A teacher friend of mine told the story of another teacher, new to the school, who was recognized by her colleagues for outstanding student achievement. Going into the semester expectations were generally low for the students she’d been assigned to teach, but by the end of the school term the students showed a significant turnaround.

At semester’s end there was a dinner for the teachers and she was asked to tell her colleagues her secret. How was it her students had such a high grade point average? She was surprised at the recognition and confessed that she might have had a little help. Before the semester began she was in the administration office and noticed on a desk a list with her student’s names on it. Next to each of their names she saw their IQ score and was impressed with how high they were.  There was no secret to her method, she said. She simply taught them fully confident they would do well, and wasn’t surprised at the outcome.

Following the dinner she was approached by one of the school administrators who quietly took the teacher aside to tell her something about the list she saw. The numbers next to their names weren’t IQ scores. They were newly-assigned locker numbers.

Chalk it up to the surprising power of expectations, which is also in the title of Chris Berdik’s book Mind Over Mind. Berdik, an experienced journalist who has covered psychology and neuroscience, examines how our expectations can change everything and cause us to re-think our most cherished beliefs about education, sports, criminal justice, and health.

Berdik takes readers from centuries old history to modern day research on imagination, mesmerism, animal magnetism, belief, will power, placebos and nocebos. “They’re not one and the same,” he writes, “but they reflect the mind’s habit of jumping to conclusions, and the surprising power these conclusions wield.”

Where this radically affects our lives is with health. “The intersection of expectations and health is one of the most fascinating things I researched for the book,” he told me. “I tried to highlight it by both opening and closing on the topic.”

This comes at a time when health professionals, health researchers, and the public at large are paying close attention to the relationship of expectations to health. It’s no longer a question of if there’s a relationship, but how close is it?  

A large body of placebo and nocebo research suggests there’s a direct correlation. Being hopeful can improve health outcomes, while hopelessness has the reverse effect. Fear of sickness can be a health hazard to the one who’s afraid, while an expectation of well-being can bring relief. The fact is, Berdik notes, “our real world is in many ways an expected world.”

So then, what frames our expectations? Much of it is from everyday education, what we commonly pick up from today’s intense media environment and from others as to what’s to be expected in our lives.

If that constant flow of information is relentlessly worrisome or discouraging it’s easy to be overwhelmed with fear and powerlessness, which form an unhealthy mental state. “Ignorant that the human mind governs the body, its phenomenon,” wrote mental treatment advocate Mary Baker Eddy, “the invalid may unwittingly add more fear to the mental reservoir already overflowing with that emotion.”

Clearly there are good reasons to pay attention to what’s occupying our thoughts and shaping our expectations, but what people are discovering is how directly this can impact one’s well-being.

Health and happiness thrive in a peaceful, confident mentality, which may explain why prayer and meditation show up in prescriptions and national surveys as health-promoting practices. Stress-levels get reduced, body functions show improvement, the human system gets back to normal -- much better side effects than we’re accustomed to seeing.

What this suggests is that we’re less helpless when it comes to governing our health than we may have believed. Granted, not everyone agrees on the pivotal role of consciousness in health, or on what benefits prayer can bring to bear on one’s mental state. Expectations for real improvement can range from dismally low to sky high. But if it’s true that we get what we expect, maybe it’s time to raise our expectations.

About the Author

Russ Gerber

Russ Gerber spent many years in news programming, most notably with the Christian Science Monitor. He is passionate about the health care debate.

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