Toastmasters speech #3 – Mind over matter

For the last little while I’ve been getting into brains. I think they’re absolutely fascinating and I’m getting a bit obsessed with the power of them and how you can control your own thoughts and how they affect you physically. People always talk about mind over matter but I imagine most of you don’t really take much notice of your brains except maybe worrying about losing your memory as you get older! Besides from the obvious function of brains like helping us with walking, talking & all that staying alive kind of stuff, did you know that the power of thought alone can make you physically ill, or make you better, or even just sweat & shake nervously before public speaking? So today I’m going to talk to you about brains and the power of your mind and give you a few tips on how you can trick your brain into helping you feel better. I’m not a neuroscientist so you’ll have to forgive me for my lack of technical nouse but I think you’ll find they’re really cool too.

Just as a little bit of background, your brain weighs about 2% of your body weight but uses about 20% of the oxygen that’s in your blood pumping around your entire body.  To me this demonstrates how much work is actually going on up there in your brain, especially all those stupid thoughts you have like ‘what should I have for lunch? I wonder if it’s going to rain today – maybe I should take an umbrella? Look at her nice shoes.  It’s a bit like that Mel Gibson movie What women want where he walks past all the women and can hear their thoughts.  It’s called brain chatter and I think that’s what is using up all the oxygen! Have you ever tried to not think about anything? To block out the brain chatter?  It’s what people who meditate try to do – they try to find that little bit of peace where there are no thoughts at all.  Not thinking about the future, not thinking about the past, just kind of being present in their body. I’ve taken up yoga this year and we do a bit of meditation during the class and I have to say I find it almost impossible to quiet my mind but if you can find it, it’s a really peaceful place.

So since most of the time you will probably be thinking of something with your brain chatting away to itself so you may as well try to learn how to control your thoughts so that they work for you.  You’ve all probably heard about the book called The Secret. It has been one of the top selling books over the last few years and is a favourite of Oprah’s. The premise is that you visualise the outcome you want, and it will happen. Think rich and you’ll become rich. My friend keeps it pretty simple and just likes to visualise getting a car park at Warringhah Mall on a rainy Sunday afternoon! Personally I’m not a massive fan of the book but I think there is merit in the power of positive thoughts and how they can work for you.

Doctors have been doing it for years using placebos. These are fake medicine that doctors sometimes prescribe patients instead of giving them real medication for pain management. The patients don’t know they’ve been given a placebo and even though it is fake, the patient believes in it so much that it actually helps them get better. Well, they’ve been testing them out for years and it turns out that some placebos work better than others! Say your standard placebo was a little white pill that looked like an asprin.  Well they have proven that if instead, people are given a blue pill, that was smaller and had a logo stamped into it, that that works better than the white pill.  And if it is a capsule instead of a pill, they work even better and coloured capsules are more effective than white ones, and multi-coloured ones are even more effective. And if you’re prescribed it twice a day instead of once, that will probably help more too. But the mac daddy of them all is the injection.  A placebo injection is so much more powerful at reducing pain than a plain white placebo pill but the funny thing is that none of these have any pharmaceutical quality at all. It is just a belief. It is just the power of your mind making you physically better.

But the converse is true too.  Imagine you’re at the beach having a nice time, and suddenly you get a phone call and find out that someone close to you has been killed in a car accident. Within an instant you feel physically sick to the stomach.  You might get weak or even faint or vomit.  How does that happen? Nothing physically touched you. It’s amazing really isn’t it – how your body reacts just from a single thought! If it can make you better, or make you ill in such obvious ways, what are all those little brain chatter thoughts doing to your body? Are they harming your body or are they making you better?

Just in case those thoughts are a bit negative and subtly doing damage it’s probably best to try to trick your brain into doing good.  So there are some things that you can do and it works in reverse. For example, did you know that even by forcing yourself to smile it triggers a signal to your brain that makes you feel happier! And just by taking long slow deep breaths it sends a signal to your brain to relax.  I can vouch for that – I tested it out at the dentist the other day when I was nervous and it worked.

Sounds can do the same thing. Everyone loves the sounds of birds chirping and we find it quite relaxing but do you know why? It’s because it’s a signal to our brains that relates back to the days when we originated from the plains of Africa that it’s safe. That the predators have gone and the birds can come out to play so we can relax – the danger has gone. It sounds a bit daggy but apparently we would all benefit from listening to recordings of bird sounds for 5 minutes a day! Nature is good for our brains. We must know that subconsciously – did you know that more people in the USA visit zoos than they attend sporting events?  And it has been proven that people who are recovering from surgery who were in a room with a view of nature were in hospital for less time, needed less medication and had less complications than those who’d had identical procedures but who faced a brick wall.

So I’ve covered a bit today, from brain chatter to placebos to bird sounds and I haven’t even touched the sides on how amazing that 3 kilogram lump is that is sitting in your head and some of the miracles that are occurring when people trick it into action. But I hope you have got a glimpse into just how your thoughts can affect you, how they can be so powerful that they can make you physically get better or ill, so that you can begin to be more aware of them and to start to use them to your advantage.  So before your next Toastmaster’s talk, maybe try mediating to switch off your nervous mind, or just take a big deep breath and relax.