I guess that might sound silly to a lot of folks. After all, look at how much media attention losing weight gets. Can our thoughts actually affect our weight? I’ve often wondered about this.
Recent scientific research continues to confirm the connection between mind and body. What you think and what happens to your body appear to be related. As an example, we’re all familiar with the “placebo effect,” which basically illustrates the power of our thoughts to influence our body. Let’s look at a more immediate effect of how powerful thoughts can be. I’m certain most of us have noticed that when we’re engaged in intense mental activity for long periods of time, we get physically tired, especially if it’s intense problem solving requiring a lot of focused concentration. Interestingly, when we are in deep concentration our breath slows down. For example, when threading the eye of a needle, we tend to hold our breath. Concentration is far more energy-effective than random thinking and less taxing on the body. Slow breathing equals energy conservation. On the other hand, consider thoughts that cause worry, concern, or alarm. What happens then is that the breathing rate increases.
We breathe to rid our bodies of carbon dioxide and take in oxygen in order that our body can convert the sugars from foods we eat into energy. The body’s energy is identified chemically as ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. Sugar or glucose from the foods we eat is stored as calories or heat units. Amazingly, the brain uses more calories than any other organ of the body—up to twenty percent of the daily intake. That means on average 400 to 500 calories for a man and 350 to 400 calories for a woman. Contrast this with skeletal muscle, which at rest uses only six calories per pound of weight. So, for our hard-thinking man, that’s 166 calories per pound of brain tissue.
So, then, does a lot of mental activity cause us to lose weight by burning up more calories? According to Robert Kurzban in Evolutionary Psychology (p. 677), mental activity has little effect on glucose metabolism: “The areas that participate in the process of such reasoning represent too small a fraction of the brain for changes in their functional and metabolic activities to be reflected in the energy metabolism of the brain.”
So, what is actually going on?
When people become worried and anxious, the body goes into a fight-or-flight response, which initially speeds up the metabolism and burns calories, though later it causes weight gain as a protection against stress. However, these energy units aren’t burned by the brain, but by the other organs and muscles of the body. Anxiety causes constant physical movement, such as tics, leg shakes, finger drumming, restless walking, etc. What researchers have discovered is that heavy loads of mental activity, while not causing the brain to burn more calories, cause less energy to be supplied to the areas of the brain that govern willpower. It is willpower that burns calories and allows us to keep choosing productive thoughts over anxiety and worry.
Willpower is being taxed just as exercise taxes the muscles during a grueling workout. It is here that the most calories are burned. It is the exercise of willpower that allows us to come into alignment with our best self-image. Actually, to visualize our particular best physical form requires concentration, focus, and willpower. This means the expenditure of energy in the form of calories.
It is only when we keep thoughts of worry, anxiety, and fear aside that we can truly use our thoughts to sculpt our body and health. The more willpower we employ, the stronger our concentration becomes in protecting us against unproductive, random thinking. So, can we think ourselves thin? Yes. Not through unbridled thoughts, but by creating a positive self-image and placing our focus upon it. By bringing willpower, focus, and concentration to bear, we can think ourselves thin!
Reflections from Turtle Lake,