The Psychology of Big – Part 1

A Brief History of Mind Over Matter

A Quick Experiment

Picture a lemon. There it is, sitting on your kitchen counter, its shiny yellow skin glistening and about to burst with juice. Pick up the lemon and fetch a sharp knife. Feel the tough peeling resist the blade for a moment and then give way as juice squirts into the air and runs down the back of your hand. You can just smell it, can't you?

Now visualize picking up half the lemon. Look at its meaty filling, glistening and pregnant with its sour juice. Lift the lemon in the air and tilt your head back. Now, without hesitation and with all your might, squeeze the juice into your mouth. Think of it filling your mouth, bathing your tongue, and running down your neck.

Now close your eyes and go through the steps again. Really try to picture this happening in your mind.

Did you do it? If so, then I'm guessing that your mouth is now tingling with saliva, and if you're particularly imaginative you may have even grimaced and pulled a face. In short, you thought of something and your body responded, even though there was no real lemon present. Psychology overpowered physiology. Mind over matter.

Next up, full body levitation! Okay, maybe not. But there is something we can learn from this simple example.

Mind Over Muscle

Think about this. How many times have you caught yourself saying things like:

"I have crappy genetics for bodybuilding."

"My upper body is fine, but my legs suck. I just don't have the body structure for big wheels."

"I've hit my genetic peak and can't expect to gain much more muscle without drugs."

"I'll never lift that much weight."

"I put on fat quickly."

"I have a slow metabolism."

"I overtrain easily."

"I'm a hardgainer."

I propose that if you've said these things in the past, either aloud or to yourself, then you've seriously damaged your ability to gain muscle and lose fat. You've unknowingly programmed yourself for slow progress or even total failure. You've told your body what to do and it has answered with a resounding, "You got it, boss!"

What the lemon experiment proves is that your mind can exert control over your body, much greater control than just telling the muscles to move. This control can be a help or a hindrance depending on its nature.

Compare the self-defeating comments above with those of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who once said he imagined his biceps as big as mountain peaks when he did curls. He visualized them growing with every rep and filling the room. Arnold went on to say, "I am positive that, had I believed there were actual physical limits to the potential size of my arms, they would never have gotten as big and muscular as they ultimately did."

These days all I hear in the gym are guys griping about their muscle insertion points when doing curls. Does this attitude make a difference in their physical development? You bet it does.

Thoughts that Heal, Thoughts that Kill

Need proof that your thoughts can play a huge role in your progress in the gym? All you have to do is look to basic psychology where there are hundreds of examples of this phenomenon. Here are a few standouts that prove mind over matter is very real.

Bone Pointing: Old and New

"Bone pointing" is not what happens when you walk by the fitness model hoochie booths at the Arnold Classic. Actually, real bone pointing is an example of mind over matter at its most dramatic.

American physiologist Walter B. Cannon wrote about this mystery in 1942 calling it "voodoo death." Once used by Australian Aboriginal tribes, bone pointing involves "loading" a piece of bone or other object with magic. This object is then used as a weapon to punish those who break tribal law. The shaman of the tribe would point the bone at the victim and chant a death song, probably something by 'N Sync. In many cases, the person at the wrong end of the bone would simply fall over dead. Other times he would die a few days later.

Of course, there's no such thing as lethal bones. The real killer here is the victim's own mind. He believes so strongly in the power of the shaman that his body simply obeys what his mind believes. In that sense, the magic is real because his mind makes it real.

The term "bone pointing" has been applied in modern times to describe the AIDS epidemic. Some experts believe that the diagnosis of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, contributes to the patient's rapid decline in health. After all, most people think the diagnosis is an automatic death sentence. They think, "I have HIV–I'm going to get AIDS and die" and the body listens. True, the disease has no cure, but is their attitude opening the door wider for full blown AIDS? It's a controversial issue.

Dr. George N. Hazlehurst, an internist during the mid-'50s with the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (a commission that studied the long-term effects of the first atomic bomb blast in Japan) noted a similar occurrence. It seemed there was a shocking difference in the death rate between the exposed and the non-exposed population. The difference couldn't be explained by the long-term physiological effects of radiation exposure from ten years earlier. He soon realized this "A-bomb Disease" was largely psychosomatic. That means these physical disorders had a strong psychological basis. This is known now as a psychophysiological disorder.

Similar occurrences have been observed when studying feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. When mice are placed in tanks of water with no hope of escaping, they simply give up and drown. They do this long before their bodies fatigue. Mice who are given some hope of escape, like a little raft floating in the tank with them, will go on for hours trying to reach it. There is hope and therefore there is life.

Case studies of humans show a similar phenomenon. Hundreds of psychological disorders, both mild and severe, have one thing in common: the individuals feel as though they have no control over their lives; they feel helpless. Their feelings were the catalysts for other problems, many of those physical in nature. Many psychologists also believe that the healing powers of prayer can also be attributed to the mind's power over the body and not divine intervention.

