Willing your way to good health might sound like wishful thinking, but a new study conducted by Stanford University researchers suggests otherwise. The scientists specifically found that simply convincing someone they have a genetic predisposition to certain health characteristics, both positive and negative — such as a low capacity for exercise, or a tendency to overeat — can actually cause their body to react accordingly, which presumably means that this optimistic toddler has now become the strongest human ever:
To come to this conclusion, the researchers began by testing more than 200 men and women for a gene variant associated with low endurance. They also had them run on a treadmill to measure their actual endurance. The participants were then randomly divided into two groups, one of which was told that they have the gene variant that makes them tire easily, regardless of their actual test results. In other words, both groups were comprised of participants with and without the gene, but only one group was deceived into believing that they all had it.
The researchers then asked both groups to run on the treadmill for a second time, and their abilities adapted accordingly: The participants who were told (regardless of the truth) that they had the gene variant associated with low endurance stopped running 22 seconds sooner than they had previously. Their oxygen uptake and lung capacity was also significantly lower. Meanwhile, the other group — who now believed that they were genetically prone to having higher endurance — ran for longer than they had before, regardless of which genes they actually carried.
To reinforce their findings, the researchers also tested participants for hormones associated with satiation and had them describe how full they felt after consuming a 480-calorie shake. Similar to the endurance group, researchers told a random selection of these participants (true or otherwise) that they carry a gene variant that encourages them to overeat, and they told the others they carry a gene variant that makes them feel full quickly. Similar to the treadmill group, participants who were told that they have the gene that makes them feel satisfied quickly actually felt more full after drinking the same shake than they did before, and their bodies even produced produced 2.5 times more of a hormone that increases satiety.
All of which suggests that mind over matter may actually be a very real phenomenon. “The mindset of being genetically at risk or protected can alter how we feel, what we do and — as this study shows — how our bodies respond,” says lead author Ali Crum in a press release.
Psychologist and psychotherapist Jeanette Raymond further explains this phenomenon by comparing it to the placebo effect. “If we believe that something will work — or won’t work — there’s a change in our neurochemical balances that provides for an excitement,” she says. “When you act on these feelings, you wire the brain for a change toward success in that arena, which epigenetically alters your DNA. Much of what we do and how we operate affects the DNA through this epigenetic mechanism, so it’s perfectly plausible that emotional factors alter DNA.”
Now, the scientists emphasize that more research is needed to truly understand the relationship between our genes, our beliefs and our health. But until then, you can find me convincing myself that I’m actually Malibu from American Gladiators.