Opinion: Great Expectations

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By Russ Gerber

A teacher friend of mine told the true story of a fellow teacher, new to the school, who was recognized by her colleagues for outstanding student achievement. Going into the semester, expectations were generally low for the students she’d been assigned to teach, but the students showed a surprising turnaround by the end of the school term.

At the end of the semester, there was dinner for the teachers, and she was asked to tell her colleagues her secret. How was it her students had such a high grade-point average? She was surprised at the recognition and confessed that she might have had a little help.

Before the semester began, she was in the administration office and noticed on a desk a list with her students’ names on it. Next to each of their names, she saw their IQ scores and was impressed with how high they were. There was no secret to her method, she said. She simply taught them fully confident they would do well and wasn’t surprised at the outcome.

Following dinner, she was approached by one of the school administrators, who quietly took the teacher aside to tell her something about the list she saw. The numbers next to their names weren’t IQ scores. They were newly assigned locker numbers.

Chalk it up to the power of expectations, which is the subtitle of Chris Berdik’s book, “Mind Over Mind.” Berdik, an experienced journalist who has covered psychology and neuroscience, examines how our expectations can change everything and cause us to rethink our most cherished beliefs about education, sports, criminal justice and health.

Berdik takes readers from centuries-old history to modern-day research on imagination, mesmerism, animal magnetism, belief, willpower, placebos and nocebos.

“They’re not one and the same,” he writes, “but they reflect the mind’s habit of jumping to conclusions and the surprising power these conclusions wield.”

He told me that where this radically affects our lives is with health.

“The intersection of expectations and health is one of the most fascinating things I researched for the book.”

Health professionals, health researchers, and the public at large are paying close attention to the relationship of expectations to health. It’s no longer a question of if there’s a relationship, but how close is it?

A large body of placebo and nocebo research suggests there’s a direct correlation. Being hopeful can improve health outcomes, while hopelessness has the reverse effect. Fear of sickness can be a health hazard to the one who’s afraid, while an expectation of well-being can bring relief. The fact is, Berdik notes, “our real world is in many ways an expected world.”

So then, what frames our expectations? Much of it is from everyday education, what we commonly pick up in today’s media environment as to what’s to be expected in our lives.

If that constant flow of information is relentlessly worrisome or discouraging, it’s easy to be overwhelmed with fear and powerlessness, which form an unhealthy mental state. “Ignorant that the human mind governs the body, its phenomenon,” wrote mental treatment advocate Mary Baker Eddy. “The invalid may unwittingly add more fear to the mental reservoir already overflowing with that emotion.”

Health and happiness thrive in a peaceful, confident mentality, which may explain why meditation and prayer are listed in prescriptions and national surveys as health-promoting practices. Stress levels are reduced, body functions improve, and the human system returns to normal—much better side effects than we’re accustomed to seeing.

This suggests that we’re less helpless when it comes to governing our health than we may have believed. Granted, not everyone agrees on the pivotal role of consciousness in health or on what benefits prayer and meditation can bring to bear on one’s mental state. But if it’s true that we get what we expect, it’s in our best interest to raise our expectations.

Russ and his wife moved back home to Southern California after working in Boston as the media manager for the Christian Science church. With a background in publishing, most of his time is spent writing, reading, volunteering and grandparenting.

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