Mind over Mind: The Surprising Power of Expectations
by Chris Berdik .
Current/Penguin, 2012 ($26.95)

Wearing all black can make you a more aggressive competitor, and striking a pose can make you act authoritative. According to journalist Berdik, fulfilling expectations—such as perceiving a commanding, “I am the law” persona—is what our brain does best. In Mind over Mind, Berdik explains how anticipation can inform, even dictate, our future experiences.

Building on theories from medicine, neuroscience and psychology, Berdik reveals how our “forward-thinking brain” shapes our actions, personality and health. He describes hoodwinked wine tasters (who may reject and later reward an identical vintage based entirely on price tag) and subjects of virtual-reality studies (whose behavior after unplugging may echo their earlier ogre or beauty queen avatar).

Our expectations need not dictate our future experiences, however. For example, when primed to think of ourselves as part of a certain group, we may act according to a stereotype, but studies have found that just discussing this tendency can actually prevent us from falling victim to it. Berdik also uncovers the perils of expecting too much, such as when star athletes crumble at a crucial moment. In a study in which participants watched an uplifting movie, subjects who had earlier read about the benefits of joy came away less happy after watching the film than those who had not.

Berdik's ideas about our future-focused brain coalesce most convincingly on the topic of placebos. The mechanism behind the placebo effect remains unclear (Berdik discusses how it may involve the brain's anticipation circuitry), but just believing that a treatment will work can cause a patient's body to mimic the effects of medication or even surgery. Pharmaceutical companies have found that a placebo effect even increases with time as our confidence in the treatment grows. Although the use of placebos remains problematic for ethical reasons, he asserts that medical professionals should further explore its potential to hijack our brain's natural self-healing mechanisms.

Berdik successfully packs his book with rich examples detailing the science of expectation, but he does not offer his readers a unifying explanation about why and how our brain behaves this way. Instead he suggests that we can harness the brain's tendencies to our advantage and that mindfulness and self-reflection may push us to change our lives for the better.