The everyday activities of the human brain are extraordinary to behold. Exclusive to the mind are the powers to imagine, plan, solve, and it does all these while coordinating and regulating a multitude of bodily functions. There are as many neurons in the brain as there are stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. It is a wonderful, complicated organ, and because of this, the full scope of its abilities is still being explored.
There are several extreme examples of the power of the mind that science cannot yet fully explain – from the outlandish, like telekinesis, to the scientifically verified, such as the ability to actively control autonomic body functions through meditation.
While the scientific community, for the most part, considers telekinesis the stuff of hoaxes, during the Cold War the USSR seemed quite convinced they had a homegrown psychic in Nina Kulagina.
Reports from the Soviet Union claimed that Nina’s abilities had been studied by dozens of scientists, including Nobel laureates, and films of her appearing to move objects across a table without touching them fascinated researchers around the world. Nina consented to be examined while she performed her telekinetic feats, and one study noted changes in her heartbeat, brainwaves and electromagnetic fields, even when the environment was completely controlled. She also was observed controlling the heart rate of a laboratory frog.
In another popular story, she entertained a professor in her home that had deliberately dropped in on her unexpectedly in an attempt to pop quiz her abilities. She was able to successfully recreate her telekinetic talents and even consented to being filmed. Nina Kulagina certainly had her skeptics, however. A popular newspaper claimed she was a fraud, although Nina had the last laugh. She sued and won, in no small part due to the testimony of Soviet Union parapsychologists. Nina Kulagina quit submitting to experiments in the 1970’s, after she suffered a near fatal heart attack that she blamed on the physical stress of telekinesis.
Better known in scientific circles as eidetic memory, photographic memory involves the ability to remember images or events nearly exactly. Eidetikers can project a memory on a “blank canvas” in their minds as if they were still seeing it and describe elements in great detail. This skill is often associated with autism spectrum disorders, especially Asperger’s Syndrome, but is certainly not exclusive to it.
Famous examples include Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who, in his youth, wrote down Misere by Allegri with almost total accuracy after hearing it just once, and Charles Schwab, who could recall 8000 employees’ names.
Related to eidetic memory is hyperthymesia, which is a spectacular skill for remembering events in one’s own life. Jill Price has achieved a level of fame for her capacity for personal memories; she claims she recollects every detail of the last three decades of her life and, if given a date, she can recall the day of the week, what she did, and what was going on in the world at the time, as long as she heard about it on the given day. The memories appear as crisp and accurate as if on film.
Self Regulation of Autonomic Processes
Meditation is the key to achieving control over the body’s autonomic functions, according to research. In 1970, a yogi named Swami Rama participated in a study by the Menninger Foundation designed to understand and verify his ability to self regulate his heartbeat, which included the ability to flat line his own heart rate. During these studies, he also showed he could change the temperature in one hand independent from the other.
Swami Rama told researchers that he was able to control his blood flow through meditation, which was how he altered his internal temperature and heart rate. Physician observers also claimed that Swami Rama moved a knitting needle telekinetically during a carefully controlled experiment, but many remain skeptical, as the incident couldn’t be verified scientifically, unlike the other tests.
Meditation is also the explanation for the famous feats of the Tibetan monks who practice a type of yoga technique called g Tum-mo. These monks have been filmed during a 1980s study drying wet sheets in frigid temperatures with only their body heat. The monks enter a deep meditative state while other monks drape sheets that had been soaked in cold water over their shoulders. Instead of causing the monks to shiver, the wet sheets begin to steam. It usually takes only an hour for the sheets to dry. The dry sheet is removed and replaced with another cold, wet wrapping; this is then repeated at third time to complete the technique.
Subjected to temperatures and conditions that might kill others, these practitioners of Tum-mo never even shiver. The monks, who live near the Himalayan Mountains, during the same study were also able to elevate the temperature of their toes and fingers by almost 20 degrees and were filmed spending a winter night outdoors at 15,000 feet wearing only shawls. Even when the temperature dropped to zero, no evidence was seen of shivering, and none of the monks huddled together.
The Power of the Placebo Effect
One of the clearest cases the influence of the mind on health and well being is the placebo effect, which occurs when the mind believes health will improve or deteriorate because of a perceived medical intervention, and so it does, even if the intervention was a fraud.
A classic illustrative example of the placebo effect at work involved a terminal cancer patient and a worthless drug called Krebiozen. In 1957, a man named Mr. Wright hounded his doctor to allow him to try Krebiozen, even though he did not qualify for the experimental trials, because Wright was convinced the drug would cure him. His doctor finally consented and injected him with the cancer treatment. Wright immediately began to improve, and one journal article quotes the doctor as saying Mr. Wright’s tumors shrank “like a snowball on a hot stove.” However, Wright got wind of the failures of the drug, and soon after his tumors shot up in size. Worried for his patient, Mr. Wright’s doctor convinced him that there was a newer, better version of the drug which was guaranteed to work. Mr. Wright consented to trying Krebiozen again, but was actually injected with a syringe full of water. His condition immediately improved. Unfortunately, Wright then learned that Krebiozen had been declared ineffective by the American Medical Association and died soon after.