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Does Mind Over Matter Really Matter?

Here's how our mind can shape the substance of our experience.

Key points

  • The brain is largely run by unconscious instinct and decision-making.
  • Wishful thinking can lead to inactivity.
  • Studies show that when the mind wanders, it often wanders into anxiety.
  • Setting specific subgoals can increase commitment to a larger goal.
Min An/Pexels
Source: Min An/Pexels

Growing up in New England, I was taught that mind over matter—mental discipline—was the way you solved problems, conquered your fears, and got things done. But is that true?

From much of the neuroscience I’ve studied over the past 20 years comes a view of the brain as largely run by unconscious instinct and decision-making. According to science, we are barely in charge of our most basic thoughts, let alone able to control our actions and improve our lives.

So I decided to do a deep dive into a set of studies that present the good news and the bad with regard to our ability to control our fates. And the news is mostly good; we do have control over certain aspects of our willpower, or we can at least be taught to strengthen it. But I’ll start with the bad news, because that’s the way we do things in New England.

First of all, our minds wander. It’s normal.

The more we focus on a task, the more our minds wander. We can’t blame social media. That’s just what we do when our minds start to wander. And we can’t blame the difficulty of the task. The more we do any kind of focusing, the more our minds wander. Mindfulness training does help, but it doesn’t cure things. Your mind is going to wander and wander more the more you do.

When it wanders, if it wanders into anxiety, another study shows, that will increase the likelihood that you engage in wishful thinking and don’t do anything at all about your problems. Wishful thinking leads to inactivity because you’re imagining that things will get better without any effort. So why try?

It seems only natural, then, that the inactivity from anxiety would lead to procrastination. If your mind naturally tends to the negative (It might rain! The ballgame will be washed out! The scout won’t see me play! I won’t get into college on a baseball scholarship! My life will be over!), it increases the likelihood that you’ll procrastinate, another study finds. So, far from being the more realistic scenario, preparing for the worst mentally may actually cause you to avoid doing anything about it.

OK, what about the good news?

There is some; in fact, in the face of all this anxiety, wishful thinking, and procrastination, you can improve your grit and resilience with just 35 minutes of training. A Norwegian study trained undergraduates through a short online course called, optimistically, I CAN, and the results were measurable improvements in passion and persistence, aka grit.

Another study of 400 athletes found that if they perceived stress as bad, they had worse health outcomes than if they were trained to perceive stress as a challenge. In other words, if you believe that you can cope with stressful events, you can. Wonderful news indeed. Mind very much over matter. Or, in this case, thinking that nothing’s the matter means that it is true.

And if you’re worried about the negative effects of peer pressure on us, or today’s youth, or your own children, then it turns out the solution is simple. Take them away from the evil influences for three days. That’s right. According to a study from a few years ago, it turns out that group influence lasts only three days after you take the brainwashed kid out of the cult. Parents everywhere can breathe a deep sigh of relief about their kids.

Another study found that setting specific subgoals increased the commitment to a large goal. That result is inspiring and elegant and refers to the classic advice about eating an elephant: one bite at a time. You do lose a little bit of flexibility, but the increased achievement is surely worth it.

And finally, if all else fails, the old advice about “fake it until you make it” has some relevance for our investigation into mind over matter, at least if you work in a large company. A study showed that if you appear to act in line with your convictions, thus demonstrating self-control (such as sticking to a diet in the face of temptation), you are perceived to be more powerful. And you are more likely to be promoted, thus actually becoming more powerful. But don’t set stretch goals and fail to meet them; that makes you appear less powerful and, therefore, less likely to be promoted.

So mind can help shape the matter of our experience. You just have to stick to some tried and tested ways that really do work. My New England ancestors were right after all.


Wu, S., Smallman, R., & Smith, P. K. (2024). Self-control signals and affords power. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication.

Jan B. Engelmann et al, Anticipatory Anxiety and Wishful Thinking, American Economic Review (2024). DOI: 10.1257/aer.20191068

McLoughlin, E., Arnold, R., & Moore, L. J. (2023). The tendency to appraise stressful situations as more of a threat is associated with poorer health and well-being. Stress and Health, 1–7.

Huang, Y., Kendrick, K. M., & Yu, R. (2014). Conformity to the Opinions of Other People Lasts for No More Than 3 Days. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1388-1393.

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