Mind over Matter? The Link Between Expectation and Healthspan

James Kay

January 22, 2023

Mind over matter is an idiom that has been used across centuries and is usually bandied around when we’re talking about feats of extreme endurance. It’s an idiom that spans across disciplines- from philosophy to spirituality: Mind over Matter? The Link Between Expectation and Healthspan.

The placebo effect, a well-known phenomenon, was arguably used by Plato and was incorporated into ‘modern’ medicine over the course of the 18th century. Medical science has been investigating the seemingly strange power that our beliefs hold over our physicality since placebos were introduced into medical trials around 70 years ago.

So, what potential impacts does our mindset have on our health and overall longevity? In this post, we’ll be exploring the placebo effect, and ‘the expectation effect’ and providing some helpful tips on how you can adjust your mindset to maximize health benefits.

The Placebo Effect

The U.S. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes the placebo effect as a ‘beneficial health outcome resulting from a person’s anticipation that an intervention will help’. Simply, an individual with a health problem (or perceived health problem) will see some positive developments in regard to their condition if they believe that a healthcare professional, special diet or pharmaceutical drug can alleviate their health problem then it will… even if, medically speaking, it won’t.

Stories regarding the power of the placebo effect abound. One such notable example can be found in Bruno Klopfer’s 1957 paper ‘Psychological Variables in Human Cancer’. This example details the case of Mr. Wright, who had received every treatment and still had terminal, debilitating cancer. A new drug, Krebiozen, was tested on individuals in his position at the hospital. Mr. Wright was excited to try the new drug and following treatment, his tumors shrank dramatically… but, strangely, no other trial patients showed signs of improvement.

After ten days, Mr. Wright was discharged from the hospital as his tumors had halved in size. After two months, Mr. Wright returned to the hospital with a resurgence of his cancer after having read reports that Krebiozen wasn’t the miracle drug that it had appeared to be. The doctors provided him with a non-Krebiozen injection and he improved even more than he had previously. He was again discharged from the hospital, symptom-free. Mr. Wright would die two months later- days after having read further reports confirming that Krebiozen did not work at all.

In more recent years, an example of the placebo effect can be found surrounding the GlaxoSmithKline drug Eltroxin. When first released, there were 14 reported cases of side effects from those taking the drug. Years later, GSK changed its manufacturer. The appearance and taste of the tablets changed, but the same ingredients were used and testing showed that the drug’s efficacy and molecular delivery also remained exactly the same. However, following the rollout of the new drug, over 1400 complaints were received over 18 months. The change in the physical appearance of the drug caused people to believe they were more likely to suffer from side effects!

The above examples of the placebo can seem slightly esoteric, but the placebo effect has recently been shown to positively improve health even when administered with the patient being fully aware that the ‘drug’ they are being given isn’t designed to help- a so-called ‘open-label’ placebo. Research continues in the field but is promising to open up a new field in healthcare provision.

So we now know what placebos are, we’ve read some examples and they seem to be useful for people who are already suffering from varied health conditions… but how on earth could they assist us to maximize our longevity?

The Expectation Effect

Early last year, The Expectation Effect, a book written by David Robson was published. You’ve already seen one of the titbits from the book above- the placebo story about GlaxoSmithKline’s shift in production. This book, ‘The Expectation Effect’ is an interesting, exploratory piece that brings together over 400 meticulously well-vetted studies, illustrating how we can harness the power of our minds to improve our quality of sleep, eat better and even age that bit slower.

Robson’s book hones in on how our mental expectation of something frequently results in that expectation becoming true. Simply, our mental models influence our physical reality.

For example, most people would argue that when you’re restless at night then you’re grumpy in the morning. Most people attribute this to the lack of sleep. However, this groggy, grumpy feeling actually turns out to be a result of the expectation effect. Studies that have provided people with incorrect information about their sleep the night before have measured that an individual’s mood can be influenced by being told their sleep pattern was good or bad.

As a result of the effect, you could be forgiven for thinking that the best thing one can do is to expect happiness. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t the best way to make use of expectations as Robson states ‘a fixation on happiness can lead us to frame the small, inevitable upsets of life as something inherently undesirable and damaging’. So, what is the best way in which we can put the expectation effect into practice? What areas can it assist us in?

Maximise Your Mindset

Now we’ve covered ‘the expectation effect’, here are some tips to try in order to take advantage of this interesting concept of mind over matter;

  1. Decrease stress levels. With mainstream ‘positive thinking’ advice, the typical go-to is to simply try and imagine that you’re not actually stressed. However, with the expected effect in mind (pun intended), it is pretty much impossible to change the way you’re feeling. What you can change, however, is whether you see stress as a total negative or whether you can also see that stress serves an evolutionary purpose. By shifting our mental attitude toward how we feel, not our feelings themselves, you can exact a real improvement to your mental and physical health.
  2. Healthy eating. Robson argues that people unrealistically expect healthier foods to contain fewer calories and be the less satisfying choice. When people naturally begin to feel hungry sometimes after a healthy meal, they ascribe this to be a result of their earlier healthy choice. This effect can be seen in the hormonal system- which drives us to make an unhealthier choice following our healthy one! Robson suggests refocusing your mind into a more pragmatic thought process- reflecting on the nutrients your body needs and what that meal has provided you with. He also stresses developing an indulgent mood toward healthier choices, a change in mindset that paints them as more of a luxurious choice for our bodies as opposed to a boring, lesser choice.
  3. Aging. It appears that ageism in society and the stereotyping of the elderly actually yield a negative health benefit for those in older age. Robson cites a study that has shown that the attitude of a person toward old age can affect their healthspan and their longevity, with those that see the positives of aging living for up to seven years longer than those with a negative outlook. Therefore, it’s important to cultivate a positive attitude and to look at the myriad benefits that await us in our older years.
  4. Good vibes. You may have heard a relative or friend talk about ‘energy’ or ‘vibes’ and dismissed it… or you may believe in it yourself! As it turns out, it has been proven that the belief (or energy, or vibe) of an individual can have a tangible effect on those around them. A ‘nocebo’ study mentioned by Robson focused on altitude sickness. A single student of 121 ascending a mountain was told of the effects of altitude sickness- a later survey found that 83% of those talked to by the trigger student complained of an altitude headache… compared to 53% of those who hadn’t been informed of altitude side effects. It may sound alien to those miserable gutses out there (myself included)- but it’s important to try and radiate positivity and to avoid getting caught up in negativity.

In Closing

Mind over Matter? The Link Between Expectation and Healthspan

Our deeply-rooted beliefs and expectations affect our overall longevity to a surprising degree- in some ways, you get what you expect. Because of this, it’s essential to maintain an optimistic attitude and to expect the best for ourselves. Changes will not happen overnight, but a concerted attempt to adjust our outlook can reap wonders in the long run. Our brain is constantly rewiring itself- and neural pathways are not made in a day. Through the utilization of the expectation effect, we can influence our bodies and lifestyle choices in a manner that can extend our healthspan and longevity.

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Stay and expect the positive out there!