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Rational Magic: The Science of Changing Our Expectations
Two new books explore how the way we think about aging, food, medicine, and exercise has surprising physical effects.
The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—
Don't we tell the craziest stories about ourselves? And by stories, I mean the myths we construct around our imagined talents and frailties. It's like we have a little red wagon of covert insecurities and embarrassing vanities that we drag around for a lifetime. Half our assumptions are based on the flimsiest of foundations – singular events whose importance has been magnified by childhood or random comments we've held onto so tightly that we've crushed the context entirely.
Just try telling a friend about your lifelong attempts to camouflage your horrifyingly broad forehead or shocking klutziness and they’ll probably look at you like, "what?"
The trouble is that once an idea burrows into our soft, suggestible brains, we can't help but see evidence of it everywhere, reaffirming stories we picked up at home or in the rough and unforgiving corners of the world.
Those obsolete self-perceptions are sticky little beasts. But shedding the negative ones is an essential quest according to new research indicating that the stories we tell ourselves are even more consequential than we imagined.
In "The Expectation Effect," science writer David Robson looks at how the way we think about aging, food, and sleep can affect our physiology, how our genes express themselves, how we react to allergens, our longevity, and even our propensity for diseases like dementia. Robson reviewed hundreds of studies to explain the new science behind the mind-body-environment connection.
The brain, says Robson is a kind of prediction machine, it prepares us for joy, or pain or the unknown hiding behind an unopened door by constructing a simulation based on our memories and what we’ve absorbed from the culture. And, changing our expectations can affect our corporeal response to everything from medication to exercise.
It’s a kind of rational magic. One example Robson gives is a Harvard study in which hotel cleaners were shown that their work easily amounted to the amount of recommended physical exercise for good health. A month later, researchers found that the cleaners’ fitness had improved with significant changes in blood pressure and weight. Incredibly, just a shift in the way they thought about their bodies and their expectations of the exercise they got had physical benefits.
On the flip side, there was another study in which participants who were told they had a genetic propensity to have trouble with aerobic exercise found that they had less stamina than their peers, regardless of their actual predispositions. And obviously, in the era of social media we are particularly vulnerable to fear marketing and subliminal messages. (Last fall, the Wall Street Journal wrote about a spike in young girls presenting with Tourettes-like symptoms after spending a lot of time watching "Tourettes influencers" on TikTok.)
And the more we hear about the possible adverse effects of a medication, the more likely we are to report experiencing them. In clinical trials for the COVID vaccine, more than a third of those who got a placebo instead of the actual vaccine attributed headaches, fever or other effects to a medication they didn’t take.
Robson also describes how our hunger response can be psychologically driven. Give two people a chocolate bar and tell one it's a "healthy" bar, and they'll feel hungrier than the person who ate the same bar but enjoyed it as a tasty indulgence.
"When we think we are eating fewer calories than we actually are, the body responds as if that's the truth: it feels less sated so that we experience much worse hunger pangs, and it stops burning so much energy to preserve its existing fat stores,” writes Robson. Adding:
“The very worst thing you can do is to eat something depressingly insipid that leaves you feeling deprived."
Most stunning is research showing that the way we think about aging and its benefits could add as many as 7.5 years to our lives.
"If you feel vulnerable, small difficulties will start to seem more threatening," writes Robson. "Over the long term, this could lead to chronically high levels of the hormone cortisol and bodily inflammation, both of which can raise the risk of ill health."
You could say that what we have to fear is fear itself. Other experts like psychologist Becca Levy, a psychology professor at Yale University, and author of “Breaking the Age Code,” are also analyzing this phenomenon. One new study showed that people with more positive views of aging are about half as likely to develop Alzheimer's. (And that included subjects who had a genetic predisposition to dementia.)
That result is just staggering to me. I worked as an aide in a nursing home as a teen, and my grandmother had dementia, as well as my dad. So I’ve seen up close how this disease unravels body and soul. And because of my fearful expectations, I read my home genetic-test like it’s a horoscope and I fret about how often I open the microwave to find a forgotten coffee cup that I heated up the day before. It's tempting to accept the dread as normal and forget that the worry itself can be as bad as many of the things you’re angsting about.
The trick is to overwrite that script for the future.
But it’s not so easy for humans to see beyond the tunnel of now. If we're asked to picture ourselves in twenty years in an MRI scan, our brain doesn't understand that vision as “self.” That person falls into the category of "other." The image we conjure up might be familiar, like a celebrity we recognize but don't know personally, and, alas, she probably wouldn't inspire us to eat better or floss our teeth for her sake.
And yet, I do believe it’s possible to see the folks who whom we will become with more tenderness and optimism. We can learn to tell ourselves stories in which our kids will admire who we become, or we become who we admire.
For now, I'm trying to visualize myself beyond the mental boundaries of the next decade or two. That future me with the wild hair has surely let go of the little red wagon filled with all those documented faults. I can see it rolling back down the hill behind her, papers flying, as she forges onward.
p.s. I should note here that neither author suggests at all that this is a simple recommendation for positive thinking, it’s about understanding the science of how our body responds to our expectations, of anything from aging to pain relief, and the way that stress has a cascading effect.
• On Ritual and How It Can Set You Free from Psyche magazine.
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It’s not beige, it’s not grey: it’s greige – and it’s why all our houses look the same. A delightful piece from the Guardian on why color is also in the mind of the beholder. And why this non-color-color is a sign of divided times. Includes hilarious warring designer quotes, starting with British art historian James Fox who says there is no such thing as a neutral color… “everything is ideological.”
Pride Month images captured by @wordsbymichele in New York City this week, via Instagram