“Is Anyone Even Listening?” Can Journalism Make a Difference to Public Opinion?


Flickr @Mick Baker(rooster)

How do journalists gauge the impact of their work?  More importantly, does their work have a positive impact on people’s perceptions of important societal issues such as climate change? Well people have to read the article for a start but let’s assume people do move past the title for now. You can look at comments, page views, discussions on a topic to assess a given article’s impact. However, it is very hard to say whether an article, or group of articles, were responsible for those changes observed. This is where an interesting new study by Dr Gary King at the University of Harvard comes in. Published in Science, the study attempted something rather impressive: a randomised controlled trial of journalism.

Randomised controlled trials (or RCTs) are typically run in medicine to ascertain whether a particular treatment has an effect on a studied illness. They have the advantage of being less biased than if researchers were to assign people to either the treatment or control group based on a whim. The randomisation process reduces the impact the experimenter, or clinician, may have on the efficacy of the treatment in question. This is exactly the approach this study took to understand whether writing on one of 11 key policy topics (race, climate, abortion, etc.) stimulated conversations on these topics. However, instead of a treatment they looked at whether the impact of writing an article on a societal issue (treatment) could lead to an increase in conversations about this topic on social media.

The researchers recruited 48 media outlets, of generally small size, to take part in their study to assess the impact of journalism on public conversations. To deal with journalists trying to ‘scoop’ one another and get the best story out there the quickest they used a process known as pack journalism. This also had the advantage of maximising the chance people would be speaking about their policy area on social media. Pack journalism is where multiple media outlets will collaborate and share sources and even quotes to ensure a story is reported and, importantly for political stories, reported in the same way. This is the approach the experimenters took, and they organised their recruited media outlets into packs of 2-5.  Each ‘pack’ wrote about the same policy area that was assigned based on their expertise and confidence in the chosen area.

The researchers then took two consecutively quiet news weeks. They randomised each pack to write about the specific policy area on one week and to produce their normal content on the other. This allowed the researchers to compare Twitter activity surrounding the chosen policy area (e.g. climate change) on both weeks. This was not a quick experiment to set up. As the authors state in the paper, it took almost five years to source, organise and oversee the news outlets involved.

When all packs had been randomised and completed their two-week experiment, the researchers assessed the number of Twitter posts across the two weeks. This, broadly speaking, allowed them to assess the impact of the policy-relevant article. Upon examining all of the packs together, it was found that in the first day after publication of the policy article the number of Twitter posts on this area increased by about 20% compared to the control condition. Over the course of the following week the increase in posts on the policy area was just over 10%. These effects are not big but, unlike previous estimates of the impact of journalism, we can be more convinced by their providence. It’s important to note that the media outlets included were small. Therefore, it shouldn’t be too surprising that the effects on Twitter would also be small as presumably these outlets have limited impact on global conversations. It’s also important to note that particularly quiet news weeks were chosen and, although this was practical, it likely influenced the effect.

To assess what the impact of a heavy-hitting media outlet, the researchers examined the change in Twitter posting following a story by the New York Times about fracking influencing drinking water. In this instance, although considerably less controlled, they found that the first day following the article publication, there was a 300% increase in Twitter posts concerning water quality and related topics. This suggests that with larger institutions the impact would be more impressive.

One question you may still be asking is whether this ‘intervention’ had an impact on people’s opinions. When the researchers compared the views expressed when the article was published, compared to service as usual, they found that there was a 2.3% shift in opinions to those expressed in the article. Now this is tiny, but it would be interesting to see whether larger effects could be found in heavy-hitting media outlets. Whether such a study is even possible remains to be seen.

The most exciting thing about this study is that it was possible to carry out an experimental, and relatively well-controlled, study to assess the impact of media reporting on social media conversations. The effects were small, and it was far from perfect (although impressive given how difficult it must have been to set-up), but it was an excellent proof of concept. Personally, science journalism can feel like it is speaking out to the converted but if research can validate that such articles are getting people talking, discussing, and (heaven forbid) changing their opinions on key area such as climate science then I’m sure many journalists would sleep much sounder.

Hey, look at that, I did manage to fit sleep into this article. Go me!

Inquisitive Tortoise

Image Credits:

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King, G., Schneer, B., & White, A. (2017). How the news media activate public expression and influence national agendas. Science, 358(6364), 776-780.



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Should We Start Drinking Cherry Juice To Improve Our Sleep?

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Should you start drinking cherry juice to boost your sleep?

The internet is awash with advice based on rubbish science, and it’s not unusual for news outlet to pick up on this. Luckily, I have a source who expertly scours the internet and provides me with the best of the worst scientific journalism. Today’s offering is from the Daily Mail who are advertising the miraculous sleep inducing powers of tart cherry juice and other shady sleep treatments. The article in question claims that you can get 84 extra minutes of sleep if you start drinking tart cherry juice. Seems too good to be true? Well, let’s take a look at the research in question.

