8 Things You Can Do With Your Mind That Seem Like Magic
The more we learn about the natural world, the less mysterious it all seems. When you understand something, it loses the ability to amaze you.
Except when it comes to the human brain. We don't understand these things at all, and these stories have simply convinced us that the mind is pure magic.
1. Build muscle just by thinking about it
How: Simply imagining exercise causes people's bodies to respond as if they were actually working out that muscle, resulting in strength increases.
The science: If going to the gym just to be intimidated by guys who look like they were on the East German Olympic team is too much of a hassle, science has yet another excuse for you to skip your workout. Researchers conducting a study separated participants into three groups: one performed a daily exercise to develop a finger muscle, another merely imagined performing the exercise, and the control group got to be lazy and do nothing.
After 12 weeks, the group that actually exercised the muscle showed a 53 percent strength increase, while the group that had practiced mental exercise still showed gains of 35 percent. The control group made no gains.
That's right, just thinking about exercise showed measurable results. We're not saying you should go ahead and adopt a strictly mental fitness regimen, but we are saying that we know some people will try it.
2. Learn an instrument by imagining to play it
How: Mentally practicing a song rearranges the brain in the same way it would through physical practice, yielding almost identical results.
The science: Learning an instrument is a great way to express yourself (and annoy people at college parties), but it involves more time and effort than you're likely to devote when you've got a perfectly good Netflix subscription to distract you.
Thankfully, we now know that just thinking about practicing can be almost exactly as beneficial as actually doing it. A major study confirmed it.
From a group of participants, none of whom had experience playing piano, one group was taught a sequence of notes, practicing it for two hours a day for five days. Another was instructed to simply imagine playing the notes. As per usual, the control group sat on their asses.
After the five days, brain maps showed that the group which imagined playing the melody showed similar changes in the structure of their brains as the group that actually practiced. After only two hours of physical practice, the mental practice group was able to play the song just as well as those who had spent the week playing it.
Please, don't think this justifies air guitar at your desk.
3. Become a chess genius without touching a chess board
How: By playing chess in his imagination, an ordinary man programmed his brain to develop the skills he needed to beat a Grandmaster, even when he had no one else to play against.
The science: Anatoly Sharansky, accused of being a spy, spent nine years in a Soviet prison, often stuck in solitary. To avoid going insane, he played mental chess, imagining moving both the white and black pieces, because he had very bizarre ideas about how to not lose his mind.
It sounds like a waste of time, since the mental effort required to remember where each imaginary piece was would be too great to make the process productive. Also, when you're playing against yourself, the competition is pretty consistent.
Sharansky proved otherwise, though. He was a good amateur, but he got so good that when Gary Kasparov—probably the best chess player of all time—played the prime minister of Israel and the entire cabinet, the only person he lost to was Sharansky, who had essentially rewired his brain to turn himself into a chess machine.
4. Use your long-term memory to become a human calculator
How: Mentally practicing equations, over enough time, allowed a bank employee to develop long-term memory strategies that are more effective than the short-term memory tools we typically use for math problems.
The science: Quick, what is 68 times 76? Before answering that question, you'd probably need a calculator, and, likely, an explanation.
For Rüdiger Gamm, though, all that's needed is about five seconds. Gamm is a math magician (which sounds like he belongs to a middle school algebra club), able to solve complex problems in the amount of time if takes most of us to open the calculator app on our phone.
Gamm was not born with these gifts. It started when he was 20. He'd been working in a bank, surrounded by numbers, and decided that he would dedicate four hours each day to practicing mental math. By his mid-twenties he'd developed his skills to such a degree that he could quit his job and make a living exclusively via television appearances. He developed his brain to the point that his long-term memory took over, making mental math much easier. See for yourself.
5. Boost endurance by doing mental puzzles while exercising
How: By adding mental tasks to exercise, you can trick your brain into thinking activities are more demanding than they really are. Doing this regularly can improve overall fitness more than twice as much as just working out.
The science: A recently-released study from the UK's Ministry of Defence had two teams training on stationary bikes for the same length of time and intensity. One team was made to perform challenging mental tasks while working out, which honestly just sounds like some sort of old-school punishment that got outlawed years ago.
After 12 weeks, all participants were made to ride the bikes at 80 percent of their VO2 maxes until exhaustion. The group that didn't perform any mental tasks improved their performance by 42 percent, while the group that did engage in mental tasks improved by 126 percent. By making the original exercise more mentally demanding, they could make it feel physically easier much more quickly.
We doubt you're going to try to solve a Rubik's Cube on a treadmill, but it might help.
6. Lose weight by thinking you're already exercising enough
How: By simply realizing you're getting enough exercise, you can lose weight without doing anything.
The science: One group of hotel maids was informed that their job already provided them with sufficient exercise, while another group was kept in the dark. Apparently, maids usually do get the recommended amount of exercise, but they don't realize it.
After four weeks, those who had been told they were getting a workout lost weight, reduced their waistlines, and saw their blood pressure drop, while the control group didn't reap these benefits.
So if we tell ourselves that playing video games all weekend is actually an intense fitness experience, will we get the same benefits?
7. Prevent muscle loss by imagining a workout
How: People stuck in casts have prevented muscle loss by simply imagining they were exercising. The physical response to purely mental activity actually preserved the strength of the muscle.
The science: A study published in Neurophysiology had participants wrap their hands and wrists in a cast for four weeks, simulating the inactivity they would experience while waiting for a broken bone to heal. One group was taught to imagine doing an exercise for the affected muscles for 11 minutes, five times a week, while another group did nothing.
At the end of the study, the group that did nothing saw their muscle strength depleted by 45 percent, while the group that engaged in mental practice only suffered a 24 percent loss.
So those annoying people who kept telling you to "think happy thoughts" were kind of right.
8. Spontaneously generate heat
How: Skilled monks are able to raise their bodies temperatures by meditating and controlling their breathing, drying towels soaked in freezing water to demonstrate the effects.
The science: In 1985, Harvard doctor Herbert Benson studied monks who practice a form of meditation that supposedly generates heat. The sheer power of focus changed the temperature of their bodies.
During Benson's investigation, the monks sat in a cave while their bodies were wrapped in freezing cold towels, at temperatures that could cause most of us to curse and scream. The monks, however, simply meditated until their bodies fully dried the towels in record time. The towels even let off steam.
In other recent studies, it has been confirmed that the breathing techniques, coupled with unparalleled focus, allow skilled meditators to increase their core body temperature, and not merely the surface temperature.
We're not sure how you do this, but it's possible.
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