The Power of Mindset


Posted on : June 4, 2013

Want to know something mind-blowing?  Your mind has incredible power to change not just your thinking, but also your actual physical state.  Research has shown that simply changing your mindset about a situation can have significant effects on objective, measurable outcomes such as levels of hormone secretion, reduced pain, improved hearing, decreases in body fat percentage and many more.  So hold onto your disbelief  – I can see the eye-rolling from here — as I talk you through some of the more impressive studies  on the power of mindset.

What is mindset?

At any given moment, the amount of potential information to take in is unwieldy.  Therefore we need a simplifying system, a lens or frame through which to view and make sense of the world.

This lens is what we call a mindset, and it consists of the ideas and attitudes with which a person approaches a situation.  And those ideas and attitudes predetermine a person’s interpretations of — and responses to — situations.  When you let your mindset express itself without awareness, you lose your ability to choose your behavior.

The Mindset Research

Here are a few examples of how mindset affected objective, measurable changes:

The placebo effect.  Research has shown that inactive pills (the placebo) show benefits in 60-90% of diseases.  This includes both diseases with subjective endpoints like anxiety or depression, and diseases with easily measurable physical changes like osteoarthritis and cancer; that means that people who take sugar pills show measurable tumor shrinkage (crazy, right?)  Research shows that placebos trigger complex neurobiological phenomena including the activation of distinct brain areas as well as peripheral physiology and the immune system.   Alia Crum, a top mindset researcher at Columbia, calls the placebo effect, “an incredible and consistent demonstration of the power of mindset to recruit healing properties in the body, even without active drug.“

Sham surgeries.  And this isn’t only in the drug realm, but in surgery too.  In one study, researchers enrolled patients who were scheduled for reconstructive knee surgery.  They went through all the steps of the surgery in the operating room including putting the patients under anesthesia and cutting open their knees.  But instead of doing the surgery, they simply waited the time the surgery normally takes then sutured them back up and monitored the results.  As compared to prior to the surgery, these “sham-procedure” patients felt less pain, used less morphine, had more mobility, could climb more stairs and had reductions in the objective amounts of swelling.  All this simply because they thought they’d had full surgery.

Fake poison ivy.  Thirteen people, who were extremely allergic to poison ivy, were each touched on one arm with a harmless leaf but were told it was poison ivy and touched on the other arm with poison ivy and told it was harmless. All 13 broke out in rash where the harmless leaf contacted their skin. Only two reacted to the poison leaves.

Making you younger.  In the “counter-clockwise study,” Ellen Langer from Harvard University had a group of elderly men attend a week-long retreat where everything they saw was from 20 years earlier, including magazines, newspapers, television, and music.  They were fed popular food from that era and instructed only to discuss personal and world events from that time 20 years prior.  In other words, the context around them was arranged to put them into the mindset that they were young again.  After just one week living in this environment, the participants got noticeably “younger” on many of the experimental measures.  Their hearing and their memory improved.  They scored higher on intelligence tests; they had greater joint flexibility, grip strength and manual dexterity.  There were improvements on height, weight, gait and posture.  Objective observers judged that photos of the subjects looked noticeably younger at the end of the study as compared to their photos at the beginning.

Changing mindset, changing weight.  A group of hotel room attendants were the subject of another well-known mindset study from Harvard.  While the hotel room attendants had jobs that were very active, most of them did not perceive their work as exercise.  They had the mindset that their work was simply their work.  The researchers trained one group that their work was good exercise and that they should receive the health benefits of all that activity.  And while they had no change in their diet or outside exercise regimen, after just four weeks, this ‘informed’ group showed significant, measurable reductions in weight, body fat percentage and blood pressure as compared to a group who didn’t get the training.  All from a simple shift in their mindset.

A more filling milkshake.  In another mindset study, this one at Yale, volunteers were recruited on the pretext that they were to taste milkshakes with different calorie content.  Each volunteer was hooked up to an IV to measure their physiological response to the shake.  They specifically looked at levels of a hunger stimulating hormone called Ghrelin.  Ghrelin levels drop when you eat a big meal sending a signal that says “Okay, brain, we can stop eating, we can stop searching for food, we can digest and metabolize the food we have now.”

The subjects were given two different shakes one week apart and were explicitly shown the labels on each.  The “Sensi-Shake” indicated it had just 140 calories, 0 grams of fat and no added sugar while the “Indulgence” shake indicated it contained 620 calories, 30g of fat and 56 grams of sugar.  With the “Sensi-Shake” the ghrelin levels didn’t drop much, while with the “Indulgence” shake the ghrelin levels dropped through the floor.

The catch was that both weeks they were given exactly the same shake.  The change in Ghrelin levels was due exclusively to their mindset about what they were drinking from the label.  The expectation of what the shake would do to their appetite significantly changed their hormonal response and thus their appetite.

Take Home Message

All of these studies suggest that the mindset you adopt in a given situation can produce changes that are objectively measurable.  Whether it’s placebo effects in drug trials, sham operations, fake poison ivy, food labels or simply being told that your work is exercise, your mindset matters to your health, your performance and you psychological growth.

In the next post you will learn how you can change your mindset, *without* being lied to in an experiment!

Eric Karpinski
The Happiness Coach

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