Mind Over Matter

When the day is fine, and you hate it to end, don’t you wish you could exert mind over matter, and extend it a few more hours?  Or when your energy is spent, and pain defines your limits, and you feel time is running out – don’t you wish for a way out?  Now, I don’t mean a final exit kind of thing.  Nor the easy solution of popping a pain pill to buy a few hours release.  That’s not what I’m talking about.  I’m talking about those moments when you ask God for help, if you’re a believer, or wish for a helpful God when you are not, and you hear silence, don’t you secretly want to believe in the power of positive thinking?

I don’t believe in magic, so I’m not expecting to twitch my nose like Samantha and rearrange reality.  And since I don’t believe an omnipotent being is listening to our prayers ready to intercede with a helping hand, I’m not talking about supernatural powers.  And I’m not even talking about the power of thought where people believe with right thinking riches will come their way.  No, I’m exploring the subtle effect of the placebo, or why some people don’t get sick during flu epidemics, or why that only 1 person in 20 can lose weight and keep it off, or why some kids learn so much more in the same class as others.

We all know people who overcame extreme odds and won.  We all know about the power of the placebo effect.  We’ve all read fantasy stories where the good witch tells us we had the power all along to go home but didn’t believe it.  Somewhere between the grim reality of fate and the magic of Harry Potter is a realm where the mind has influence.  I’d love to know where the limits of the mind lie.  How come some people can run five day African desert marathons and other healthy people take the elevator to avoid a single flight of stairs?

I’ve always defined my limits by health.  I’ve always felt I had unlimited potential as long as I was healthy.  As soon as I get sick in any way I feel like I’m running up against a concrete wall.  Now that I’m getting older I feel the constraint of many more barriers.  For several years I was constrained by a heart arrhythmia but I finally had a surgical procedure and now I’m better, except that I’ve now got arthritis in a back vertebrae, and maybe a pinched nerve, and pain keeps me from doing more.  Physical therapy is the best my doctors can offer me at this time, but the pain and limitations I live with are ones I wish I could overcome with mind over matter.  I’d like to believe that meditation and yoga could cure my back and leg problems, but is that just being naive?

I always see my limits in terms of biology.  Sleep, energy, disease, age, etc.  Some people define their limits by success, wealth or power.  Others fight habits and impulses that enslave their behavior.  I suppose the young are obsessed with the limits of friendship, possessions, love and sex.  I’m guessing that it is mentally universal that people want to believe they can think their way out of their problems. 

Okay, there are always those people that look for outside intervention, either from God or luck.  I am not concerned with those folks, those who just wait around for providence, fairy godmothers and lady luck.  And yes, I do believe that some people are luckier than others, but isn’t that statistical?  It is possible to flip a coin and get heads 10 times in a row.  Of course, luck can also be proper preparation.

So far in life, I have been lucky, and I’ve gotten past every obstacle of health that has come my way.  I know I’m lucky because I’ve known  so many people that have suffered tragically from birth defects, accidents, disease or horrible degenerative conditions that befall the human body.  Death comes to us all, so our bodies must ultimately fail in some way, we just don’t know how and when.

Now that I’m getting older, each pain, bizarre twinge, weakness, ill feeling makes me wonder if I’ve suddenly received an early warning signal to my doomed fate.  When is a headache due to constipation or an approaching brain tumor?  The last few months I’ve been experiencing numbness in my legs, which makes it even harder to sleep through the night.  Pain in my back, which is under control at the moment, has already forced me to sleep part of the night in bed and part in a chair.  Moving to the chair at 2:30 am feels great to my back that has stiffened up in the bed, but now the chair makes my legs go numb.

If only I could overcome these problems with will power.  I wish through focused thought, by the power mind over matter, that I could heal my body.  The other day I was arguing with a friend who is a professor of counseling psychology whether biology or culture creates most of our behavior.  I was on the side of biology, since I’m a computer programmer, I can understand the idea of biological programming.   My friend argued strongly against that idea.  I asked why.  She said always blaming biology is like making excuses.  Of course, physical health can’t be equated to psychological behavior.  Or can it?

