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How do you feel about your body?

I recently stumbled across a YouTube channel of talks about the latest science of HR. One of the talks I found particularly interesting. It’s presented by Dr. Christine Looser, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard Business School, and it examines people’s biases towards their minds and bodies.

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Dr. Looser found that people value their own minds more than their own bodies. When asked if they would rather lose a mental faculty or a limb, most people chose to lose a limb. Interestingly, when asked about which other people would prefer to lose, the answers indicated that individuals consider other people’s bodies as having more value than their minds. A typical response toward losing part of one’s own mind was “Mental diseases are much worse than physical ones because it changes your complete outlook on life.” But this same respondent felt that “People want to have a healthy body regardless of their mental state.”

This was true whether the ‘other people’ in question were strangers or a loved-one. At first glance this seems odd – how can you value your own mind so strongly, but then fail to consider that others would do likewise. The answer lies, of course, in our natural perspective. We inhabit our own minds, taking a front row seat to every thought, feeling and fantasy that flashes through it all day long. By contrast, we’re never privy to other people’s minds, and unless they explicitly communicate what they’re thinking, we have only their bodies to go by. (Funnily enough, we don’t really know what we look like to others. Unless you’re on TV a lot, and prone to watching yourself, your own self-image is probably rooted in what you see in the mirror, which is, by definition, a mirror image of what you look like, and not what you actually look like to other people.) Dr. Looser goes on to make the point that this bias might go some way to explaining various real-world phenomena, such as the taboos around mental ill health, and the fact that we’re often encouraged to do things to look after the health of our bodies, but much less often encouraged to look after the health of our minds – something which Headspace is keen to redress. With mindfulness, we’re more aware in the present moment, and therefore, hopefully, more able to pick up on the cues we get from other people about what’s going on in their minds. And, armed with an understanding of the mind/body value bias that Dr. Looser has described, we’re more able to appreciate that just because we can’t directly experience another person’s mind, it doesn’t mean it’s any less important to them, and it’s definitely not less important than our own.

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