This study was led by Jack Losso at Louisiana State University. His team had a group of 8 people take part in a pilot trial of whether tart cherry juice would improve sleep in a group of individuals diagnosed with insomnia. The participants in this trial were initially randomised to either drink a cherry or placebo drink twice a day (once in the morning and once again a few hours before bed). Their sleep was assessed at the start of the study and again two weeks later at the end of each stint of juice or placebo. They found that the participants spent 86 more minutes asleep in the cherry juice compared to placebo condition. Additionally, out of five self-report sleep measures there was found to be an increase in sleep efficiency (time in bed divided by time spent asleep) as measured by only one of these.

Unfortunately, this study is not available online, so we only have access to the abstract and the press release until it is published September 2018. This makes it hard to analyse in any more detail. This was a very small pilot study with only 8 participants diagnosed with insomnia. In addition, the study threw a lot of different sleep questionnaires at the trial for little plausible reason other than they could. It’s not unusual for there to be two (different measures assess slightly different things) but five is overkill. This is worrying as it suggests that the researchers could change the goal posts if one measure did not produce the effect they wanted to see.

The Daily Mail articles also seems to have glossed over the age of the participants who were “over 50” according to the study. This study alone is not enough to convince us that cherry juice is something we should all stock up on to combat a poor night’s sleep. However, what is the wider evidence to support cherry juice impact on sleep?

The initial rationale for conducting these trials was based on a mixture of anecdotal evidence and plausible biological pathways. For example, it has been suggested that tart cherry juice can reduce inflammation and increase melatonin levels. Both of these could conceivably improve an individual’s sleep. However, prior to this recent pilot trial there was very little scientific research to support an association between improved sleep and tart cherry juice. Based on my own search of the literature, there were two additional published trials I could find which looked at the effect of tart cherry juice on sleep.

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The evidence for cherry juice and sleep is currently lacking

The first by Glyn Howatson and colleagues recruited a sample of 20 people with a mean age of 27. In this study participants were either given diluted tart cherry juice or a placebo fruit cordial. The participants were not told about the hypotheses beforehand, but I’m still not entirely convinced that people wouldn’t have cottoned on to what drink was supposed to be doing something. The researchers found no differences in sleep when they looked at the self-report measures except a reduction in napping from 9 minutes to 2 minutes in the cherry juice group. Participants in the cherry group did stay in bed slightly longer and spent longer asleep (34 minutes) as measured by a Fit-Bit like watch. Of course, if they were spending longer in bed, immobile, it is perhaps not surprising that their sleep would have been longer too due to limitations of such devices (e.g. they treat a lack of movement as sleep).

The second study by Wilfred Pigeon and colleagues conducted another pilot randomised controlled trial with 15 people who were, on average, about 72 years old. It used a similar setup as Glyn Howatson’s randomised controlled trial in that participants were randomly assigned to drink either the placebo or cherry juice first. The other drink was then given two weeks later. Their ‘cherry juice’ was actually a blend including both tart cherries and apple juice which makes it hard to say that it was the cherry juice specifically having the active effect. In this study, using self-report sleep diaries, it was found that participants went to sleep 2.6 minutes quicker, slept 8.4 minutes longer, and spent 17 less minutes awake during the night in the juice (cherry and apple) compared to the placebo juice drink. A fuller exploration of this study can be found here on the brilliant NHS Choices website but again, this study is far from convincing.

Together, these studies are not poorly conducted but their findings are not particularly impressive either. They do suggest that cherry juice may be doing something but it’s hardly comparable to the supposed 84 minutes which leads the Daily Mail article. In fact, the second study, besides having a tiny effect on sleep, is not even solely cherry juice. Personally, I don’t have the option to get 85 extra minutes sleep, I’m more interested in my sleep being more restful. None of these studies showed that this was the case and this is something which is likely to be more important to most people including those with a diagnosis of insomnia.

Finally, because you can’t make this kind of stuff up, two of these three studies were part or fully funded by the Cherry Marketing Institute. The only study that wasn’t funded by them was given free products by a company which produces and sells, including other products, cherry-based drinks aimed at physical enhancement. It’s not unusual for an intervention to have a hand in a trial but this, and the Daily Mail article, feels more like advertising than validating a potential treatment. Is it too much to ask for a randomised controlled trial without some form of cherry PR company hovering in the background?

With all of this in mind, cherry juice’s effect on sleep does not seem to have a scientific basis. As always, if you find tart cherry juice is a miracle cure for you then feel free to ignore me. Your glass of tart cherry juice is hardly causing anyone harm and it’s fantastic if, anecdotally, it works for you. However, in this instance, it looks like cherries are another alternative treatment for insomnia which need to be taken with a considerable bucket full of salt.

I never liked cherries anyway.

Inquisitive Tortoise

Image Credits




Losso, J. N., Finley, J. W., Karki, N., Liu, A. G., Prudente, A., Tipton, R., … & Greenway, F. L. (2017). Pilot Study of the Tart Cherry Juice for the Treatment of Insomnia and Investigation of Mechanisms. American journal of therapeutics.

Howatson, G., Bell, P. G., Tallent, J., Middleton, B., McHugh, M. P., & Ellis, J. (2012). Effect of tart cherry juice (Prunus cerasus) on melatonin levels and enhanced sleep quality. European journal of nutrition51(8), 909-916.

