The realness of thinking

I sometimes wonder why our culture finds brain physiology so compelling. For example, I often see science writing that goes something like this: “After performing [some mental or physical task], subjects displayed improved [memory, cognition, sleep, mood]. But not only that, MRI scans showed that their brains literally changed size and shape!

That’s like saying: “After [some exercise program], subjects were able to lift on average 20 more pounds than they were at the start of the program. But not only that, their muscles literally changed size and shape!

Issue 1: If the goal is to lift more weight, then the details of what happened physiologically are irrelevant to whether or not the intervention was a success. (Either the participants got stronger or they didn’t.)

Issue 2: The fact that physiological change occurred should have been obvious, since any change in behavior or ability must be reflected in our physical bodies.

Similarly in the brain-training studies, if the goal is to achieve improved cognition, sleep, mood, etc., then the details of what happened physiologically don’t have any bearing (positive or negative) on whether the intervention was a success. (If cognition/sleep/mood had not been affected, even a radical observed change in brain size would not change the fact that the intervention failed. Conversely, if no brain changes had been observed, that wouldn’t detract from any success the intervention enjoyed — it just means that the anatomical aspect of the change has not yet been discovered.)

Likewise, the fact that a physiological change occurred should not have been surprising. Unless you believe that minds somehow avoid the laws of physics, they must have a physical representation in the body. So any change in thinking or behavior must be represented physiologically somewhere. While it is indeed exciting that neuroscientists are able to see some of these changes in brain scans, their existence is expected — it confirms the known laws of physics.

Yet it seems to be a continuing source of surprise that just by thinking, you can change the physical structure of your brain.

Perhaps it’s a surprise that thinking is that real.

As more of us learn how to observe and change our own patterns of thought — and witness the very real effects on our emotions, behaviors, and psychosomatic physical illnesses — maybe then the realness of thinking will become less of a surprise.

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