We’ve all heard the phrase, you are what you eat. Now there’s also increasing evidence that you become what you believe.
Two recent studies suggest that what you believe shapes your biology as well as your attitude. Or perhaps, your beliefs shape your attitude, which in turn, shapes your biology.
The first study, from Yale’s School of Public Health, relates attitudes towards aging to the development of dementia. The primary finding is that “…individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.”
In other words, if you believe that you’ll become decrepit and demented in old age … well, you’re more likely to become decrepit and demented. Why would that be? According to the study’s lead author, Becca Levy, it’s probably stress. More specifically, “…the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging … can result in pathological brain changes.”
Besides underscoring the benefits of a positive attitude, the study could help us better understand factors that appear to be biological. For instance, the Alzheimer’s rate in the United States is five times higher than that of India. Why? We’ve traditionally assumed that the critical factor was differences in diet. But it may instead result from cultural attitudes toward older people. In India, the aged are revered. In the United States, not so much.
The second study correlates a belief in free will to academic performance. Bottom line: students who believe they have free will – the ability to make their own choices and guide their own destiny – do better academically than those who don’t. The study found that the correlation held “…across age, gender, and cultural grouping”.
The study found a correlation and, as we know, correlation does not prove causality. But there is some intuitive logic to this. It seems logical that people who believe they control their own destiny will learn more from their experiences (and mistakes) than people who believe their fate is determined by external forces.
I think it was St. Francis who said, “Beware thy prayers; they may be answered.” Perhaps we can now add a corollary, “Beware thy beliefs; they may be causal.”