Could thinking we are younger make us younger physically and mentally? This question is discussed in Counterclockwise, a new book by Ellen J. Langer.
Dr. Ellen Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. In 1979, she and 4 graduate students undertook a study where a group of male nursing home residents in their late 70s and early 80s were taken on a week-long retreat, where they were asked to live like it was the year 1959, i.e. 20 years earlier.
The results were startling… the men appeared to become younger.
The Psychological Time Travel Experiment
The men stayed in a place done up to look like it was 1959. All magazines, newspapers, films and TV and radio programs dated from that year, and there were daily activities such as discussions of 1959 current affairs, held as though it was the present.
In numerous other ways the men were encouraged to feel it was 1959, such as by having ID photos of themselves from that time, and discussing the work they had been doing then as though it was the present.
The psychologists measured a range of indicators of chronological age (they had to invent them, because there actually are none) before and after the retreat, and found the men had appeared to become younger.
The results were compared to ones from another control group of men, who also improved—who wouldn’t, after a holiday from a nursing home, with daily activities?
The changes in the experimental group compared to the control group were significant, however.
They showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length (their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more) and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 percent of the experimental group improved their scores, compared to only 44 percent of the control group.
The experimental group also showed better improvements in height, weight, gait, and posture. They also looked noticeably younger after the study, compared to the control group, according to impartial observers looking at photos.
Counterclockwise – Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility
Langer describes how the study came about, and how it was conducted, in chapter one of the book. She then says the following:
This study shaped not only my view of aging but also my view of limits in a more general way for the next few decades. Over time I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us but rather our mindset about our physical limits. Now I accept none of the medical wisdom regarding the courses our diseases must take as necessarily true.
If a group of elderly adults could produce such dramatic changes in their lives, so too can the rest of us. To begin, we must ask if any of the limits we perceive as real do exist. For example, we largely presume that as we age our vision gets worse, that chronic diseases can’t be reversed, and that there is something wrong with us when the external world no longer “fits” as it did when we were young.
Aah… a woman after my own heart! Langer concludes this section with the following:
Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things. It is not about New Age medicine nor traditional understandings of illness. It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. Learning how to change requires understanding how we go astray. The goal of this book is to convince you to open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours.
The Psychology of Possibility
Langer also writes about the psychology of possibility in chapter one… a way for both researchers and the rest of us to approach things by focusing on possibilities, rather than the status quo. She makes the point that psychologists have traditionally studied the “norm”, rather than exceptions that could show possibiliies.
She says “Much of my own research is designed to test possibilities, not to find what is descriptively true. If I can make one dog yodel, then we can say that yodeling is possible in dogs.” She goes on to say:
When faced with disease or infirmity, we may find a way to adjust to what is. In the psychology of possibility, we search for the answer to how to improve, not merely to adjust.
For example, most of us believe that between the ages of forty and fifty, our eyesight will start to decline. If instead we thought that perhaps our eyesight could improve over time—be better than when it was at its best—we might develop ways to make that happen.
…many psychologists presume memory loss is a natural part of aging. An older person who doesn’t have memory loss is seen as an anomaly instead of becoming a model for how we all might be.