Pigeon, W. R., Carr, M., Gorman, C., & Perlis, M. L. (2010). Effects of a tart cherry juice beverage on the sleep of older adults with insomnia: a pilot study. Journal of medicinal food13(3), 579-583.


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Biphasic Sleep: Should we stop sleeping in a single, uninterrupted, block?


Cats asleep pic

“What’s the right amount of sleep I need? Should I be drinking cherry juice to sleep better? Why do you keep ignoring my voicemails?”

In the absence of being asked about dreams, people are generally keen to hear my views on how to get the best sleep possible. I think this is a fair question to ask a sleep scientist. I’m less convinced that you’ll get an accurate answer from a mattress salesman – but maybe that’s just me. A normal night’s sleep typically involves a single block from the moment our heads hit the pillow to when we feel our way towards our phone alarm in the morning. The number of hours sleep will vary but this will probably be somewhere between 7 to 9 hours (it may be slightly more or less than this). Hopefully, you’ll also feel fairly refreshed after waking up. Many of us still feel tired the following day for a myriad of reasons and will seek some solution for how to feel more energetic, creative and productive. One sleep buzzword which has attracted many such sleep perfectionists is ‘biphasic sleep’ and it involves splitting up our usual undisturbed bout of sleep.

For some people, sleep is experienced as two (or more) bouts of slumber throughout a night. For these biphasic sleepers, they will enjoy an initial sleep followed by a period of wakefulness and then finish off the night with their second sleep. Unlike those of us who restlessly wake up in the middle of the night and feel awful the following day, biphasic sleepers feel fully refreshed with their fragmented pattern. Some natural biphasic sleepers can even mistake their wakefulness for insomnia and this can cause its own problems.

There is some evidence that biphasic sleep is everyone’s normal sleep patterns but artificial lighting has forced us to sleep in one undisturbed bout. However, the scientific evidence to back this up has been somewhat sluggish. It wasn’t until late into the 20th century that our capacity for a biphasic sleep schedule was brought to light.

In the early 1990s, the psychiatrist Thomas Wehr showed that individuals under strict lighting conditions shifted from a single block of sleep to sleeping in a more segmented fashion. In his sample of eight healthy white men, Wehr had them spend 4 weeks under ‘winter’ lighting conditions whereby they had 10 hours of light a day. Then, as a comparison condition, the participants were exposed to 16 hours light and 8 hours dark to broadly mimic summer lighting for a single week. Under summer lighting conditions, the participants slept in one single block and appeared to be largely consistent in their sleeping patterns. However, when they were required to spend a month in the winter lighting pattern, they showed fragmented sleep that was typically, but not always, split in two or more segments (e.g. biphasic). This suggests that provided the period of darkness is long enough, such as experienced during the winter months, then the sleep period will start to be split up over a typical night. As a result, advocates of biphasic sleep as the optimum sleep schedule frequently quote this study as concrete evidence for their point of view.

It’s important to note a few things about this commonly referenced study. In the ‘winter’ condition, participants were told they could do not do anything active during the dark periods (e.g. listen to music or exercise). They were not allowed to use artificial lighting and were encouraged to rest during the dark period. This didn’t leave much choice but to sleep during this 14-hour window. Therefore, biphasic sleep might be seen because the participants had nothing better to do than go back to sleep if it was still dark upon awakening.

This was the same conclusion put forward by a study published in 2015 which also argued that a switch to biphasic sleep may simply be a result of long winter nights. Not everyone agrees so readily with this interpretation. However, until more convincing research is forthcoming it looks like we shouldn’t be trying to wake ourselves up at 2am every morning for that mid-sleep conference call. There is no evidence (as always please try to prove me wrong) that splitting your sleep into two segments is better than sleeping in a single block. Current advocates of biphasic sleep tend to singularly use Wehr’s study as evidence for their points without acknowledging the caveats to his study.

So, that still leaves the question remaining why some groups are advocating splitting up your sleep into small segments if the evidence is lacking. Well, besides our obsession with being told exactly how much of everything (e.g. fruit, water, sleep, fun) we are supposed to have there is a common theme to those keen to split up their sleep – they want to sleep less. Madness, I know.

Terms such as biphasic and polyphasic are frequently kidnapped against their will to lend legitimacy to schedules such as Everyman and Uberman schedules. These sleep schedules aim to break the day into small naps so that people can work unhindered by something as trivial as sleep. To put this into context, the Uberman schedule involves sleeping no more than 2 hours broken neatly up into 6 separate 20-minute naps – sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Well… By contrast, the Everyman schedule allows you 3 hours of sleep followed by 3 naps of 20 minutes throughout the day. So, you get a whole 4 hours sleep with this approach. I will save why these schedules are ridiculous for another post, but I’ve included them to illustrate that interest in segmenting the night’s sleep overlaps considerably with ‘hacking’ the numbers of hours of sleep we need in a day.

