A number of varying views exist regarding the capabilities of conscious thought.
The spectrum ranges from meager to significant, typically dependent on the level of empirical validation you require to substantiate your views.
A consensus does not exist because science has only begun to understand the complexities of the human brain. However, there is one phenomena that often arises that seemingly substantiates the notion that we should not be quick to dismiss the power of thought – placebos. Yet there are some misconceptions worth examining.
When most of us think of the Placebo Effect, we think of sugar pills fooling our bodies into healing themselves. This is verifiably accurate – depending on how you define “healing”.
Placebos have produced demonstrable results on subjective symptoms. For things like pain, there is no objective answer regarding how much you have. You may rate the same pain as a 5 on one day and a 7 on the next – and someone else with a different threshold may rate the same pain as a 2. What is important is that blind studies have consistently shown that you can convince your mind you are feeling better without any external assistance. There is value in this.
But consider something more objective, like a broken arm. The doctor doesn’t need your opinion to determine whether its broken, and your belief about whether your arm is broken has nothing to do with it.
And this is where the misconceptions lie. Placebos do not work as a cure in an objective sense. You can think yourself into feeling better, but there is no testable evidence that you think your way into a physical repair.
To illustrate this disparity, consider a common blind study. Take 3,000 ordinary people who have reported painful arthritis and divide them into three equal groups.
Group A: 1,000 people who receive pain medication Group B: 1,000 people who receive a placebo Group C: 1,000 people who receive nothing
With an effective medicine, what you typically find is improvement in Group A that significantly exceeds Group B and Group C. If the results of Group A do not outperform the others, then the medicine is considered ineffective.
What is interesting in a study like this is that often Group B will outperform Group C (though not always) which indicates that the expectation that you will feel less pain actually makes you feel better.
Now compare this same style of study to a group of people with a torn ACL (detached ligament). The only remedy for this is physically reattaching the ligament with surgery since a detached ligament will not naturally heal the way a broken bone can.
Group D: 1,000 people who receive surgery Group E: 1,000 people who are led to believe they receive surgery Group F: 1,000 people who receive nothing
We don’t need to go into depth to see that there are going to be about 2,000 very disappointed people from Group E and Group Fregardless of what they thinkabout the surgery.
A placebo could certainly be used to positively affect the morale of a patient which can play a role in the outcome of treatment, but this is not the same as suggesting that the placebo is capable of physically curing anything.
What should be clear is that there is nothing about the Placebo Effect that suggests your thoughts directly correlate with physical change. And therein lies the crux of the misconception – In subjective areas, what you think is of immense value. In objective matters, its irrelevant.
We see this fallacy often materialize in the self-help industry when trying to exhibit the power of the thought.
In instances where the Placebo Effect is used to support ideas such as maintaining a positive outlook (subjective), this aligns well with the facts. Placebos can affect how you feel, which in turn can influence how you act. Thus in a similar manner, your internal thinking can influence your attitude and self esteem, which will determine the nature of your actions.
Yet in instances where the Placebo Effect is used to illustrate the notion that what you think can influence physical changes (objective), the correlation entirely breaks down. There is no amount of thought that can change your dog into a cat. Conveniently overlooking this fact is a nice way to promote credible sounding nonsense.
Although the difference above is cut and dry – there exists room for study that suggest things are not so simple. Physiology, which deals with the manner in which the body operates, is far from a complete set of knowledge.
There is still much to learn about the intricacies of the body-brain relationship, specifically with respect to the central nervous system. It is not known how much can be consciously controlled, but it is clear thoughts can consciously control some vital functions.
You can illustrate this yourself with a simple experiment involving a heart rate monitor. With a minimal amount of practice, you can control your heart rate merely by thinking very calming or very stressful thoughts. If you don’t have such a device handy, just consider the last time you were unexpectedly frightened and what it did to your heart rate.
What is especially interesting is that whatever frightened you (the objective element) is irrelevant. Whether you experienced a legitimate threat or a prank is isn’t what matters – what is relevant is what you thought. You literally changed your endorphin levels solely with your thoughts.
Suddenly it would seem, at least to a vary small extent, you are able to control some physical elements with mere thought (those within your own body).
Does this translate into being able to physically heal ourselves with thoughts? Much to the chagrin of many in the self-help industry, no, as there is no testable evidence that intentionally controlling things like endorphin levels leads to any positive physical changes (there can be negative results, such as being literally scared to death).
While most views that attribute great ability to the power of thought remain wishful thinking, we certainly don’t know enough to slam the door shut on possibilities.
Though you may not yet be able to manifest physical change merely by thinking, the manner in which you think certainly plays a role in your emotional state – not to mention how pleasant you are to be around.
Thus there is at least one core idea from this that everyone will recognize – the value of perception.