If you Google “power of thoughts,” you get a lot of results including words like “consciousness,” “swami,” “manifest,” and “unleash.” To me, these words suggest a basis not rooted securely in science and more rooted in marketing hype. I like to see the supporting science.
Well, I want you to know that the influence your thoughts have on your physical and perceptual reality is well-documented by scientific evidence. I think more articles should emphasize this point because it is the very real power we all have to change our lives. Articles without the science to back up the concept backup make it seem like “magical thinking.”
I can assure you that it’s not.
Thoughts are real, tangible, measurable things — electrical impulses. They are powerful, and you can direct and use them to help you. Unfortunately, most of us let them hurt us unknowingly. I used to but not anymore. Now, I put the power of my mind to work for me. You can too.
Let me explain – with the science to back it up.
Your Reality Is the Product of Your Unique Brain
At the most basic level, your unique reality is constructed by your unique brain. Making sense of the world and what happens is the result of your individual brain’s interpretation of the signals it receives as you go about your days interacting with your environment.
Much of what you think of as reality is really a construction of your brain.
You Do Not Experience the World Directly
In “The Neuroscience of Your Reality,” I write:
It may feel as though you have direct access to the concrete physical world through your senses, but you don’t. Your senses do not experience the world directly. When you touch something, it feels like the touch is happening in your fingers. However, it’s not. It’s happening in your brain. The same is true for all of your senses. Seeing doesn’t happen in the eyes. Hearing doesn’t take place in your ears. Smelling doesn’t happen in your nose. These are all activities of your brain.
In his book, The Brain: The Story of You, David Eagleman writes:
‘Here’s the key: the brain has no access to the world outside. Sealed within the dark, silent chamber of your skull, your brain has never directly experienced the external world, and it never will. Instead, there’s only one way that information from out there gets into the brain. … Everything you experience — every sight, sound, smell — rather than being a direct experience, is an electrochemical rendition in a dark theater.'”
This is an important distinction. It means that your brain assigns meaning to the electrical signals it receives. Its interpretation is determined by your subconscious. Each of us experiences the world subjectively as our brains interpret stimuli determined by our physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about ourselves, others, and the world shaped by family, religion, school, culture, and life experiences past and present. These influences are typically below conscious awareness and determine how a person responds to the world, interacts in relationships, and thinks of and talks to themselves.
So, stimuli coming into your brain are neutral. Nothing is good or bad or associated with any emotions or actions — until your brain attaches those things to it. Therein lies your power to influence your reality. You can consciously direct and influence your thoughts at that point.
Here’s the Science to Prove It
In Jonah Lehrer’s book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, he tells of experiments conducted by Frederic Brochet in 2001 at the University of Bordeaux. Appropriately enough, the experiments involved wine. In the first one, Brochet took two glasses of the exact white wine, colored one of them red with food coloring, and proceeded to get observations from 57 wine experts. The experts described the “red” wine in terms of its “jamminess” and other red wine jargon. Not one of them identified it as a white wine.
In another test, Brochet took the same medium-quality Bordeaux and served it in two different bottles. One bottle was labeled to look like a fancy, fine wine while the other was labeled to resemble a common table wine. The wine experts gave the exact same wine in different bottles very different ratings. The wine in the expensive bottle was described as “agreeable, complex, balanced, and rounded” while the identical wine with a cheap-looking label was said to be “weak, short, light, flat, and faulty.”
What these wine experiments illuminate is the omnipresence of subjectivity….Our human brain has been designed to believe itself, wired so that prejudices feel like facts, opinions are indistinguishable from the actual sensations. If we think the wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a Grand Cru, then we will taste a Grand Cru.”
Your Brain Is a Subjective Lens Through Which You View Your Life
He explains that the taste of wine, like everything in life, is more than the sum of our senses. What we experience is not what we literally sense. Our experiences are the interpretations of sensations by a subjective brain which factors in our unique beliefs, biases, memories, and desires every time.
In a very literal sense, your brain is a subjective lens through which you experience life.
Lehrer goes on to say that even if we could experience the wine exactly as it is, without subjectivity, we would still all taste it differently because each of our brains is unique on a cellular level and the part of the brain which interprets taste, and smell is extremely malleable. It is forever growing and pruning neurons throughout our lives.
The Work of Carol Dweck
The research of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck further illustrates the influence of our minds on our reality. Her research is the basis for an understanding of how your brain and mindset affect your reality. In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she explores the power of our beliefs, both conscious and unconscious, and how even the simplest changes can have a measurable impact on almost every aspect of life. She writes:
For twenty years, my research has shown that the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you lead your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer studied the effect of thoughts on hotel maids. Even though these women spent all day moving their bodies pushing vacuum cleaners, going up and down steps, bending, and stretching, 67 percent of them said they got no exercise. Langer told half of the maids that their activity level met the US Surgeon General’s definition of an active lifestyle. The other group did not receive similar information. Both groups just did their jobs as usual for a month.