New Age mumbo-jumbo preachers claim realty is all mental.  That’s a seductive philosophy.  It’s wonderful to think we can escape all the evils of life by willing them away.  But how far can such a belief system take us?  Is it our fault if a stray bullet slams into our gut because we allowed ourselves to walk in a slightly bad part of town?  Is my back hurting because I let myself get overweight?  Because the grim reaper eventually harvests us all, does that mean we all mentally accept death in some form?  Do those New Agers go to their death wondering where they made their mental mistake.

We’d like to think that clean living, exercise and a good diet will keep away the doctor.  I know people who never work out and eat whatever they want and never have any trouble with their bodies.  Is that genes or powerful minds at work?

The trouble is, I’m probably wrong in hoping the mind has some degree of influence.  Science shows over and over again this is a cause and effect universe, and that there is an explanation for everything, even though that explanation might not be known to us at the moment.  The New Agers latched onto the spooky world of quantum physics hoping for a gateway to a mystical universe from our purely mechanical reality, but so far atom smashing has revealed none.

In this world, avoiding cavities is only found through the knowledge of dental hygiene and not wishful thinking.  But there’s still that damn placebo effect to deal with.  The placebo effect has even been proven to work for years.  How is the brain tricked?  I wish I knew.

JWH – 9/8/9

6 thoughts on “Mind Over Matter”

  1. I think you have the wrong idea about the placebo-effect. The placebo is used in clinical trials to separate (mainly) psychological factors from ideally both the patient and the scientist from the real effect of the drug in the classic double-blind test. You can’t really give only a placebo to one group of patients and nothing to another, and then talk about a resultant “effect”, because that violates test-protocol and opens the door to all kinds of systematic errors.

    Even if you do look at this effect, recent (meta) studies by Hróbjartsson & P. C. Gøtzsche (http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/118792130/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0) have failed to find anything statistically significant.

    The placebo-effect is a darling of the media, probably because it sounds all mystical, and as you say, there is a very powerful temptation in believing in “mind over matter”. Heck, I want to believe in that too! Unfortunately it doesn’t seem to pan out under the harsh, harsh light of science…

  2. Boris, your link wouldn’t work for me, so I found another to try.

    Doesn’t look like much hope for my desire to find a tiny bit of mystical mind of matter leeway.

    Actually, if you look at it another way, we humans have tremendous power of mind over matter. Consider the average age of death, and how it’s grown over the years. We use our minds to understand reality and then reshape it. We just can’t find magic.

    By the way Boris, you have some wonderful photos on your site.

  3. It’s better that way. I think finding anything mystical (in that no explanation was possible, per definition) would bug the hell out of me. I much prefer our hard to explain, but inherently logical (for a certain value of logical – I am looking at you, quantum physics!) world.

    And thanks for the compliment!

  4. Fascinating monolog, J. I’ve always been interested, too, in why kids in the same family, who go through basically the same things, who experience a tragedy (i.e. one parent dying and the other becoming mentally ill), wind up variously scarred for life or seeming whole. Is there a happiness gene? I did find an interesting study of “high-cry” and “low-cry” babies who were followed longitudinally into adulthood. Yep. There was a correlation between well-adjustedness and perception of happiness and the “low-cry” babies.

    1. Beth, I’ve never even heard of low-cry and high cry babies. I’ll need to research that. I think I found happiness because I found ways to make myself content. Does that imply what kind of baby I was?

  5. I’ll try to find my ancient paper with the cites. The paper was actually about resilience. I was trying to figure out why some of go through hell and come out well-adjusted and able to love, and others (i.e. in the same family) don’t.

    But, yes. Your surmise is essentially the conclusion. The low-cry babies seemed to be able to self-satisfy more easily.

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