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The Power of Beliefs

Here are a couple of fascinating examples that show how powerful beliefs can be. First, the placebo effect. We normally think of a placebo effect as something that is ‘fake’ or ‘all in someone’s head’ but some recent studies show that some placebo effects can involve biological changes. In a study on knee surgeries, they split up people who had osteoarthritis knee pain into three groups. People in two of these groups underwent the typical surgery for treating this condition: cutting into the knee and trimming off or flushing out excess cartilage. But people in the third group underwent a ‘placebo surgery’: they were put under, had small cuts made in their knee (to mimic the cuts from surgery), but didn’t receive any treatment (nothing was done to their cartilage). They found that people in this group tended to believe that they had received the real surgery and even up to years afterward, reported just as much pain relief and increased mobility (and sometimes more) than those who got the actual treatment!

Another example is the Milkshake study. In this study, they split people up into two groups and gave them the same milkshake (which was 380 calories). However, for one group it was labeled as a ‘140 calorie, sensible shake’ and for the other, it was labeled as a ‘620 calorie, indulgent shake’. They found that people's bodily response changed depending on what they believed about the milkshake: in the ‘620 calorie group’ their bodies produced higher levels of the ‘fullness’ hormone and their metabolisms were more active (and the opposite in the ‘140 calorie group’).

Here’s one more example around breaking ‘the four-minute mile’ world record. Since 1886, the best runners in the world had been training day in and day out to try to break this record. Some got close, but for almost 70 years no one was able to until 1954, when Roy Baumeister did. Crazily, once he had broken it, in the couple of weeks afterward, 12 more runners broke it! These 12 runners had been trying to break this record for most of their adult lives, but were not able to until they truly believed that it was possible (by hearing that someone else had done it).

Examples like these really affect how I understand my mental disorder and how I approach my symptoms, therapy, and medication because they show how much power our beliefs truly have. We all accept that our beliefs can impact our body, for example: I believe cardio exercise is good for my mental health, and then that motivates me to start running, and through running, I gradually alter the functioning of my brain and the rest of my body, and that helps me feel less depressed; or I believe that I should start taking a prescribed medication, then that motivates me to start taking the medication, and then this medication gradually alters the levels of neurotransmitters in my brain, which then makes me feel less anxiety. But the cases I mentioned above about knee surgery, milkshakes, and the four-minute mile are fascinating because it seems like something different is going on: a person’s belief - all by itself, without a bunch of other steps in between - seems to directly change their bodily state.

It would be almost like just believing you had been running (even if you hadn’t) was enough to make you feel less depressed or like just believing you had been taking this medication (even if you hadn’t) was enough to lessen your anxiety. While I don’t think that adopting those particular beliefs would have a significant effect, there are other ways we can try to harness the power of beliefs. For example, a lot of research indicates that our beliefs about treatment and medication - like how competent we think our doctor/therapist is and how effective we think our medication is - can play a big role in increasing or decreasing their effect on us. Because of this, before deciding to start seeing any therapist or start taking any medication or other treatment I generally do a lot of research and ask all about the possible positive and negative effects in order to make an informed decision. But once I decide to do it, I only read about people’s positive experiences with it - and avoid any negative accounts. Doing this I think helps me pay more attention to and actually experience more of the positive effects rather than the negative effects.

Another interesting area that this applies to is the effect of our beliefs about what exactly a mental disorder is. For example, some studies suggest that people and societies that believe that mental disorders are purely biological (e.g. they are nothing but an imbalance of brain chemicals) tend to feel both less guilt and responsibility about their mental disorder but also more helpless, less in control, and sometimes more severe negative symptoms. This is in contrast to people and societies who attribute more meaning, sometimes even spiritual meaning to mental disorders. Another difference that I wrote about in a previous blog post is whether people and societies believe that mental disorders are essentially, automatically negative and the result of malfunctioning vs. that they are sometimes the result of helpful adaptations and can have some real benefits.

The tricky thing is that even though you might want to alter your beliefs about some of these things - you want to start thinking that your medication is more effective or you want to stop thinking that your disorder is purely biological - these beliefs are really difficult to just sit down and ‘think your way out of’. That’s because these beliefs seem to rely a lot on the evidence you look at and the views and experiences of those around you in your community and larger culture. But, it’s still possible and potentially really helpful to try and impact them - you just might need to be a little more creative in how you do it!


This is actually one of the things that I’m researching - how we come to have these beliefs, the effects that they have, and how we might change them - and especially how all of this might be impacted by experiences with religion and/or spirituality. We’re currently looking for more participants in our current research study addressing some of these ideas. If you or someone you know might be interested in joining our study (and earning $20) check out the study description and take our initial questionnaire!

We’re also running another study on mental health and religion in adolescents (and those who work with adolescents) - so, if you or someone you know might be interested in joining this study check out the study description and take our initial questionnaire!

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