The theme is simple. In all these examples, nothing more than thoughts led to physical changes in the body.

Placebos and Pygmalion

You're probably familiar with the placebo effect. In a traditional sense, a placebo is an inert pill (like a sugar pill) given to a patient to relieve their illness when no real drug is available. If the patient reports feeling better (or whatever effect the drug is supposed to have), then this is called the placebo effect.

Another such effect is called the Pygmalion effect or a self-fulfilling prophesy. This was first observed during an experiment on school children. A teacher was told that several students in her class had been tested and the tests showed these kids were on the verge of real intellectual breakthroughs. They were little Einsteins in the making.

In truth, the students were chosen at random, but by the end of the year, the "gifted" children began to show signs of higher-than-average intelligence and better grades. The teacher believed they were smart, probably told the kids they were smart, and sure enough, the kids became smart. In short, they fulfilled the prophesy imposed upon them.

(The opposite is also true. A person called dumb or slow as a child will adopt this designation and have trouble in school from that point on. In the old days, many kids with hearing or visual problems were simply thought to be stupid and placed in special education classes. Sure enough, these kids became "slow," although they were probably of average intelligence like the rest of their classmates.)

The placebo and Pygmalion effects can be displayed, often hilariously, at parties. In one university study, a group of students were either given real alcoholic drinks or drinks that tasted and smelled like alcohol but actually contained no booze. By the end of the experiment/keg party, researchers couldn't tell the difference between the two groups. Those that received the fake booze even failed reaction and coordination tests!

In other words, they knew how they were supposed to act and feel when intoxicated, so they got "drunk" even though there was no alcohol in their systems. This isn't merely a case of faking it. If not told about the "near beer," many would report hangovers the next morning! I have a feeling that so-called "roid rage" can often be explained, in part, by this same phenomenon.

In a more recent study, psychologist Guy Sapirstein at the University of Connecticut analyzed 39 studies of depressed patients. What he found was that the effects of anti-depressants were both pharmacological and nonpharmacological. Apparently, only about 27% of the response to the drugs is due to the medication alone. A whopping 50% is due to the psychological impact, i.e. the placebo effect. Patients believe the happy pills will cure them and so they do.

In short, how the people taking the meds think is more powerful than the chemical substance itself.

Conversion Disorder

A conversion disorder is a physical impairment without an underlying organic cause. People have been known to lose their sight (hysterical blindness) or lose the ability to use their legs after a traumatic event. And although the lower body paralysis is "all in their heads," doctors have poked needles into the legs of those suffering conversion disorders without any reaction from the patients. This proves that although the impairment doesn't stem from a physical problem, they truly are paralyzed and not just faking it.

Conversion disorders have often been found in soldiers. In fact, some believe that while there may be a legitimate disease associated with "Gulf War Syndrome," many of these cases are probably psychosomatic in nature.

Practicing Basketball on the Couch

Despite all these negative examples, the mind can also play a positive role. In one study, a number of basketball players were assigned to different groups. One group practiced shooting free throws, one group only visualized shooting free throws, and another group did neither.

At the end of the study, the group that didn't practice mentally or physically showed no improvement in the ability to shoot free throws. But the visualization group showed drastic improvement, only slightly less improvement shown by those athletes who actually practiced! Just imagine the improvements that could be made if athletes practiced both physically and mentally. (And the best ones do.)

The Impossible Becomes Possible

The power of belief is displayed often in the athletic community. You've no doubt heard the story about how it was once believed that breaking the four minute mile was impossible. For years, no one could break it. The human body simply wasn't capable of it, experts at the time said. Finally, in 1954, Roger Bannister broke the mythic sub-four barrier with a time of 3:59.4. Not long after, others joined the club and beat the new record. Today, even some high school athletes have achieved the "impossible."

In a similar story, it was "impossible" for many years to clean and jerk 500 pounds. In fact, the record stood at 499.75 pounds. Then Vasily Alexeev of the former Soviet

Union lifted 501 pounds at the 1970 World Weightlifting Championships. You guessed it, soon all the top guys were lifting over 500. The mental barrier was toppled and once everyone realized it wasn't impossible, they began to perform better. All they needed was to be able to believe it could be done. It wasn't that half a pound standing in their way; it was their own mental roadblocks holding them back.

Yep, no question about it: the mind can overpower the body any day of the week. Next week in part II, we'll get out of psychology class and into the gym to figure how we can use this info to grow bigger, stronger and leaner!

Chris Shugart is T Nation's Chief Content Officer and the creator of the Velocity Diet. As part of his investigative journalism for T Nation, Chris was featured on HBO’s "Real Sports with Bryant Gumble." Follow on Instagram