As I’ve hopefully make clear so far, sleep is important – all of it. Hacking your sleep will leave you exhausted and at an increased risk for multiple physical and mental illnesses. If you’re interested in feeling more energetic, perhaps think about whether sleep really is the culprit. Alternatively, maybe stop reading these blog posts at 2am and sleep. Actually, on second thoughts…

Inquisitive Tortoise

Image Credits



WEHR, T. A. (1991). The durations of human melatonin secretion and sleep respond to changes in daylength (photoperiod). The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism73(6), 1276-1280.

Ekirch, A. R. (2016). Segmented sleep in preindustrial societies. Sleep29 (3), 715-716.

Yetish, G., Kaplan, H., Gurven, M., Wood, B., Pontzer, H., Manger, P. R., … & Siegel, J. M. (2015). Natural sleep and its seasonal variations in three pre-industrial societies. Current Biology25(21), 2862-2868.


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This week’s featured PhD…

Also, here’s a short piece on what my PhD entails for PhD SOS. If you’re interested in hearing about what I do then please give it a read!


This week’s featured PhD…

Jack Barton, PhD Student
University of Manchester


I am a PhD student at the University of Manchester who likes to study, talk, and occasionally even take time to, sleep. Before you ask, despite having given a talk on the subject, no, I cannot interpret your dreams. So, I’ll have no mention of giant chickens giving you a surprise test while only in your underwear. You have been warned.

Sleep loss, unusual experiences, and eager students

What’s the longest you have gone without sleep? Maybe you’ve gone a day or two? I’m sure it has probably been long enough to notice the extreme tiredness which follows and a few other weird experiences. The longest I have gone without any consolidated period of sleep was during my freshers’ week at university.  I was enjoying myself free from adult supervision and during this time I probably averaged about an…

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Why should you get involved in science outreach as a student?

Here’s a little piece I wrote about the importance of Science Outreach as a PhD student (or student at any level)!

The Signal

Life as a scientist isn’t all about sitting in a lab wearing a coat and goggles. PhD student Jack Barton writes about the benefits of science outreach.

When I mention that I’ve gone out and spoken to people about my research, my supervisors seem excited and comment on how good it will be for my academic CV. Well, besides getting concerned I am doing too much extra stuff. As a person who has spent plenty of time ‘bugging’ people about science, I didn’t realise that I had already been doing something akin to outreach for years. To me, it was simply getting people to see how accessible and interesting science can be.

“These skills are important for any future scientist”

For anyone who is interested in science, there is hopefully also an interest in starting a dialogue (also known as talking) with others about it. To me, this…

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Why we should be logging off from social media well before bedtime

Social media pic.jpg

Photo @BrickinNick

So I am trying to experiment with shorter style articles a little bit. For those lovely people out there reading this, any feedback you have on this short pieces would be much loved! 

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a smartphone must be in want of all of the notifications. I think that’s how that saying goes anyway…

It should come as no surprise that social media use is far from ideal for our mental health. It is an addictive and impulsive activity which can leave us constantly checking for any activity on our posts or feeds. It’s also a force for good but there is the need to understand where its use becomes pathological. For example, a study (poll) published earlier this year linked the usage of social media platforms such as Instagram to poorer mental health outcomes. It would be unfair to claim that social media can solely be blamed for mental health difficulties facing adolescents, but it is equally naïve to suggest it plays no part. How does sleep come into this equation then? Well, besides the sleep-interfering influence of the blue light emitted from devices to browse social media, it appears its usage can mess with our ability to drift off peacefully at night.

A recent study published last month by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh addressed this exact question: is social media usage before bed predictive of disturbed sleep? More specifically, they examined whether habitual social media usage in the 30 minutes before bed would interfere with the sleep of a large sample of American participants (n=1736). The researchers asked participants to report on their level of sleep disturbance over the 7 days and based on this they were identified as either having low, medium or high sleep disturbance. The participants’ social media usage before bed was rated as: rarely or very rarely, sometimes, often or very often. This was asked in respect to the past year.

So, what did the researchers find? Well, perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that social media usage 30 minutes prior to bed was predictive of poorer sleep. This was still the case when overall social media usage was controlled for which suggests that targeting social media usage before bed might be a useful strategy to improve sleep in habitual users. Interestingly, this research supports a well conducted study published last year in the Journal of Adolescence which also corroborates the role of night-time social media use on sleep quality.

However, why do we need to be careful about these findings? Well there are a number of issues I can think of which take away from this study. For example, a validated measure of sleep loss would have been more informative than the broad categories used to identify sleep disturbance in this study. Admittedly, the authors do highlight this in the discussion section of the paper too. Furthermore, the use of social media usage before bed in the last year is something which I imagine would fluctuate considerably. To me, it makes more sense to ask about social media usage in the past week if your sleep measure is concerned with this time-frame too. The best way to do this would be to track social media usage and sleep daily. You could not say that one causes the other with this approach but it would be more informative. Finally, it is unclear from this study whether social media usage before bed was responsible for the sleep disturbance. Poor sleep could be responsible for the increased social media use before bed or there might be some other variable entirely which explains both increased social media usage before bed and the disturbed sleep.