Langer’s team measured the maids’ physical health statistics. At the beginning of the study, the findings matched the maids’ perceived lack of exercise. When measured a month later, the group that was told their job activity qualified as exercise saw a decrease in weight and waist-to-hip ratio and a ten percent drop in blood pressure. None of the maids had changed their routines. The only difference was in how one group viewed what they did. According to Langer, if you believe that you’re exercising, then your body responds as if you are.
One study showed that being told you slept well or poorly determined how people’s bodies physically responded. In the study, researchers explained the effects of REM sleep on sleep quality and told participants that average REM sleep should be around 20–25 percent of total sleep.
Participants were then divided into groups, assigned a sleep quality, fitted with sensors, and told that the researchers were monitoring vital signs and REM sleep. The monitoring was false as were the group labels. The “below-average” group was led to believe they got 16.2 percent REM sleep, while the “above-average” group was told they got 28.7 percent REM sleep.
After the results were dispensed, the researchers administered cognitive tests to the study participants assessing basic math and verbal skills. People who were told they had low-quality sleep performed worse on the tests and showed more cognitive deficits than the control and high-quality sleep groups.
Life Follows the Science
Everything in your life is similar to the wine, maid, and sleep experiments. Every situation or event, past, present, or future becomes what your brain defines it to be. In this way, your experience of reality is your own creation. Your brain even physically responds by reinforcing neural connections that coincide with your predominant, habitual thinking, a concept known as neuroplasticity. In other words, your recurrent thinking patterns physically shape your brain’s form and function which then reinforces and encourages more of the same kind of thinking.
You can’t choose your thoughts. That’s impossible. They originate in your subconscious brain which you have no control over. However, the good news is that you can consciously choose how you respond to those thoughts. There is your control. When you consciously do this, you can guide neuroplastic brain change.
This is the power you have to change your brain and life for the better. Directed neuroplasticity gives you the power to choose. I harnessed and directed neuroplasticity to recover from a brain injury and depression. I know it can be done!
Ways to Guide Your Brain
Neuroplasticity is actually an umbrella term referring to the many capabilities of your brain to reorganize itself throughout your life due to your environment, behavior, and internal experiences. Science used to believe that the brain was only changeable during certain periods in childhood. While it is true that your brain is much more plastic in the early years and capacity declines with age, plasticity happens throughout your life from birth until death.
Science has confirmed that you can access neuroplasticity for positive change in your own life in many ways at any age. Harnessing neuroplasticity in adulthood isn’t quite as simple as some people promise, but it can most definitely be accomplished under specific circumstances.
Neuroplastic change occurs in response to stimuli processed in the brain which can originate either internally or externally.
Externally Driven Change
From childhood through adulthood, the events of your life shape your brain. As little people grow, interact with others, and explore the world, connections are wired in their brains based on their experiences. When you’re young, most of what happens is out of your control. As adults, our brains are reflections of our daily routines. Your habits, both good and bad, literally get wired into your brain.
As an adult, neuroplasticity does not happen as readily as it does in a child’s brain, but it does happen. There are ways you can intentionally encourage and guide neuroplastic change in adulthood.
Ways to Drive Neuroplastic Change Externally
- Try something new. This can be as involved as learning a different language, going back to school, taking dance classes, or mastering a musical instrument. It also can be as simple as trying out a new restaurant, reading a book out of your normal genre (especially fiction), or listening to an unfamiliar style of music.
- Mix things up. Use your nondominant leg to start up the stairs or your nondominant hand to eat or brush your teeth. Move the mouse to the other side of the keyboard. Sleep on a different side of the bed. Take a new route to work. Get your brain off of automatic.
- Turn off the GPS. Use a map and your brain. You could even get intentionally lost and try to find your way back without using your GPS or a map. (There’s a whole sport like this called orienteering.)
- Exercise in a new way. Try a whole new activity. If bicycling, vary your routes and terrains. If running or walking, get outside when possible, forget the headphones, and alter surfaces, paths, and scenery. The idea is to get your brain in the workout.
- Train your brain. I know there is a whole debate about whether brain training works or not. There is no doubt in my mind or Dr. Merzenich’s. It helped me recover from a brain injury. Dr. Merzenich went on to start Posit Science which offers brain training based on neuroplasticity and science (Brain HQ). Not all brain training is the same.
