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Can Your Mind Really Heal Your Body?

Why beliefs, expectations, and perceptions impact our physiology and health.

Key points

  • Evidence shows our beliefs influence our health.
  • Expectations about medications shape the body's response to treatment.
  • Mindfulness provides measurable positive health outcomes.
Maria Orlova Pexels
Source: Maria Orlova Pexels

Faith healers and psychics have long claimed magic powers to heal the body. In the late 19th century, spiritualists asserted that they could heal the sick, speak to the dead, and move objects with the mind. At that time, psychology was a newly emerging science. American philosopher and psychologist William James, along with a brilliant, multi-disciplinary group of scientists including one who earned a Nobel Prize in medicine, led a serious investigation into clairvoyance and other paranormal phenomena. Their research exposed many charlatans. However, under controlled conditions, they found evidence that some clairvoyants received and communicated information that could not be explained rationally.

Many of these researchers yearned to find scientific evidence supporting life after death and other paranormal events. Battles emerged as one group of researchers fell under the spell of mediums and the other group sought rational explanations for their elaborate ghost-summoning performances. In the end, many of these scientists discovered that belief is a more potent influencer than proof (Blum, D. 2007).

The Power of Belief

Contemporary researchers found evidence that our beliefs have physiological effects on our bodies. In one study, researchers randomly assigned hotel maids into two groups. One group was told that their work met the Surgeon General’s requirements for a healthy exercise regimen. The other group served as a control. All the maids submitted to physiological measures before and after the study. After four weeks, those who believed their work satisfied the requirements for a healthy lifestyle showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index compared to the control group of maids doing the same work (Crum, A. and Langer, E. 2007).

A study conducted in 2009 looked at a patient with giant cancer tumors in his armpits, groin, and abdomen. His doctors believed he had only days to live. After receiving an experimental drug, his tumors disappeared. When he learned later that the drug failed in clinical trials, his tumors returned. After that, doctors told him they were giving him a “double strength” medication (a placebo), and the tumors vanished again. Eventually, he read that the drug he took was worthless. He died days later (Vernillo, A. 2009).

Photo by Wyron A at Unsplash
Source: Photo by Wyron A at Unsplash

In another study, Dr. Alia Crum and colleagues wanted to see if our beliefs about the calories consumed would affect our physiology. In this study, they invited a group of participants to come into a lab twice and drink a milkshake. Subjects submitted to physiological tests before and after drinking the milkshake. On each visit to the lab, the subjects were given a milkshake with a fake nutritional label. On one occasion, they drank what they were told was a “sensible milkshake” of 140 calories. On the second visit, they were told the milkshake was an “indulgent milkshake” with 620 calories. Participants did not know they were drinking a milkshake of 380 calories on both visits to the lab.

The experimenters looked at changes in levels of the hormone ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone that goes up and down throughout the day in response to our feelings of hunger and satiation. It goes up to signal we are hungry and goes down when we feel full. The experimenters were astonished that the hormone responded to the subject's beliefs about the calories they were consuming. Those who thought they were drinking the “indulgent” shake showed a rapid decrease in ghrelin. Those who thought they were drinking the “sensible” shake showed a flattening of the ghrelin level like one would experience eating a light snack (Crum, A. et al. 2011).

Expectancy Effects

Our expectations about medical treatments influence how the body responds to treatment. In an immunology study involving children with peanut allergies, all subjects were given oral immunotherapy drugs to help desensitize their allergic reactions. Many patients drop out of this treatment due to side effects that cause anxiety. Researchers set out to see if changing the patient’s mindset about side effects might produce better treatment outcomes.

In the study, one group of families was told that non-life-threatening side effects meant that the medication was working as intended to desensitize them to the allergen. The other group was told they might experience non-life-threatening side effects. After six months of immunotherapy, the group told that side effects meant the medication was working experienced less anxiety, better treatment compliance, fewer negative side effects, and had greater desensitization results than the control group.

Many of us go to the eye doctor for our annual prescription and assume our eyesight is static with normal deterioration with aging. Dr. Ellen Langer and colleagues at Harvard challenged that assumption. In one experiment, students from MIT’s ROTC program were asked to enter a flight simulator. After taking a vision test, they entered the simulator. Some were asked to play the role of pilot, aware that pilots need to have perfect vision to qualify. Others merely entered the simulator without performing the duties of a pilot. Forty percent of those designated as “pilots” showed improved vision compared to controls who were not role-playing pilots in the simulator.

In another study, subjects showed improvement in their vision after the experimenter flipped the eyechart so that the letters got larger rather than smaller. Subjects were able to read the smaller print. We expect to fail as the test goes on. Once that expectancy is disrupted, our vision improves (Langer, E. 2023).

The Mind-Body Connection

The mind and body connect in a complex web of neural networks. A recent study published in Nature used precision fMRI to map mind-body connections. The brain’s motor circuits, cognitive functioning, and perception are entwined with basic body functions like breathing, heart rate, pain, and muscle tension (Gordon, E.M. et al., 2023). This shows that we cannot separate our thoughts and perceptions from our physiology.

There is ample evidence that mindfulness, (defined as paying attention to moment-by-moment changes on purpose without judgment), offers significant health benefits. Mindfulness lowers stress-related disease symptoms and inflammation. When we notice negative and positive physical changes it helps us make minor adjustments that prevent injury. Awareness encourages us to seek medical treatment for symptoms sooner, which leads to better health outcomes if we get sick.

These and many more studies demonstrate that the mind can mobilize the body’s healing properties. Begin by harnessing your beliefs in the service of your health and well-being. Practice mindfulness and notice subtle improvements and discomforts in your body. Provide comfort if needed and understand what fuels your joy and contentment. Visualize positive outcomes while receiving medical treatment. Allow yourself to have positive expectations for your health and future. It may not be magic, but your magnificent human mind is mighty powerful.

References

Blum, D., 2007. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death. Penguin Books, New York, New York.

Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychol. 2011 Jul;30(4):424-9; discussion 430-1. doi: 10.1037/a0023467. PMID: 21574706.

Crum, A. and Langer, E. 2007. “Mind-set matters: exercise and the placebo effect.” Psychological Science 18(2), 165-171.

Gordon, E.M., Chauvin, R.J., Van, A.N. et al. A somato-cognitive action network alternates with effector regions in motor cortex. Nature 617, 351–359 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-023-05964-2

Howe LC, Leibowitz KA, Perry MA, Bitler JM, Block W, Kaptchuk TJ, Nadeau KC, Crum AJ. Changing Patient Mindsets about Non-Life-Threatening Symptoms During Oral Immunotherapy: A Randomized Clinical Trial. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pract. 2019 May-Jun;7(5):1550-1559.

Langer, E. J. 2023. The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health. Ballantine Books, New York, New York.

Vernillo, A, 2009. “Placebos in Clinical Practice and the Power of Suggestion,” The American Journal of Bioethics 9 (12): 32-33.

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