Of course, this work should not be surprising to any one of us and it makes reasoned sense that using a device just before bed is likely to interrupt with your ability to sleep properly. I think the merit of this paper is that it reminds us that perhaps a blanket ban on social media is not needed. If social media usage can be curtailed when we should be doing more important things (e.g. sleeping) then perhaps this can start to reduce the negative impact it has on our mental health. As with all research this is just a tiny part of a much bigger picture but it is an issue which will only increase – not decrease any time soon.

Until that future research is forthcoming, avoid endlessly scrolling for likes before bed if you want to be on peak witty tweet form the next day. Or, you know, you just want to feel less tired. Either is fine.

Inquisitive Tortoise


Levenson, J. C., Shensa, A., Sidani, J. E., Colditz, J. B., & Primack, B. A. (2017). Social Media Use Before Bed and Sleep Disturbance Among Young Adults in the United States: A Nationally Representative Study. Sleep, zsx113.

Woods, H. C., & Scott, H. (2016). # Sleepyteens: social media use in adolescence is associated with poor sleep quality, anxiety, depression and low self-esteem. Journal of adolescence51, 41-49.

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Twitter, chronobiology, Trump, and Questions You Didn’t Realise Needed Answering


Tweets in their natural environment

Scientists are a weird bunch. We spend our lives getting very excited about niche and bizarre things. As a result we have a habit of spending our free time trying to get others to understand our excitement. There are also times when these strange topics align with the wider interests of the general population. For example, we may ask the big questions which are important and crucial for a functioning society.  However, there are also times when we wonder whether we can put to bed (pun fully intended) whether Donald Trump is a keyboard bashing night-owl or a keyboard bashing early riser. But you don’t want to know about that, right?

Well in case you do, luckily one rather eminent (and fun) chronobiologist felt that it was appropriate to answer that singularly important question. Don’t worry, we’ll come to why this is actually an important question later. Now, social media can be used to identify a lot about us and it is not that hard to use all of the data from platforms such as Facebook to track (loosely) a friend’s sleep. It also seems that social media can also be used to determine your activity patterns and assess biological rhythms besides sleep.

For anyone who has ever logged onto Twitter, you are probably aware of the late-night tweets of @realDonaldTrump and their varying levels of coherence. However, do these few late-night tweet fests correlate with the normal chronotype of the president? Firstly, what do we mean by chronotype? Chronotype is the term used to refer the times at which individuals tend to be awake and active. For example, you are probably familiar with the concept of morning and evening types. These relate to our internal body clocks and govern whether we are happy to work late or decide to retire early on. Although society seems to associate the early birds with success, there are issues when our body clocks do not align with the pressures of a society which is regimented and requires us to wake up at the set times – whether for work or school. In fact, there is growing and convincing evidence to suggest that delaying school start to fit with adolescent’s chronotype would be beneficial .

Typically, we assess chronotype through the use of questionnaires or by tracking activity of an individual over an extended period of time. Yet, how can we assess Trump’s chronotype if we can’t handily give him a detailed questionnaire or activity tracker? Simple, we mine his Twitter data and assess his activity based on tweets. Luckily for us, the current President likes to tweet – a lot. This gives interested researchers plenty of time points to assess how his activity changes over time.

Professor Roennenberg applied his analysis to 12,000 tweets from December 2014 to March 2017. Out of all these tweets, there were three main devices they were sent from: an android device, an iPhone device, and other miscellaneous devices. The majority of the tweets were from the android device and it was suggested that the android phone was likely Trump’s personal phone. With all of this rich data, it was possible to identify the peak tweeting periods and how these changed month by month over the 830 days of tweets analysed.

So, what was found? Well, contrary to expectations, it appears that Trump is actually a consistent morning type. There was a clear patterning in the peak times at which he was tweeting. There tended to be a peak in the morning between 5:10am-9:40am (around sunrise) and a peak in the evening 5:00pm-11:00pm (around sunset) that shifted through the year with the change in hours of sunlight. For example, during the summer months, Trump had peaks of tweets earlier in the day and during the winter months these were later during the day. This is a clear pattern of tweeting which fits seasonal changes in light levels.

By contrast, tweets sent from the iPhone showed peaks of activity between 8am and 4pm which highlights a mixture of working hours and staff activity. It was hard to assess circadian patterning using this account as it appeared that multiple people contributed to these data. The ‘MiscDevices’ showed peak activity during between 8.20am and 4.50pm which suggested that this was used during the working day. On the basis of this, the study showed that it is possible determine patterning of activity over a long period of time from tweet data alone. In this case, it shows the peak tweet activity for Donald Trump and in turn this allows us to determine (roughly) his chronotype and probable sleep period.

Why is this worth reporting on? Honestly, to begin with, it is hilarious. I love the author of this piece for taking a ridiculous question and applying the full force of the scientific process to it. Personally, I think this research should be considered for an IgNoble award. However, when you move past the fun of this piece it also highlights a powerful research tool. The use of social media data in research is increasing and there are some great and novel studies which have taken this approach. This method can allow us to, as in this paper, track the sleep, circadian and seasonality patterns of an account – provided it has sufficient data points. In this case, Trump was a perfect proof of concept. Moreover, this technique could also be used to not just track sleep patterns but also be mined for content. Roennenberg makes a quick allusion to the content of Trump’s early morning tweets but this approach has implications for research. This data mining of social media approach would enable questions to be asked not just about the patterning of account activity but also how this activity might be associated with, for example, mental health. To me this is an exciting tool which has considerable potential albeit with significant ethical concerns attached.