- Take a trip. Travel to a new city, a new country, or just down the road. A change of scenery wakes up your brain, sparks creativity, and can even boost happiness. A new environment challenges your brain and takes it off auto-pilot. You have to think about even the small things when in an unfamiliar place.
- Be social. Talk to people face-to-face. Engage in conversations and really listen. Make new friends unlike any you already have. Higher social engagement is associated with higher cognitive functioning and reduced risks of cognitive decline.
Internally Driven Change
Your mind sculpts your brain. Everything you think, hope, feel, and imagine physically changes your brain – for better or worse. You can intentionally harness this process for your benefit. Daniel G. Amen, MD writes in You Are Not Your Brain: The 4-Step Solution for Changing Bad Habits, Ending Unhealthy Thinking, and Taking Control of Your Life:
…we can actually use the mind to change the brain. The simple truth is that how we focus our attention, how we intentionally direct the flow of energy and information through our neural circuits, can directly alter the brain’s activity and its structure.”
Ways to Drive Neuroplastic Change Internally
The research about the positive impact of mindfulness on the brain and mental health points to neuroplasticity as the cause. In mindfulness, by intentionally directing attention inward and cultivating awareness of the breath or thoughts and feelings, you are becoming aware of your brain’s Default Mode Network (DFM) and exerting control over it. When you guide your DFM, you’re interrupting habitual thought patterns and orienting your brain in the present moment.
Along with the many scientifically proven benefits of meditation for your brain, it increases neuroplasticity. Meditation has been proven to decrease stress, anxiety, and depression, which have been shown to limit neurogenesis, and the birth of new brain cells. And you don’t need to meditate for years on end to start reaping benefits either. One study showed brain changes after just eight weeks of regular meditation.
Neurons fire and chemicals are released in your brain whether something is real or imagined. On brain scans, imaginative thoughts activate many identical brain areas, which directly influence you, physically and emotionally. From a neuroscientific perspective, imagining an act and doing it are not that different. Visualization allows you to put your imagination to work for you to change your brain. Research has validated that the practice influences physical changes from muscle strength to brain pathways.
Every minute of every day, your body is physically reacting, literally changing, in response to the thoughts that run through your mind. Every single thing of which you are aware — sounds, sights, thoughts, feelings, and even unconscious mental and physical processes you’re not aware of — can be directly mapped to what’s happening in your brain. Over time, patterns emerge and affect you in real ways.
Understanding how your brain works and how your thoughts alter it, your body, and your reality can help you intentionally remodel your circuits, change your behavior, and positively impact your life and reality — or not.
Suggested further reading:
The Neuroscience of Your Reality
Much of what you think of as reality is a construction of your brain. Your brain builds an internal model of reality which is both objective and subjective. read more
Your Mindset Shapes Your Life – For Better or Worse
Science has proven that your thoughts and mindset affect your life in many ways – both good and bad. You choose. read more
Share this article!
Debbie, Love this piece! The studies are so interesting and the effects so telling. We have so much more power than we think to change how we perceive reality and look at all the wonderful potential benefits!
Our minds are powerful. We just have to put them to work FOR us!
I love how science has at last caught up with what the mystics of our world have been saying for centuries. You lay everything out so clearly, Debbie.Brilliant job with fascinating insights.
Glad you liked it, Elle. Thank you.
Debbie, years back when I did the Silve Mind Control course, I was blown away by the power of the mind and it hasnt stopped fascinating me in all these years. Then Deepak Chopra’s Quantam Healing that spoke of epigenetics for healing even the most deep seated incurable diseases fascinated me further. I’m so glad you wrote about how intentional living can help to heal and create the life we want. Beautiful piece indeed! xoxo
It is truly the untapped power we all have to better our brains and lives.
“…your brain assigns meaning to the electrical signals it receives.” “Its interpretation is…”
It’s not an interpretation made by the brain as much as it is an activation made by electrochemical stimulation of neurons into formulated patterns of memory.
Memory of all our experiences in a brain within our heads that remain totally dark, no matter how bright and colorful it seems to be, and completely silent no matter how noisy and loud it seems to be.
Memories are stuff dreams are made of; whether awake or asleep.
Thank you for offering your explanation. I would call that “activation made by electrochemical stimulation of neurons into formulated patterns of memory” your brain’s unique interpretation and response.:)
Yes, thanks Deb, activation as interpretation and response. I would say we are not something separate from but are the interpretation and behave accordingly as a response. We are and behave consequently as the sum total of all our brain’s processes as experience – NOW.
Well said, John!
Final thought and an example. By changing the mind a person changes themselves just by doing something differently.
Touch your face stimulates (activation) regions in the brain with the pattern of “perception” (interpretation ) for touching (response) the face.