Mental Stuff

I was clearing out my stash of research papers last week and came across a study that I hadn’t paid enough attention to when it first crossed my desk. The research was framed as being about the placebo effect and the health effects of exercise. But it was also framed as being about what the authors refer to as mindfulness and sometimes as mind-set. The upshot of the research is that self-awareness can have biological effects.

The research project involved 84 women working as housekeepers in seven hotels. Objectively, these women more than meet the official exercise recommendations established by the CDC, Surgeon General, and American College of Sports Medicine. Yet their self-perception was that they didn’t get any exercise.

In the first phase of the experiment, all of the women were asked about exercise and other matters, such as their diet. Physiological measurements were taken. After these initial steps, all of the women were told that the purpose of the study was to find ways to improve health in their workplace, communicated verbally, in writing, and using posters in break rooms. Half of the women were also told that their work was good exercise and how that was good for their health. The researchers refer to these women as “informed.”

Four weeks later, the women went through the same examination. In virtually every measure, the informed group showed the typical health effects of exercise: lower weight, lower body fat, lower blood pressure, lower waist-to-hip ratio. The important part of the story is that there was no change in the women’s physical activity, in their diet, or in any of the other things they were doing that would affect these outcomes. What did change was the self-awareness of the informed group regarding their work as exercise and how much exercise they were actually getting.

Are we seeing the power of mind over body? Is this the beginning of a new weight loss scheme?

It is almost certainly not an instance of some mentalist power to supercharge the effects of physical activity. Instead, it is almost certainly a demonstration that the mind as manifest in our nervous system is in an exchange with the rest of our biology. The precise nature is not revealed by this research, but my guess is that the stress response is involved—positive self-awareness as stress reducing and health promoting. But that’s just me speculating.

In The Art of Changing the Brain, James Zull, PhD discusses learning methods from the standpoint of what goes on in the learner’s brain. He’s well qualified to do this because he’s a biologist responsible for a science teaching program. In his book, Dr. Zull describes how one of the most important factors in a student’s success in learning is his or her self-conception as a good learner: students who were otherwise identical in terms of, for example, test scores nevertheless differed significantly in actual learning performance based on whether they thought of themselves as good learners in a particular topic.

In Changing for Good, James Prochaska discusses his psychological research into how people change their behavior, particularly habituated and addictive behavior. Although his perspective is formally named the transtheoretical model of personal change, it is generally referred to as the stages of change model: the core concept is that people do not change instantaneously (one day a smoker, the next day not) but instead progress through a series of well-defined stages. Fundamental to progressing through these stages is what Dr. Prochaska calls self-efficacy: the self-conception that you are capable of changing.

The magic in these three instances of self-awareness is not in mind over matter but in finding those methods that promote the desired biological effect experienced as self-awareness. In the case of the housekeepers, it was authority figures talking directly with them, telling them that the work they were doing was good exercise and good for their health. Dr. Zull’s experience suggests that something like that worked with changing his students’ self-awareness as learners. Similarly with Dr. Prochaska’s work.

Rene Descartes saddled us with the idea that mind and matter are two entirely different kinds of stuff, entirely isolated from one another. It’s still embedded in our culture and in our science—the self-awareness that improves learning and facilitates the capacity for change and improves the benefits of exercise are all mental stuff and so it is utterly baffling to conventional thought that self-awareness should have biological effects.

It’s not baffling at all. Mental stuff is biological stuff and vice versa. They are simply different aspects of the same stuff.

Too Much Medicine, Not Enough Health includes essays on the placebo effect and other discussions of mental stuff as biological stuff.