‘Our minds aren’t passive observers simply perceiving reality as it is; our minds actually change reality. In other words, the reality we will experience tomorrow is in part a product of the mindsets we hold today.’
David Robson is a science writer. His book sets out to show the power of expectation in shaping the direction of our lives. He argues convincingly that body, brain and culture interact potently to produce the beliefs which then become self-fulfilling prophecies and largely determine our longevity, fitness, cognitive function, productivity, and mental well-being. It’s easy to read, engaging, thoroughly researched and has comprehensive footnotes..
The case studies are largely contemporary and carefully chosen to bolster some leading neuroscientists’ views of the brain as a ‘prediction machine.’ Our brains ‘construct an elaborate simulation of the world, based as much on expectations and previous experiences as the raw data hitting our senses.’ This predictive capacity shapes and in some cases transforms everyday experience.
Robson describes how people who believe ageing brings wisdom live longer, how reappraising stress as ‘energising’ increases creativity under pressure, why teacher expectation shifts pupil performance and provides many novel illustrations of how anticipatory framing adjusts real-life experience in, for example, medicine, mental health, physical fitness and ageing, diet and nutrition, stress and anxiety, willpower, cognitive function and memory.
Amongst a proliferation of fascinating insights i enjoyed those which looked at re-framing anxiety and in particular the experiment with students about to sit a standardised test. Before taking a practice exam in the laboratory, half of the participants were provided with the following information: ‘People think that feeling anxious while taking a standardized test will make them do poorly on the test. However, recent research suggests that arousal doesn’t hurt performance on these tests and can even help performance – people who feel anxious during a test might actually do better. This means that you shouldn’t feel concerned if you do feel anxious while taking today’s GRE test. If you find yourself feeling anxious, simply remind yourself that your arousal could be helping you do well.’
This small piece of guidance – a minimal instruction that would have taken less than a minute to read – not only improved students’ scores on the mock exam, but these participants also performed better on the real test a few months later.
Something to Try
Try visualisation before a challenging task. It’s like a mental pre-mortem where you can anticipate potential hiccups and embed solutions as they arise. Stay positive throughout the experience and ensure your perspective is internal so you are ‘living’ the experience. Michael Phelps who won 23 Olympic Golds did this before very race. During training, and in preparation before a big event, he would imagine the perfect race. ‘I can see the start, the strokes, the walls, the turns, the finish, the strategy, all of it,’ he wrote in his autobiography, No Limits. ‘Visualising like this is like programming a race in my head, and that programming sometimes seems to make it happen just as I imagined it.’ Scientific experiments have confirmed that the effects of visualisation can be profound, for professional sportspeople and casual exercisers alike