Having trouble sleeping?

photo (5)College students are bogged down with academics, busy social lives and demanding schedules. This can cause not only sleep deprivation, but can also lead to bouts of insomnia; trouble falling and staying asleep. Fortunately, recent research may have found the answer to this problem!

Priming is a unique practice in psychology that is used to train and influence memories. For example, reading a list of words, such as, “Florida, bingo, wrinkle,” activates or primes the thought of being elderly (Bargh, Chen & Burrows, 1996). In a more recent study by Mitsuru Shimizu, Jesse Sperry and Brett Pelham, priming was used to examine whether activating words related to sleep, such as “cozy, hibernate, slumber,” would help induce sleep (2013).

Shimizu, Sperry and Pelham recruited a small sample of college students for their study, conducting two sequential experiments. In their primary experiment, participants first took a sleep scale survey that assessed their average sleep duration and sleep quality during the past four weeks. Through this survey, experimenters divided participants into two categories; “good sleepers,” who can fall asleep in less than 15 minutes, and “poor sleepers,” who take more than 15 minutes to fall asleep. Participants were then split into either a sleep priming condition (Primed with sleep-related words) or a control priming condition (Primed with neutral words).

Once conditions were assigned, participants were asked to complete a computer task in which they had to identify if the first letter of a string of random letters (i.e., “AIFKP”) was a vowel or non-vowel. Before each random string was presented, a sleep-related word or neutral-word was presented for 13 milliseconds on the screen. This meant that experimenters were using subliminal priming. Subliminal means that humans are not consciously aware of the stimuli being presented. Therefore, participants did not know that they were being primed with sleep-related or neutral words.

Following the computer task, participants were asked to try and take a nap for 25 minutes in a comfy reclining chair in the lab. While in the chair, participants were connected to a heart-rate monitor, which was used to determine their amount of sleep and relaxation. The results were astounding. Participants who were primed with the sleep-related words slept about 62% longer than people in the neutral-word condition.

In the second experiment, the materials and procedure all stayed the same as in the first experiment, except the start time as to when the experimenter took the initial heart rate of each participant changed. Instead of measuring heart rates before the nap period, they took them at the very beginning of the experiment. Results showed that overall, participants in the sleep-related condition, who were either good or poor sleepers, had reduced heart rates in comparison to the control group, signifying greater relaxation.

Good news was also forecasted for the poor sleepers! Results of the second experiment showed that sleep-primed participants, particularly those with sleeping problems, slept longer than people in the control group. The poor sleepers slept an equal amount as the good sleepers. These conclusions were groundbreaking in the research area of priming. With priming having an influence on sleep, it meant that this technique was influencing areas beyond conscious control, which had never been done before. This research has the potential to provide an extremely cost-effective way of treating insomnia.  So if you’re having trouble sleeping, subliminal messages might be what you need to spark your slumber!


Bargh, J. A., Chen, M. & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230–44. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.71.2.230

Shimizu, M., Sperry, J. J., & Pelham, B. W. (2013). The effect of subliminal priming on sleep duration. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 43, 1777-1783. doi: 10.1111/jasp.12123

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