Until then we can use this technique to open a window into the life of the rather prolific tweeter that is Donald Trump. Now don’t tell me science isn’t tackling the big (so big) questions.

Inquisitive Tortoise


Roenneberg, T. (2017). Twitter as a means to study temporal behaviour. Current Biology27(17), R830-R832.

Berry, N., Lobban, F., Belousov, M., Emsley, R., Nenadic, G., & Bucci, S. (2017). # WhyWeTweetMH: Understanding Why People Use Twitter to Discuss Mental Health Problems. Journal of medical Internet research19(4).

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Top tips for sleeping during Welcome Week

I wrote an article on sleep tips for anyone starting university. You can read it in full below 🙂

Source: Top tips for sleeping during Welcome Week

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What’s the Evidence? Lush and Sleepy

Insomnia Header Image.jpg

…Because every image of insomnia freely available online is indistinguishable from a staring competition

A friend recently brought my attention to the latest Lush product which had literally been “blowing up her Instagram”. After seeing news articles such as this, I wanted to find out whether the evidence supported the hype. Now, before I start, I want to say that I have absolutely no problem with people paying for what they feel helps them. If you suffer from insomnia and find that this product helps you where other products have not then please keep using it. However, I want to draw attention to the tenuous support for its active ingredients and the fact that most people would benefit just as much from taking a hot bath and introducing a bunch of flowers into their bedroom. At a sell-out price of £13.95 for 215g it strikes me there should be some strong evidence to back up its miraculous effects.

So, what is the evidence for the soporific effects of Lush’s latest goop? Well, the website argues that because the cream contains lavender and oatmeal that this should help individuals drift off to sleep. To quote the Lush website, “You’ll sleep well after dipping into this dreamy lotion, made with a gentle oatmeal infusion, calming lavender flower and comfortingly sweet tonka absolute.” According to the reviews on the website, and social media, this seems to be the case. The main reason for this appears to be the relaxing and anti-anxiety properties of the cream which plenty of customers are swearing by. However, what is the research evidence that this expensive cream does what it says on the tin?

Let’s assess the key ingredient, lavender. I have chosen to focus on lavender as this is the only active ingredient I could find which had any research linked to sleep (apparently tonka beans and oatmeal are great to eat though). Lavender oil has been championed as a natural way to improve sleep in healthy individuals and those suffering from insomnia. There are numerous blogs which support its use and there is even a brief reference to it on NHS resources for insomnia. Nonetheless, neither of these prove that lavender oil has a genuine impact on sleep beyond a placebo effect. It may be that the expectation that lavender will improve sleep or increase relaxation is responsible for its positive effect.

This exact point was shown clearly in a study conducted almost ten years ago by Siobhan Howard & Brian Hughes in the British Journal of Health Psychology. They found that it was the expectation of an effect, and not the lavender aroma itself, which was responsible for the calming effects it produced. They asked participants to smell either a jar of lavender oil or a jar full of a control aroma (tea tree). Following this, their levels of relaxation (measured objectively using galvanic skin response) and self-reported anxiety were assessed. The researchers found no effect of lavender oil on either of these measures. However, when participants were told that the oil would enhance relaxation, as compared to decrease it, they found that objective relaxation levels increased. The opposite was found when participants were told the lavender would decrease their relaxation levels. This effect was not found for the self-report measure of anxiety. This suggests that simply being told lavender oil is relaxing or not is enough to produce a physiological relaxation response.

Admittedly, this is one study. So what does the wider pool of research suggest? Well typically we can go to a systematic review to see a summary of all of the research in an area but there are few reviews assessing lavender and sleep. There are a couple on aromatherapy and complimentary medicine’s effect on sleep but these include a small number of, or no, studies examining lavender oil. So, like any good scientist, I decided to conduct a quick systematic review myself. This was done in a shorter time than you would do a typical review so please tell me if I’ve missed anything critical (*I can provide anyone with the documents and stages of my systematic review so you can work through them if you’re super interested or are keen to prove me wrong). However, I’m guessing most of you just want to hear whether the research supports the use of lavender, right? Does the research support its widespread use? Well the short answer is no, not especially. The longer answer is that the evidence conducted in this area is largely poor and very little has been done in healthy individuals in a non-clinical setting so it is hard to ascertain whether there is a true effect here. What were the main problems with these studies? Well, most of these studies did not adequately control for the problematic issue of placebo effects. A failure to account for this by not including an active control (e.g. a control which is comparable to the treatment) can inflate the effects of any potential intervention. This is dishonest as it creates an biased view of how successful a specific drug or therapy is compared to the effect of expectation that a therapy will work. It’s admittedly not that unusual in drug trials (see everything by Ben Goldacre) but it is important to understand if you want to know whether you haven’t just got an expensive placebo in front of you. Placebo effects can produce meaningful changes to health but it is much cheaper to take a sugar pill than an expensive therapy and it is important to be aware of this in healthcare.

