Printed: 2019-09-20

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies





IEET Link: https://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/brain20080103

Can your mind control your weight and blood pressure?

Marshall Brain


How Stuff Works


http://brainstuff.howstuffworks.com/2008/01/04/is-exercise-all-in-our-heads/

January 04, 2008

The first thing we have to do is assume that the scientific study that we are about to discuss is valid. Its results are so bizarre that I fear that there might be something wrong with the methodology. It has a little bit of a “cold fusion” vibe going on. But assuming that the study is valid, then it truly is interesting: Hotel Maids Challenge the Placebo Effect

In this study, a scientist (Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer) looked at hotel maids. When asked about their exercise habits, most hotel maids claimed that they got no exercise. The article puts it this way:

But Langer found that most of these women don’t see themselves as physically active. She did a survey and found that 67 percent reported they didn’t exercise. More than one-third of those reported they didn’t get any exercise at all.

And the bodies of these hotel maids correlated with their “perceived amount of exercise”:

Langer and her team measured the maids’ body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, weight and body mass index. They found that all of these indicators matched the maids’ perceived amount of exercise, rather than their actual amount of exercise.

So far so good. The problem is, a typical hotel maid is getting a lot of exercise from her job. A hotel maid is on her feet all day, walking from room to room, carrying vacuum cleaners, fluffing pillows, etc. Just the act of being on your feet and walking around like this gives you a lot of exercise. It’s just that the maids did not perceive it to be exercise.

So the scientist split the maids (84 of them) into two groups. With 42 of the maids the scientist did nothing. They went about their lives without any changes. With the other 42, the scientist educated the maids and showed them how much exercise they actually were getting from their jobs. Now here is the weird part:

One month later, Langer and her team returned to take physical measurements of the women and were surprised by what they found. In the group that had been educated, there was a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.

What this study seems to show is bizarre: Just by changing their perceptions, the scientist was able to effect real results. Changing a person’s weight is real. This is not like a normal placebo effect, where you give a person a sugar pill instead of aspirin and the perception of pain goes down. The weight of these maids actually went down. The study seems to indicate that you can control things like your weight and blood pressure with your mind. The article puts it this way:

Hence, the theoretical possibility that, if done with genuine conviction, one might be able to sit around eating chocolate and still lose weight.

Like I said, there is some possibility that the methodology was somehow incorrect. But let’s assume that the study is reporting a real finding. I’m left to sit here wondering how that might be. There is a fair amount of evidence to show that biofeedback and meditation can have an effect on blood pressure, so it does seem true that your mind does exert some level of control over your blood pressure. And there is evidence that the body does reset things like metabolic rate in certain circumstances, and perhaps the mind can influence that mechanism.

Therefore, if true, this would seem to imply that we could somehow teach people to mentally control their body weight and blood pressure. That would be cool. If I could learn a mind trick that would mentally boost my metabolism rate and burn fat while I sleep, I would love that.


However, I am going to guess that something else happened. For example, the article does not mention anything about monitoring the food intake of the two groups of maids. What if, in the process of getting the education, the educated maids began to think differently about their bodies, and as a result they subconsciously started to eat less food or eat different foods? That would cause the same effect, but the methodology of the experiment would have missed it.

Until the study is confirmed and you receive your mind control training, see: How dieting works


Marshall Brain is a fellow of the IEET, and the author of The Day You Discard Your Body, Manna and the founder of HowStuffWorks.com.

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