There seems to be a simple way to instantly increase a person’s level of general knowledge. Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan recently asked two groups of people to answer questions. People in one group were told that before each question, the answer would be briefly flashed on their screens — too quickly to consciously perceive, but slow enough for their unconscious to take it in. The other group was told that the flashes simply signaled the next question. In fact, for both groups, a random string of letters, not the answers, was flashed. But, remarkably, the people who thought the answers were flashed did better on the test. Expecting to know the answers made people more likely to get the answers right.
In many cases, thinking that we are limited is itself a limiting factor. There is accumulating evidence that suggests that our thoughts are often capable of extending our cognitive and physical limits.
We also tend to think that our bodies respond to physical exercise in a mechanical way. We count our calorie intake, the calories we lose on a treadmill, etc. However, merely changing our thoughts about our physical activity seems capable of changing our bodies. Hotel room attendants clean on average 15 rooms per day, each room taking between 20 and 30 minutes to complete. (The physical activity involved meets the Surgeon General’s recommendation of at least 30 minutes of physical exercise per day for a healthy lifestyle.) However, most hotel room attendants believe that they do not get regular exercise; and a lot of them believe that they do not get any exercise at all.
In a recent study hotel room attendants were informed their work provided the recommended exercise for a healthy lifestyle. This treatment group was monitored for 4 weeks. A control group of hotel room attendants, who were not told that their work provided the recommended exercise, was also monitored. People in the treatment group lost weight; their body fat percentages, waist-to-hip ratios, and systolic blood pressures dropped. People in the control group showed no such improvement. These changes occurred despite the fact that the hotel room attendants’ amount of work, amount of exercise outside of work, and diets stayed the same!
Expectancies, such as expecting that one’s work will bring about health benefits, are capable of producing physiological outcomes. Learned associations, such as the association between being an Air Force pilot and having good vision, can alter other cognitive processes, such as visual perception. Meanwhile, positive placebo effects observed in clinical research work via expectancies and learned associations created by fake operations, sham drugs, etc. have been shown to change the chemistry and circuitry of the brain. These changes may result in such physiological and cognitive outcomes as less fatigue, less immune system reaction, elevated hormone levels, and less anxiety.
These are likely manifestations of an adaptation that helped us survive throughout our evolutionary history by helping us prepare for the future. For example, when subtle cues in an environment trigger thoughts about a predator, that in turn triggers physiological changes that prepare the body for the impending confrontation even before the predator comes into sight.
If mindsets can change us, maybe we can deliberately choose our mindsets to improve our abilities. We can choose to adopt a mindset that improves creativity, for instance. People who think of categories as flexible and actively focus on the novel aspects of the environment become more creative. When people were asked to solve a problem that required creative use of available objects, only people who were introduced conditionally to unfamiliar objects could solve the problem.
As this line of research advances, we will likely discover new ways of taking control of our mindsets. We have significant psychological resources to improve our well-being and performance, but these resources often go unused and could be better harnessed by each of us through mindfulness of the body and the mind. The mind and body are not separate; our thoughts have remarkable control over our bodies; and our mindsets are capable of improving not only our bodies but our brains’ performance as well.