Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Oh, Nevermind: Mind Over Body

“See, the human mind is kind of like...a piñata. When it breaks open, there's a lot of surprises inside. Once you get the piñata perspective, you see that losing your mind can be a peak experience.”
~ Jane Wagner

When I signed up for a lecture titled “Health: The Surprising New Science on the Power of Mind Over Body” by Catherine Sanderson, I was hoping the emphasis would be on real science, not New Age theories, and I wasn’t disappointed. Sanderson is an adjunct professor in the Department of Psychology at Amherst College. She lives at the intersection of social psychology/personality and the body.

Professor Sanderson’s first topic was food — specifically, the way the appearance of food influences our appetites. One experiment involved an “endless soup bowl.” The bowl automatically refilled itself as people ate…and ate…and ate without realizing they were consuming more than one bowl. In another experiment, a group of hungry students walked into a classroom that smelled like chocolate brownies, but when they saw that the brownies were shaped to resemble dog food, they lost their appetites. Diet tip!

Speaking of dieting, considerable research has been done among the group of lab rats known as college students. Professor Sanderson described a phenomenon known as “tray gazing” — the way female students in Amherst's college cafeteria scope out what’s on other people’s trays. A large percentage of young women would have you believe they live on salads. The truth is, the public salad is often followed by cookie-gorging back in the dorm room. Another, more disturbing study found that young women believe the ideal weight for a 5’7” woman is 100 lbs. — a height-weight combo that meets the clinical criteria for anorexia.

And then there's love, sex and attraction. Did you know that men who watch a lot of porn find real women less attractive? Well now you do. Another interesting finding: most of us think of ourselves as more attractive than we actually are; only depressed people see themselves realistically. As Professor Sanderson put it, “Psychologically healthy people are delusional.”

Professor Sanderson is an extremely engaging speaker with a good sense of humor. She spent several hilarious minutes on the way increasing your heartbeat can lead to all sorts of unintended consequences — including marriage. That topic is well worth its own blog post and will get one, soon.

For now, let me leave you with Professor Sanderson's list of six things we can all do to improve ourselves.
  • Eat mindfully. Pay attention to portion size. Also pay attention to whether you’re actually hungry — we are all prey to the seduction of yummy-looking or -smelling food. 
  • Beware of false food norms. Most of us eat more than we claim.
  • Buy the generic brand — but put it in a brand-name bottle. You’ll feel better.
  • Get a dog. People with dogs live longer. (Sorry, cats just don’t have that effect…possibly because you don’t have to go out and walk them.)
  • Extend your self-delusion to your loved ones: see them through rose-colored glasses.
  • If you want to improve your sex life, get your heart racing.

“The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.”
~ John Milton


  1. It's Amherst College, not Amherst University.

  2. Thank you. Noted and corrected. (This is what I get for writing a blog post on too little sleep and with not enough time.)