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Mind Over Matter: Buns of Steel

Gecko Challenge bike frustration

This is our first guest post for 'Mind Over Matter: A Cycle of Despair or How I Begrudge the Ease with which Others Climb Hills' (we like to be succinct). This post was written by our resident Psychology student, Ian "The shrunken Shrink" Davidson, who can be seen to the right demonstrating some frustration at his bike on the final leg of the Gecko Challenge in 2013. 

Mind Over Matter: Buns of Steel

You’re 8,300 meters above sea level, you’re on the last 100 metres until the top of Mount Everest and your legs are screaming ‘no more!’ You've got this far, you can’t give up now. Do you give up, turn back down and go home or bite the bullet, forget the pain and squeeze another 100 metres out of your aching legs, reaching the top through sheer determination.

OK, so we’re not all going to attempt to climb Mt. Everest but we all use mind over matter to some degree every day of our lives. Take waking up in the morning for example; our alarm sounds, we reach for the ‘off’ button and lay there all comfy and cosy whilst all we can hear from outside is the wind and rain battering the window. We don’t want to get out of bed, our body is telling us to stay put, don’t move, yet our mind is telling us we have to get up, we’re going to be late for work. The great battle between body and mind, whether to get out of bed or not!

Mount Everest as seen from Drukair Easier than getting out of bed on a cold Monday morning

Although the phrase ‘mind over matter’ was originally used in the areas of extrasensory perception and psychokinesis it has now been adopted to the idea that positive thinking can be used as a method of self-help. Despite the term now being used with a different meaning from what it was originally used they both share the idea that the mind can interact with the world internally as well as externally.
Mind over matter may sound like something dreamt up by Hollywood to give a more dramatic feel to their movies or a good excuse to lie in bed for another 20 minutes but there is a lot of research to back the theory up.

If we look at self-efficacy, an individual’s belief in their own ability to succeed in spite of the given circumstance, it can be seen to be similar to the theory of mind over matter. In a study conducted in the US on Montessori teachers the research indicated that ‘Montessori teachers with high levels of self-efficacy have strong mastery experiences that support their attitudes and desired professional goals. The quantitative results also show that an emotional state associated with past experiences is the second best contributor to self-efficacy’ (cited in Bhatia and Punum, 2013). So next time you’re making the last pitch try and remember every other time you pitched successfully, it could make the difference between accomplishment and failure.

Madrigal et al. (2013), sports psychologists, have looked at mental toughness in athletes. Mental toughness refers to ‘an inner focus and commitment to rise above challenges when facing adversity and is viewed as one of the most important psychological attributes in determining success in sport’ (cited in Madrigal et al, 2013 p. 62). Their findings pointed towards a positive correlation between self-esteem and flow. Mental toughness is even a characteristic many coaches look for in an athlete so the ability to channel the pressure that comes with sport really can make the difference between a hobby and a career!

Iron Statue

Unfortunately it’s not all good news though. Although the mind can be an amazing tool in helping us overcome physical obstacles it can also hinder us too. The dreaded self-fulfilling prophecy. This is a core theme in social psychology where one person can shape another’s future behaviour through ‘false beliefs about targets initiate a sequence of events that ultimately cause targets to exhibit expectancy-consistent behaviours, thereby causing perceivers’ initially false beliefs to become true.’ (cited in Madon et al, 2011, p. 578). An example of self-fulfilling prophecy in work would be a teacher believing a pupil is less capable than they are, because of the teachers underestimate of the pupil they may put them in a lower ability group or not asking them to answer for the class, because of the way the pupil is treated they learn less than other pupils of his capability shaping the pupils behaviour to the way the teacher falsely believed. So next time you’re about to put somebody down, stop and think about it, it may have more adverse effects than you realise.

Let’s end on a lighter note and give the couch potatoes among us something to try. Did you know the mind was powerful enough to strengthen muscles with no physical exercise involved?! That’s right, you can tone up by just thinking about it! A study by Shackell et al. (2007) assigned rugby, football and basketball players to perform mental training of their hip flexors, use weights to exercise their hip flexors or as a control group to do nothing (I know which group I’d pick). They had their hip flexor strength measured before and after their specific training or lack thereof. They found that through physical training the participants increased their strength by 28%; there was no significant change in the control group and a staggering 24% increase in strength for the mental training group! These findings are not the only ones to support this either, Ranganathan et al had similar findings back in 2004. Now, if only it would work with my thoughts on other people, my partner would have buns of steel.

- Ian "the Shrunken Shrink" Davidson


Ed - This puts me in mind of an article a friend recently shared: ‘This is why productive people wake up so early’, by Ciara Conlon. It refers to early rising as ‘Mind over Mattress’ and cites successful notorious early risers as: Churchill, Obama,  Branson and Darwin.

I conclude that those who make it in this world hold the strength of mind, the ‘mind over matter’ to follow through with their focus and undertake what needs to be done to attain their goals. Not a revolutionary conclusion granted.

The possibilities, as touched on by Ian (above), are immense. The advantages, beyond the ability to say no to the 5th slice of chocolate cake to getting into that training routine, could be circular and ascending. The more you master the art, the more the world becomes your oyster.

This is what I intend to look at further. A great start with establishing the power of the mind and what is achievable. I also intend to look at finding focus and ‘mind over matter’ practicing techniques, as well as exploring some other peoples real experiences. We do have some great articles waiting in the wings so do stay tuned!

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