Mind Hacking at the gym

weights.jpgMost of the time it feels as though our perception of the world is based on what’s out there, what psychologists call ‘stimulus-driven’ or ‘bottom up’ processing. But in reality, our perceptual experience is a seamless mixture of both what really is out in the world and what we expect to be out there (so-called ‘top down’ or ‘concept-driven’ processing). Tom gave an elegant example of this in a recent post, describing how so many people hadn’t noticed the erroneous use of the word ‘conservations’ in the Mind Hacks book, when it should have said ‘conversations’ – in this case readers saw what they expected, not what was written.

I was struck by a couple of similar examples in recent visits to the gym. On the first occasion I’d just finished on the running machine where I have to really crank up my MP3 player volume to drown out the loud music played over the public speakers. When I sat down in the far quieter weights section, the volume on my headphones suddenly felt painfully loud in this quieter environment, and so I quickly jabbed the volume down a few notches. I felt such a relief as the music gradually softened and my eardrums were saved. It was only much later that I realised my MP3 player’s controls were in the lock position – I hadn’t turned the volume down at all. My expectations had overridden the true information arriving at my senses.

On my next visit I proudly grabbed two 14kg (don’t laugh!) dumbbells for some bicep curls. I’d worked up to this weight over recent months and considered it my limit. I was pumping away but my left arm was really struggling, which I put down to it being my weaker arm. Still, I persevered and did my usual number of reps. It was only when I went to replace the dumbbells that I saw the weight in my left arm was 18kg! – someone had put the weights in the wrong places… Well, I thought, maybe I’ve not been pushing myself enough, but no, later on when I went to try out some curls with 18kg weights, it was hopeless: when I ‘knew’ what the weight was it ‘felt’ too heavy!

Anyone got some other examples?

3 Comments

  1. christian
    Posted January 6, 2006 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to Daniel C. Siadak for sending in the following comment:
    “I read your article and noticed a familiarity between your story and that of a Russian weightlifter who was training for a new world record in a certain lift. After warming up, the trainers told the weightlifter that he was going to lift a weight that he had previously accomplished. The reality was that the trainers actually put on additional weight that surpassed the current record. The lifter successfully lift that weight and set a new record. This story is at least 10 years old, but with some researching, I bet you will be able to find it”.
    Anyone know more details on this story?

  2. sugarbat
    Posted January 6, 2006 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    Dumbo, of course. Who thought he could fly only if he carried the magic feather.
    Another example with which most of us are familiar is the one where Mom or Dad first teaches us how to ride a bike with the training wheels off. “Don’t let go!” we yell as we pedal, and Dad runs behind, holding the seat. After promising to not let go, Dad typically does, in fact, let go at some point, after which we ride on for awhile all by ourselves; we usually topple the moment we realize Dad is yards behind.

  3. Posted January 10, 2006 at 12:34 am | Permalink

    There are many examples of prior expectations either completely “overpowering” sensory input or, conversely, making the unexpected sensory input especially salient:
    – the jolting surprise you feel after taking a deep sip of what you think is water, only to find out it’s soda (or vice versa, of course). Or the same surprise you feel when you’re about to bite into a luscious, chocolate brownie, only to discover it’s rock hard
    – if you have ever tried to intentionally draw your own blood, you know that it is incredibly difficult to do so, even though on some other day you might scrape yourself and draw blood without even knowing.
    – smooth eye saccades can only be made in the presence of smoothly moving objects OR with the expectation that an occluded object is moving smoothly
    – the placebo effect
    And then there’s the classic study showing drastic academic improvement among those students from whom teachers were told to expect high performance, relative to other students, even though these students were selected randomly (Rosenthal & Jacobson’s “Pygmalion in the Classroom”).


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