugar pill ‘relaxants’ ascribed any alertness they noticed in themselves to their insomnia. If they were still alert even after taking the ‘relaxant’, then the insomnia must be really bad. And, as a result, the vicious cycle of alertness leading to yet more alertness would accelerate. But those given the dummy stimulants were able to ascribe any alertness they noticed not to their insomnia but to the ‘drug’ they had supposedly been given – so they could relax, because they were supposed to be alert. And therefore they were much more likely to fall asleep!
This kind of ‘paradoxical affect’ applies far beyond the bedroom, of course. Milton Erickson was famous for his intuitive understanding of the subtle shades and seeming contradictions of human motivation and how to use this to good effect when treating troubled patients, and paradoxical psychological problem solving is an important aspect of many of the Uncommon Knowledge therapy training courses.
But back to the research: all real, non-placebo, drugs will have psycho-physical effects above and beyond their chemical impact. Makes you wonder whether sleeping pills stop working for some people because it encourages more self monitoring: “Has this pill worked yet? No? Then my insomnia must be really powerful!”