The Power of Belief



It is amazing how much power belief can have, especially when it comes to our minds and bodies. There is an entire book that deals with this concept: Timeless Healing, by Dr. Herbert Benson and Marg Stark. Dr Benson is the pioneering meditation researcher who coined the phrase “the relaxation response”.

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I first encountered this at West Point. We got inspected in full dress uniforms every saturday, with our M14 rifles. A key part was “inspection arms”: As the officer turned towards you, you had to bring the rifle up to your left hand, holding it diagonally across your body, then quickly slide the bolt open with a sweeping motion with your right hand. There were two fairly stiff springs that had to be pushed back. If you didn’t do this smoothly and correctly, you’d get dinged for “improper manual” (5 demerits). That would mean, for someone who was incapable of doing inspection arms, automatically 20 demerits per month. That would blow your whole quota (any demerits over that led to an hour of a phenomenally boring punishment called “walking the area”). So we were highly motivated to get this right. But it was quite a challenge for scrawny little guys like I was at the time.

I’d struggle with all my might to hold the rifle straight with my left hand, while also struggling to get the bolt to slide open with my right. My squad leader then gave me a tip that worked amazingly well. “Don’t worry about your left arm. It’s made of concrete. Just put all your energy into opening the bolt”. And now what was previously a struggle was almost effortless. I couldn’t wait till the next inspection to show off my new skill. But what was going on here? Why did imagining my left arm was made of concrete work? I think the explanation is that when you’re attempting a physical activity with yout conscious mind, you can accidentally activate both agonist muscles (that do what you want such as hold the rifle steady) and antagonist muscles (that oppose the agonist muscles). But by using your imagination, your unconscious takes over and knows exactly what muscles to use.

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Inspection Arms

I encountered this again years later when studying Aikido. There’s a beginner exercise, that makes a nice parlor trick, called the “energy arm”: Hold your arm out straight in front so it’s horizontal, and try to resist when someone pulls down on it. Then repeat the exercise, but instead of resisting, pretend your arm is shooting a ray of energy towards the far wall (or you can pretend it’s a fire hose gushing water). Most people will find the arm is a lot stronger this way. The explanation given is that you are tapping into your internal energy, or Ki in Japanese (Chi in Chinese). Maybe. But I think it could be the same agonist/antagonist muscle effect. Whatever the reason, this made a big difference in executing holds and throws. More advanced students, especially the black belts, made them look effortless, while beginners struggled. I use a similar approach when doing strength training. I try to imagine energy flowing out through the muscles doing the work. I have no proof this makes me stronger, but it does make the exercise more enjoyable.

One of the most famous examples of the power of belief is the placebo effect. Drug manufacturers have to prove their medicine is significantly more effective than a sugar pill. If people don’t know what they are taking, sugar pills can often make them feel better, or even cure their illness, at least one third of the time.

But Dr. Benson showed it’s more powerful than that, by examining statistics on treatments that were once thought to be effective (like using a small dose of rattlesnake venom to treat angina), but are now known to be worthless. In the placebo effect, the person giving you the sugar pill does not know what they are giving you, so their attitude is neutral. But with these obsolete methods, at the time, the doctors and nurses believed they were giving you an effective treatment, and patients would pick up on that confidence, which would boost the power of their own belief. The bottom line is that these treatments could be effective two thirds of the time or more.

The book goes into a lot more details of the mind-body effect and its influence on healing. Unfortunately, there is also a nocebo effect, the opposite of the placebo effect, where wrong beliefs can cause harm.

I had read Timeless Healing before of the first of five surgeries that I have had (3 major, 2 relatively minor). So I was able to use its ideas to my advantageous both preparing to go into surgery and in rehab. Going into surgery, having a strong belief in a positive outcome helped. Maybe I was lucky that my particular surgeries statistically have a high probability of a good outcome. But I think it helped that I focused on the high chance of success rather than the unlikely chance of something going wrong. I had little fear going in because of this and slept well the night before surgery each time.

During rehab, I used a visualization each day that healing light was going where needed in my body. In each case healing went well. Of course you could argue that it could have gone well anyway. But going through the visualization process was itself was relaxing so I think it was worth it.

I’m not advocating blind faith, and a healthy dose of skepticism can come in handy now and then. But positive beliefs contribute to happiness and can lead to better health.