by Aida Memisevic

When we think about food and exercise the rules seem pretty clear. If you exercise you burn calories. When you eat food you ingest calories. In the end it’s about calories in, versus calories out, right?

Well… it may not be that simple.

Psychological scientists have discovered the powerful effect that ‘suggestion’ can have on our lives. This occurs as a result of our response expectancies, in other words the beliefs we have about how we will respond in any given situation. They are automated internal responses that help orchestrate the specific outcomes we believe will occur.

Our thoughts and behaviours then support us to bring that expectation or ‘truth’ to fruition. You may have heard the old adage; whether you believe you can do something or you believe you can’t, either way you are right.

Scientist Elia Crum and her research associates have studied the correlation of beliefs on our body’s response to food and exercise. Crum created a huge batch of vanilla milkshakes. Forty participants were asked to read the label, drink and then rate the milkshake of each batch. The first week the batch of milkshakes were marked as a ‘140 Calorie Sensible Shake’. When participants came back the second week, the milkshakes were labelled as ‘620 Calorie Indulgent Shake’.

The biological measurement indicator the scientists used for the experiment was measuring levels of ghrelin, measured through intravenous blood samples. The scientists measured the participants’ ghrelin levels before, during and after the shakes were consumed.

The aim of the experiment was to evaluate whether the body would respond differently depending on the mindset the person had towards consuming the food. In other words would there be a different physiological response based on what the participants ‘believed’ they were drinking: a low calorie, healthy shake, or a rich, decadent high calorie shake. In truth, the shakes were exactly alike, each had 380 calories.

Biologists will tell you that when ghrelin levels rise, it’s a driver of hunger, signalling to the body to seek food. Decreasing levels signal to the brain that the body is satiated and to stop consuming food. Although both shakes were identical, the participants’ ghrelin levels decreased almost three times more when people ‘believed’ they were consuming the high calorie shake, as opposed to their body reacting to the actual nutritional value of what they consumed.

…although both shakes were identical, the participants’ ghrelin levels decreased almost three times more…

This research has  profound implications that point to our thoughts, more precisely our ‘beliefs’ having a deep influence and ability to change our physiological, metabolic responses to the content and calorie count of a food. The experiment seemed to point to the argument that we react with physiological accuracy to what we ‘believe’ is happening in our body.

So if our mindset can have that kind of impact on how our body processes food, how would exercise be impacted by our beliefs? In one of Crum’s other studies, she observed hotel room attendants. Attendants clean on average 15 rooms per day, each room taking up to 30 minutes to complete, yet when asked, most of the attendants did not consider their work as ‘exercise’.

Researchers Crum and Langer divided the attendants into two groups. One group had been given fitness education about the impact of their manual labour on their health; with researchers explaining that they, the participants, were actually getting a daily physical workout equivalent to what the surgeon general recommends for a healthy lifestyle. The other group, the control group, was not given any information.

Each group was monitored for four weeks with nothing changing in the attendants’ amount of work, or amount of exercise outside of work, or change in dietary intake. When the scientists looked at the results, attendants in the treatment group who had been told, and now believed they were getting a daily work out, reacted with physical changes: they lost weight; lowered their body fat percentages and waist-to-hip ratios, and systolic blood pressures dropped.

People in the control group showed no such improvement. The only indicated variable of change was that the treatment group now understood and believed they were getting exercise, a powerful indicator of how our beliefs can impact our physiology.

A belief can be described as a mental architecture of how we interpret ourselves and the world. Cognitively we would be overwhelmed with data, as our brain has to filter millions of internal and environmental sensory impulses per second. Based on our ingrained personal truths and beliefs, the reticular activating system in our brain helps to bring to conscious attention what information it deems to be important to us, what it ‘believes’ to be true.

So it seems that in addition to beliefs constructing our own unique reality of the world, they can affect our biological processes, and apparently our taste buds. The National Academy of Sciences published a paper by Plassmann and his research team, looking at how taste and pleasure were affected by the quality and value of what we believed we are ingesting.

Logic dictates that taste should be based on the molecular composition of a food or drink, with each of us having our own individual preferences. But can those preferences be changed, based on inert suggestion? The scientists scanned twenty participants in a functional MRI machine while drinking wine (probably the first time that has been done!) to see if neural representations of experienced pleasantness would change depending on what the person believed was the price point of the wine.

There were a number of wine samples given, and unknown to the subjects the same wine was introduced at both a high and low price point. The results showed that the participants reported the higher priced wine as having higher levels of flavor pleasantness, as well as blood oxygen levels in the medial orbitofrontal cortex. It seemed that the brain created the experienced pleasantness by correlating the actual properties of the wine with the expectations about how flavourful it ‘should be’ based on what the participant believed was the price point.

In addition to these studies surrounding eating and exercise, there have been a number of anecdotal stories documented by medical professionals dealing with Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder). Sometimes medical conditions possessed by one personality will disappear when another personality takes over, including seemingly instant biological shift changes such as allergy reactions, changes in glucose levels, vocal patterns and eye colour variations. One interesting case was documented by the controversial Dr. Bennett Braun, original founder of the International Society for the Study of Multiple Personality.

…sometimes medical conditions possessed by one personality will disappear when another personality takes over…

He described a case in which all five of the personalities of a patient were allergic to orange juice, except one. If the man drank orange juice when he was being one of the allergic personalities, he would break out in a terrible rash. But, if he switched to his non-allergic personality, the rash would instantly start to fade, and he could drink orange juice with no medical consequences; creating a seemingly impossible instant, physiological change.

Scientists have dealt with such anomalies surrounding a patient’s beliefs for years in health care experiments and trials, known as the placebo effect. But oftentimes this powerful effect is discounted, almost as a nonsensical factor. However, today scientists are beginning to look at how beliefs affect us in an entirely new light, exploring how to harness the potential and power of beliefs to create positive change.

Maybe one day soon instead of a pill, the doctor will prescribe a required ‘belief shift’.

Aida Memisevic is a media, marketing and digital entrepreneur who utilizes mindset and brain optimization strategies to help create radical performance shifts.