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When bees need sleep they make sure to cover themselves in lavender petals before settling into bed with Netflix

The importance of considering placebo effects was highlighted clearly in one study identified via my search. On first glance, it appeared that smelling lavender oil over 8 weeks had a big impact on perceived sleep quality (a 40% improvement in sleep from the initial baseline). Pretty good, huh? Well, when the researcher analysed the findings from the placebo condition (e.g. smelling distilled water, not a perfect control but better than nothing), they found a 27% improvement in sleep scores from the initial baseline. This means that, accounting for placebo effects, a 13% improvement in sleep, over 8 weeks, was found after smelling lavender oil for an hour before bed. This is admittedly still bigger than 0 but the improvement of 13% is fairly negligible for participants who were already sleeping well in this experiment. One study did conduct their experiment on self-reported poor sleepers but found no effect of lavender oil on any individual sleep diary measurements. When sleep was assessed using an established sleep questionnaire (the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality Index) they did find a significant improvement in sleep quality for participants wearing a patch containing lavender oil compared to a control (an identical patch contained nothing). This suggests that lavender oil delivered as a patch may improve sleep in college students. However, it is hard to say whether expectancy effects played a part here as despite the claim that the participant and experimenter didn’t know which patch they received, the absence of oil in one and presence in another is something I’m not convinced a participant wouldn’t notice. Happy to be argued against.

The only other study conducted on healthy young adults was carried out by Goel and colleagues in 2005. They found that lavender oil (compared to odourless water vapour) produced a small increase in deep sleep for the first half of the night. This is interesting as deep, or slow wave, sleep is important for a number of different cognitive functions including memory. By including this study, that produces the grand total of 3 research papers which assessed the effect of lavender oil in a sample equivalent to the claims made by Lush. The other studies included those in an intensive care unit (ICU) following surgery, elderly individuals suffering from dementia, participants with chronic liver failure, postnatal mothers, those with major depressive disorder, and those in the ICU for an undisclosed reason. I’m not saying we can’t learn anything about the effect of lavender oil on sleep from these samples but they are considerably different in the reasons for their sleeplessness. A busy and stressful ICU ward is a different environment than say a bedroom in your own home. Nonetheless, I’ve included all of the other studies in a table for your perusal below so you can make up your own mind on whether I should talk about these more (these are even less conclusive than the studies I’ve talked about above).

So why might we see a positive effect of lavender infused cream on sleep if there is such weak evidence to support its use? Well, one clear contender which I’ve harped on about is the placebo effect. I’m sure I will receive plenty of flak for this but it has been consistently shown that placebos, even if we know they are placebos, can produce dramatic results on our health. In respect to sleep, simply being told you are sleeping better (even if this is objectively false) can produce an increase in functioning. I don’t doubt or question the effect of a powerful placebo and I have no problem with people using things which help a problem they have considered previously intractable. What I do have a problem with is people paying £13.95, or more, for a product which is no more effective than a warm bath and good sleep hygiene. This is an issue hardly confined to Lush or their products. I am sure there are many spending much more on other products in the hope of finding a solution for their insomnia.

So, what do I recommend instead of paying for expensive goop and smothering it over yourself on a nightly basis? I mean, surely, I should put forward a counter suggestion if I am going to claim ‘Sleepy’ isn’t based on sufficient evidence to support its claims. Well, firstly, if you are suffering from insomnia then go to see your GP in the first instance and consult resources created by clinical and academic experts in insomnia. These should be your first port of call and both will provide scientifically proven advice on how best to manage your sleeplessness. If products such as ‘Sleepy’ work wonders for you and you’re happy to pay for them then ignore me – I promise I won’t be offended. However, try to incorporate your own relaxation methods into your bedtime schedule and see whether these can replace ‘Sleepy’. If they don’t then go back to scented creams safe in the knowledge you’ve proven me wrong. However, if they do then do yourself a favour and save yourself the time and money which Lush’s product requires.

Alternatively, Lush could provide me with enough free cream to run a large randomised controlled trial of this stuff. Just sayin’.

Inquisitive Tortoise

*If you want more information about the systematic review leave a message below and I’ll happily email you the documents.

Systematic review of lavender on sleep (Excel spreadsheet with results for review – includes demographics and quick quality assessment)


Goel, N., Kim, H., & Lao, R. P. (2005). An olfactory stimulus modifies nighttime sleep in young men and women. Chronobiology international22(5), 889-904.

Howard, S., & Hughes, B. M. (2008). Expectancies, not aroma, explain impact of lavender aromatherapy on psychophysiological indices of relaxation in young healthy women. British journal of health psychology13(4), 603-617.

Lillehei, A. S., Halcón, L., Gross, C. R., Savik, K., & Reis, R. (2016). Well-Being and Self-Assessment of Change: Secondary Analysis of an RCT That Demonstrated Benefit of Inhaled Lavender and Sleep Hygiene in College Students with Sleep Problems. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing12(6), 427-435.

