The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

Is Your Mind Separate From Your Body?

How mind-body beliefs shape your choices and influence your health.

Premise #1: “The mind is in the body.”

I teach a lot of courses and workshops on mind-body science, and Premise #1 is how I start all of them. It's a basic assumption of modern psychology, especially for those who study the brain.

I define mind as the experience a person has of him or herself—thoughts, emotions, memories, desires, beliefs, sensations, even consciousness itself. And I believe that science can best locate these experiences in the body. Not just in the brain, where we first look for the biological basis of the mind, but distributed throughout the body.

For example, hormones circulating throughout the body shape our thoughts and emotions, from testosterone making us more competitive and self-focused to adrenaline making us anxious or energized. The gut has its own neurotransmitters that respond to and remember experiences, providing a physiological basis for intuition and gut feelings. Even the immune system acts as an extension of the mind, responding to psychological stress and influencing your mood. And as I wrote about recently, the brain uses what’s happening in your posture, breathing, and muscles to understand your emotional state and self-image.

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I don't find it alarming or depressing that rich psychological experiences may be rooted in the body, and observable physical processes. It doesn't make falling in love less meaningful, art less creative, or the mind less fascinating. Instead, I find it inspiring. Working from this premise, we can understand puzzles like why loneliness increases your risk of heart disease, or how brain injuries transform personalities. We can also explore how mind-body practices like yoga can change your mood, or why working out improves memory. We can investigate the human experience while also trying to relieve suffering.

Of course, not everyone accepts this mind-body premise. Many philosophical and religious traditions believe that mind and body are distinct; that the experience of mind is non-physical and non-local. Even in the scientific community, I sometimes work with researchers who hold this belief, even as they study the physical correlates of mental experiences.

But I'm intrigued by a new study on this issue that focuses not on which point of view is right, but how your beliefs about the mind-body relationship shapes other attitudes and actions. According to a team of researchers at the University of Cologne in Germany, where you stand on this mind-body question can have a major effect on your health.

The study (published in Psychological Science) finds that if you believe the mind is separate from the body, you are less likely to exercise and avoid junk food. Moreover, the researchers were able to manipulate people’s health behaviors by priming them with either a mind-body or dualist perspective. Even though our philosophies about the mind can feel rock solid, it’s very possible that most of us appreciate both points of view, and can be unconsciously influenced by exposure to them.

Why would believing in a mind separate from body make a Big Mac more appealing? Perhaps believing in a mind-body split means your sense of self is less connected to the physical body—and so the motivation to care for the body is less central to your goals or identity. I doubt very much it’s a matter of reason or logic.

As someone who cares about public health, I wonder what the applications of this finding might be. We don’t know enough now, but we might ask questions like:

  • Does exposure to more scientific training (especially psychological science or neuroscience) lead people to healthier choices?
  • Does educating people about the relationship between physical health and emotional health (e.g. how exercise improves memory and mood) improve health motivation more than traditional "health education"?
  • Is it equally or more effective to give people a direct experience of the embodied self, through practices like yoga, dance, or somatic therapy?
  • And can you believe that your essential self is somehow separate from your body, and yet still be motivated to take good care of it, the way a parent takes care of a child, or a farmer cares for the land?

In The Willpower Instinct (Avery 2012), I wrote about one intervention that takes this last approach – making self-care an expression of religious fatih:

The intervention asks people to consider how self-care and health are important values in their religion. For example, Christians may be asked to reflect on passages from the Bible such as “Let us purify ourselves from everything that contaminates body and spirit, perfecting holiness out of reverence for God” (2 Corinthians 7:1 NIV). They are asked to reflect on the behaviors in their own lives—such as eating junk food or not exercising—that are inconsistent with their professed faith and values. When they identify a disconnect between their faith and their actions, they are encouraged to create an action plan for changing that behavior. Believing that losing weight and exercising is what good Christians do is far more motivating than getting a stern warning from a doctor after a high cholesterol test.

I would love to hear what you think, whatever your philosophy of the mind-body relationship. Does your understanding of the mind-body relationship influence your everyday health choices? How do you think about your relationship to your body? Does it feel like you, or something you take of? Or both?

Studies cited:

1. Forstmann M, Burgmer P, & Mussweiler T (in press 2012). The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak: The effects of mind-body dualism on health behavior. Psychological Science.

2. Anshel MH (2010). The disconnected values (intervention) model for promoting healthy habits in religious institutions. Journal of Religion and Health, 49, 32-49. [Paragraph referencing this study excerpted from The Willpower Instinct, Chapter 8.]

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. She is also the author of Yoga for Pain Relief and The Neuroscience of Change.

Follow Kelly on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kellymcgonigal or on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/kellymcgonigalauthor

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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