What if we were able to simply think ourselves younger and thinner…? Decades of research by Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer suggest that it really is possible.
Years before the new age movement had popularized the idea of a mind-body connection, Langer became curious about the impact of our environmental cues on aging. In 1981, in what became known as the ‘counterclockwise study’, she invited eight men in their 70s and 80s to spend five days in a converted monastery in New Hampshire, in which she had set up a time warp. The environment replicated 1959, down to the black-and-white television and old issues of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. The men were treated as if they were younger, and told to speak in the present tense about ‘current’ events of the ’50s.
Astonishingly, the participants improved on a certain number of parameters during their stay: they emerged with improved flexibility, looking younger, and even with better eyesight. A control group instructed just to reminisce about that time in their lives also showed some improvement, but less than those who really re-embodied their younger selves. Langer concluded that it is not our physical state that limits us, but our perception of our own limitations:
If we put the mind and the body back together so that we are just one person again, then where we put the mind, we would also put the body. If the mind is truly a healthy place, the body would be as well—and so we could change our physical health by changing our minds.
To further explore the relationship between expectations of aging and physiological signs of health, Langer and her colleagues created a study with women in a hair salon–ranging in age from 27 to 83–who were about to have their hair cut, colored or both. Subjects who perceived themselves as looking younger after the appointment showed a drop in blood pressure.
Another of Langer’s studies involved hotel chambermaids who didn’t think they got much exercise in a typical week. The researchers primed an experimental group to perceive their work differently by telling them that cleaning rooms was like going to the gym. Once their perspective shifted, those maids lost weight and improved on other measures like body mass index and hip-to-waist ratio, whereas the control group actually gained body fat. All other factors were held constant. The only difference was one of perception.
Langer wondered whether perception could also be affecting the results of health tests. When she experimented with simply reversing the standard vision chart—which normally has increasingly smaller letters as you go down, leading you to expect it to become more difficult—to one with the smaller letters on top, results on vision tests improved.
Langer believes that not only are most people led astray by their biases, but they are also inattentive to what’s going on around them. Learning to be more mindful could improve our health. Langer’s definition of mindfulness involves attention to context and variability. Context—as demonstrated by the septuagenarians—can make a big difference. Variability involves noticing moment-to-moment changes around you: when we observe changes in our symptoms, for example, we may be able to gain more control over them by making positive changes.
In short, Langer’s research encourages us not to rely on our context or habitual brain patterns for our perceptions:
The more we realize that most of our views of ourselves, of others, and of presumed limits regarding our talents, our health, and our happiness were mindlessly accepted by us at an earlier time in our lives, the more we open up to the realization that these too can change.
So while scientists continue to prod the mind-body connection to delay aging, you’ll know where to find me–at the hair dresser’s, jamming to early ’90s hip-hop on a Walkman…