Thursday, June 18, 2009

Power of the Mind – It’s even weirder than you think

Paper we’re looking at: “Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect” by Alia J. Crum and Ellen J. Langer

We’ve all heard about the Placebo effect, right? It’s that crazy thing where your mind makes your body act like it EXEPCTS it should. So it’ll make you feel better when you’re sick and are given “medicine”, even if that medicine is only a sugar pill.

In fact, the “sugar pill” is the most common way to describe a placebo. But the placebo effect is way weirder and way more powerful than just feeling better when you’ve got the sniffles, as this paper shows.

Here’s just some of the craziness explaining the placebo effect that leads off this paper:

• Subjects exposed to fake poison ivy developed real rashes
• People imbibing placebo caffeine experienced increased motor performance and heart rate (and other effects congruent with the subjects’ beliefs and not with the pharmacological effects of caffeine)
• Patients given anesthesia and a fake knee operation experienced reduced pain and swelling in their ‘‘healed’’ tendons and ligaments.
• The mere presence of a doctor increases patients’ blood pressure

Look at those again. It’s utterly freaking ridiculous and amazing. Those are some VERY real effects from doing nothing more than convincing people they SHOULD see effects.

These just scratch the surface of the placebo effect, of course. For the bulk of this post, we’re going to look at the research that Alia Crum did on what seems to be another CRAZY question:

Are the benefits of exercise just an example of the placebo effect?

Now, she did something VERY cool here. Instead of looking at whether or not you could convince somebody who wasn’t exercising that they were (which would be pretty hard to do) to see if there was any placebo effect, she went the other way – And looked at people who ARE doing exercise every day, but probably don’t think of it that way.

Specifically, she looked at chamber maids in hotels. These women are doing physical work ALL DAY long, far exceeding the surgeon generals recommended daily exercise requirements. All the sheet folding, floor scrubbing, and cart pushing adds up over a day – If you don’t believe me, try cleaning a few dozens rooms in a hotel and see how good you feel at the end. :)

So Alia broke the chamber maids up into 2 groups, and made sure that there was only one group per hotel. Group 1 was given a detailed description of how everything they did could be looked at as exercise – EG: “Changing linens for 15 min burns 40 calories, vacuuming for 15
min burns 50 calories, and cleaning bathrooms for 15 min burns 60 calories.”

Group 2 was told about the benefits of exercise, but they weren’t told that their work itself could constitute exercise or specifically how they were burning calories & exercising as they did their jobs.

So what happened? Get ready for the crazy. From the paper:

“After only 4 weeks of knowing that their work is good exercise, the subjects in the informed group lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their systolic BP by 10 points, and were significantly
healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, BMI [Body Mass Index], and WHR [Waist to Hip Ratio]. These were small but meaningful changes given the state of health the subjects were in, especially considering that the change occurred in just 4 weeks. All of these changes were significantly greater than the changes in the control group.”

So with NO changes, and only being informed that what they were doing constituted exercise, these women:

• Lost weight
• Improved their blood pressure
• Built more muscle
• Had smaller waists

So what the hell happened here? Nothing, and everything.

The women in this study thought about things they were already doing in a new way. Before the study, they thought about the work they were doing as work. It wasn’t exercise, because exercise was something you had to go out of your way to do.

Thanks to the study, though, they were able to have a small but significant change in the way they looked at the world. They could work AND exercise at the same time, and in fact had been all along. When they realized this, without changing a SINGLE THING, they got all the health benefits of exercise.

That’s damn near magic.

It suggests a couple of things for the rest of us, both on a practical and philosophic level.

First, it suggests that by opening our minds and learning to think about things in new ways, we can create a TREMENDOUS positive impact on our lives. How can we find areas where we’re actually being healthier than we thought? How can we find ways where we’re smarter, or more skilled, or more talented than we thought?

Second, it implies that our minds are RIDICULOUSLY powerful, but if we’re not VERY clear about what we’re doing, then our minds won’t give us all of the benefits that are there.

Remember, these women didn’t do any MORE exercise – They just shifted perspective and realized they’d been exercising all along. That suggests that it’s not just the physical exercise itself that’s important for health, but really understanding WHEN and HOW we’re exercising.

So, are there other areas of your life where your mind is keeping you from getting all the benefits you could and should be getting?

If you think no, then you haven’t been paying attention.

No comments:

Post a Comment