How does what we think, feel, believe, and cognitively practice influence human health, well-being, and achievement?
That was the question at the heart of The Power of Minds, a project undertaken by Worldview Stanford and supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Templeton World Charity Foundation and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute.
The project encompassed a survey of cross-disciplinary research and a conference held at Stanford in December 2017 that convened 40 scholars in medicine, psychology, public health, education, theology, philosophy, anthropology and neuroscience. Along the way we examined a range of phenomena including the placebo effect, mindfulness meditation, hypnosis, mindset interventions, the effects of stigma and racism, human flourishing, the roles of spirituality and human purpose, and the mechanisms of culture-mind-body interactions.
“Our goal was to take the broadest possible view across research exploring the power of minds, and to look for emergent themes, surprising connections, new horizons for discovery, and opportunities to translate and scale interventions that could improve human health, well-being and achievement,” said Brie Linkenhoker, director of Worldview Stanford and leader of the Power of Minds Projects.
These objectives were achieved—and then some, noted Alia Crum, Assistant Professor of Psychology and co-principal investigator. “We’re onto something here; there’s something inherently right and useful in this interdisciplinary approach.” Among the key findings:
Strong empirical evidence exists for the power of minds, including a growing number of large, randomized controlled trials with sophisticated study designs. These studies show that our thoughts, attitudes and expectations don’t just guide behavior; they also translate cultural and social experience into physiology, and directly influence our immune, cardiovascular, endocrine, digestive and sensory systems.
Relationships between culture, mind and body are shaped by early experience. For example, traumatized children and stigmatized teenagers growing up in high-stress or stigma environments continue to show heightened stress reactions years after moving to less adverse environments.
Interventions that shift mindset, build mindfulness, or change expectations can improve health outcomes and close achievement gaps. Some interventions reduce health risks, disease progression or symptom severity, while others increase coping capacity, alter health behaviors, and/or improve psychosocial well-being. A subset of interventions are particularly effective in improving outcomes for members of vulnerable and disenfranchised populations, even while they have little or no effect for control groups.
Stress and its effects on the body comprise an important common pathway that connects mental experience to health outcomes. Some successful interventions appear to work at least in part through their capacity to buffer the impacts of socially experienced stressors (e.g., perceived racism) and/or individually experienced stressors (e.g., post-surgical pain).
Mental health needs to be understood as not just an absence of mental illness, but also as the presence of traits associated with human flourishing, including life satisfaction, social integration, autonomy, purpose, personal growth, acceptance of self and others, inspiration, self-forgiveness, and gratitude. Many of these traits correlate with increased spirituality (though not necessarily religiosity), and are important in recovery from illness (e.g., from addiction) and in psychosocial well-being (i.e., showing resilience, intimacy, agency, and moral character.)
New research approaches are enabling deeper understanding of well-studied phenomena, like the placebo effect, how 12-step programs in addiction recovery work, or how experienced racism can harm health. New data sets, new technologies (e.g., virtual reality, machine learning in brain imaging), and advances in theory and experimental design are driving significant progress in the field.
The wide-ranging conversations also highlighted some significant challenges for the future, including improving research quality broadly across Power of Minds domains, breaking down disciplinary silos, finding support to adapt and scale interventions for public use, investigating heterogeneity in intervention effects, and bringing more practitioner and community voices into the conversation.
Bill Newsome, Professor of Neurobiology, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, and the project’s co-principal investigator urged continued interdisciplinary focus on the Power of Minds. “Understanding the nature of this integrated view of human beings and ultimately how it gives rise to freedom and responsibility, is, I think, the most important problem facing the neuro-behavioral sciences.”