It’s January, which means that lots of us are making new year’s resolutions to improve our eating and increase our healthy behavior—vowing to do things differently than we have in the past. But, just trying to talk ourselves into a healthier lifestyle tends not to work. There is a fix that might surprise you, however: Changing how you think about the relationship between your mind and body can go a long way towards helping you curb unhealthy habits.
For centuries, the view that the mind and body are largely separate entities has reigned supreme. Take philosopher René Descartes, who claimed that there was a great divide between the mind and the body, that the mind was made up of an entirely different substance than the body. This dualist viewpoint—that our body is irrelevant to understanding how we think, learn, and feel—is still widely accepted today. Indeed, most popular psychology and neuroscience books completely overlook the formative role that our body plays in shaping our mind. But, it turns out that endorsing a gulf between mind and body may be bad for your health. When you think of your body as a mere “shell,” you tend to be less healthy. With this perspective, there is little need to take proper care of your body.
A few years ago, a group of researchers at the University of Cologne set out to examine how our thinking about mind and body affects health. In an initial study, people either read scientific text that promoted the idea of mind-body dualism – the idea that “a person’s mind and body are two distinct entities” or, instead, text promoting the idea that "a person’s mind and body are both rooted in the same physical substances.” Next, people filled out a questionnaire about common health-related behaviors they engaged in. For example, they rated how often they "limit the amount of fat (they) eat” or "regularly go to the gym.” Sure enough, folks primed to think about the mind and body as separate reported less engagement in health-related behaviors. It seems as if thinking about the body as a shell, makes taking care of it less important.
Of course, self-reports on a questionnaire about healthy behavior are one thing, but does thinking about the mind and body as separate vs. connected actually affect behavior? To find out, researchers conducted another study. This time, after having people read text about mind-body dualism or mind-body connectedness, they offered folks a cookbook to take home as compensation for study participation. Here's the catch, some of the cookbooks were for unhealthy food; while others focused on healthy options. The researchers reasoned that, if people who learn about the mind and body as connected are interested in being healthier, then they should be more likely to choose the cookbook with healthy options in it - exactly what they found. In a final study, after being prompted to think about the connections between mind and body, people actually ate more healthy meals.
The take home? The health of your mind is profoundly linked to that of your body. Knowing this, you’ll make healthier choices in your life about what to eat, when to sleep, and how to behave. When you appreciate the power of the body in changing the mind, you function better.
For more on the relation between body and mind, check out my new book, How The Body Knows It’s Mind
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Forstmann, M., et al. (2012) “The mind is willing, but the flesh is weak”: The effects of mind-body dualism on health behavior, Psychological Science 23, 1239–45.