Kamalifard, M., Farshbaf Khalili, A., Namadian, M., Ranjbar, Y., & Herizchi, S. (2017). Comparison of the effect of lavender and bitter orange on sleep quality in postmenopausal women: a triple-blind, randomized, controlled clinical trial. Women & Health, (just-accepted).

Additional Reading

** (Read this and then read Bad Science if you’re interested in placebo effects and how science can be spun to support absolute rubbish) Goldacre, B. (2012). Bad pharma: how medicine is broken, and how we can fix it. HarperCollins UK.

** (Great page from the NHS which summarises my points on why we need to be concerned about what is placebo and what is not in healthcare) http://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/complementary-alternative-medicine/Pages/placebo-effect.aspx

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Do Insects Need Sleep?


Anyone with even the slightest fear of creepy crawlies has probably been in the following situation. You settle down for the evening and quick as a flash you see a behemoth of a spider run out. It dashes underneath the sofa before you can react, and, your night ruined, you are left waiting for it to kill you. After a while you’ll convince yourself that it has probably gone to sleep and, seeing as it’s 2am, you should too. However, did it go to sleep? Do insects sleep at all?

One of the many questions which I get when I tell people that I study sleep is some variant of: do insects sleep? What is the smallest creature that sleeps? Do you sleep? Well let’s delve into the world of the mini-beasts to find out the answer to that first one.

Many insects such as bees, moths, cockroaches, and butterflies (to name but a few) will show behaviours that seem indicative of sleep: relative immobility, increased arousal threshold (e.g. harder to wake them up), and drooping antennae. Insects don’t have eyelids so they can’t get “shut-eye” in the usual sense but these other behaviours look a lot like sleep. However, is this really sleeping? Some have argued that the pattern of inactivity shown by some insects can be better referred to as torpor. This is like sleep but torpor involves enhancing the survival of the organism during times of limited resources or when in a harsh environment (e.g. low temperatures during winter). Torpor is often compared to hibernation in mammals and referred to as a ‘mini hibernation’. Unlike sleep, torpor is regulated by external factors rather than an internal clock as in humans and other mammals. However, if what we see is simply torpor in insects then we would not expect them to experience difficulties in functioning after sleep deprivation. So, do insects show signs of poor functioning if they don’t sleep even during normal environmental conditions?

The science suggests that they do.

For example, fruit flies show patterns of inactivity remarkably similar to human sleep – they show recovery sleep, struggle with vigilance and performance after not getting enough rest, and show a steady rhythm of wake and sleep. One well researched example of the effects of sleep loss on bugs can be seen in honey bees. As they mature into foragers for a hive they move from near constant activity to strongly structured patterns of activity and rest as they hunt for food. However, when foragers are not able to sleep they show difficulties in successfully carrying out vital tasks – for example, dancing. For bees, dancing is a vitally important skill (honestly). While away from the hive bees can communicate with one another through a display known as the ‘waggle dance’. This figure of eight movement, interspersed with a slight waggle, is meant to tell other bees about the distance and direction of food sources, pollen, and the hive. Now, how exactly do you deprive a bee of sleep without interfering with its daily schedule? I’m glad you asked. You use something aptly named the ‘Insominator’.

Yes, really.

This fantastically named device is a beautiful example of the awful sense of humour scientists possess. The device was developed with the express purpose of ensuring that bees were sleep deprived in an automatic manner while still being part of their hive. Like humans, research should try not to interfere with the daily schedule of participants (no matter how many legs they have) so we can be more confident it was the thing we’re interested in, and manipulated in some way, which is responsible for the effects observed. Despite its funny name, it was actually a pretty cool piece of kit and allowed the bees to go about their social activities (bees are rather social) whilst only disrupting their sleep.

In the study led by Prof. Bennett Klein, they compared the performance of bees’ waggle dance before and following sleep deprivation. Interestingly, when the bees were kept awake they were less able to effectively carry out the waggle dance and alert other bees to resources. More specifically, the bees were less accurate in conveying direction information to other bees and this in turn, it is predicted, would negatively impact foraging behaviour of other bees in the hive. As is seen in other social creatures, and me without a strong coffee or five, sleep deprivation impaired communication skills of these honey bees. Although the mechanisms are more complex in humans it suggests that certain insects do sleep and that this can have a negative impact on social functioning. Although the jury is still out as to whether the rest shown by many insects constitutes sleep, the effects of a lack of this inactivity seem to mimic the effects seen in humans. At this point, I’ll let you make the decision whether we can call this sleep or not. Alternatively, if you have any ideas on how to study whether an insect sleeps, please send your answers in on a postcard addressed to Jack and marked ‘SCIENCE’.

So, if anyone asks you whether insects sleep you can go forth and spread the unclear, slightly contentious, word. Alternatively, you can just remember that bees dance, scientists have a terrible sense of humour, and that the spider still underneath your sofa is asleep. Probably. In fact, it’s probably best just to seal off that room.

Inquisitive Tortoise

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Klein, B. A., Klein, A., Wray, M. K., Mueller, U. G., & Seeley, T. D. (2010). Sleep deprivation impairs precision of waggle dance signaling in honey bees. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences107(52), 22705-22709.


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