“If your mind can conceive it, you can achieve it”

I like a variation on this quote from Napoleon Hill, which is “you will conceive what you believe”. I first heard this variation when I was preparing for my first marathon run. I don’t remember the runners name, only that, at that time, the woman who said it was a top ranked marathon runner.

Ever since then it has bounced around in my memory and from time to time and I would ponder its meaning. Then I came across a book titled Endure, by Alex Hutchinson, where he explored “Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance”.  After reading that book, all my thinking on the topic coalesced into a life-changing belief...I truly am what I think I am.

The repercussions were profound. Think of yourself as old and slow and you will become old and slow. In any endeavor, the outcome is largely decided before you take the first step; be it a marathon, a new job, a relationship or an invention. The most immediate challenge to this line of thinking is that there are elements in any challenge that are out of one’s control. This is true, but many of them are paper lions, with teeth mostly created by our thoughts. Before you dismiss this as a lot of the old ‘power of positive thinking’, take a look at some of the research I have discovered.

The power of belief

A group of Yale University volunteers were given two variations of a milk shake.  For the first experiment the group was given high calorie milk shake; for the second experiment, a low-calorie milk shake. The appetite hormones plunged after drinking the high calorie shake but did not change after the low-calorie drink. The only problem was that both drinks were identical. This means that the body reacted on a physical and a hormonal level, purely on the input from the brain, not from the actual drink itself. One would expect the physical makeup of the drink, the level of calories, to change the appetite hormonal level, not just the volunteer’s belief regarding the milk shake.

Beliefs can actually cause physical, hormonal changes in the body; changes that one would expect can only come from some ingesting some food or drug that alters the body chemistry.

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In another study, a group of runners ran on a treadmill in a lab on two different occasions. During trial one, the temperature was kept at an uncomfortably warm level. During trail two, the temperature was again kept at an uncomfortably warm level. However, the thermometer in the lab was rigged to display a falsely lower temperature during trial two. The performance of the runners was significantly better during the ‘lower temperature’ condition. Of course, there was no actual difference in temperature. However, the runners believed there was a difference. 

What do we really know?

There seems to be a simple way to instantly increase a person’s level of general knowledge. Psychologists Ulrich Weger and Stephen Loughnan asked two groups of people to answer questions. People in one group were told that before each question, the answer would be briefly flashed on their screens, too quickly to consciously perceive, but it would be slow enough for their unconscious to take it in. The other group was told that the flashes simply signaled the next question. In fact, for both groups, a random string of letters, not the answers, was flashed. The people who thought the answers were flashed did better on the test. Expecting to know the answers made people more likely to get the answers right.

This woman appears to be at the end of some competition, by the looks of it some "Ironman/woman" contest.  So it's decision time.  No doubt she is experiencing pain and fatigue so what to do?  There are only two possible scenarios....1) "I will get over this wall no matter what it takes and finish this race" or 2) "I'm in so much pain I may really hurt myself if I continue.  Best to stop now and compete another day".   Very hard choices every athlete faces and maybe in not such an obvious way, all of us face regularly not in athletic competitions.

It is difficult to overstate the implications of all this. It’s not just a matter of the power of positive thinking. Beliefs can actually cause physical, hormonal changes in the body; changes that one would expect can only come from some ingesting some food or drug that alters the body chemistry. You do conceive what you believe. In my case, I hear the cautionary drumbeat of the limitations of a 73-year-old male constantly.

The challenge for everyone, no matter what their age, is this—is what I am about to believe and do, going to help me attain a more fulfilling life, or is it going to cripple me, physically, emotionally and mentally?

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