September 28, 2009

CounterClockwise: Crabby Meets the Anti-Crabby

Photo: hettie gm

A number of weeks ago, I went to a lecture by a Harvard social psychologist, Ellen Langer. She wrote the ground-breaking book Mindfulness, and she has a new book out which I just finished, called Counterclockwise.

Langer has done a lot of research on mindfulness, and the "psychology of possibility." She believes we can use the power of our minds to do amazing things--improve our health, and even, in some ways, turn back the clock and reverse the physical effects of aging.

So what happens when you take a cranky, cynical, slothful, not-particularly-optimistic blogger like Crabby, and expose her to a serious scientist who believes practically nothing is impossible? Someone who encourages us to think that dogs might be taught to yodel and human limbs might spontaneously regenerate? Or who claims we shouldn't expect our eyesight to decline as we reach old age, or that we can melt off pounds merely by thinking differently about the exercise we already do?

Well... sometimes even stubborn crabby cynics find themselves rethinking things a bit! I have to say Dr. Langer's ideas were pretty darn intriguing.

Our Perceptions Affect Our Health?

Well, this notion isn't entirely a shock--we've all heard of the placebo effect. But what did blow me away is just how many surprising ways our perceptions can change the actual physical functioning of our bodies. Langer has been doing research on this for decades, and she's gotten amazing results.

Here are just a couple of the studies she discusses in her book:

The "Counterclockwise Study": This one took place back in the 1970's, but the scientific world didn't quite know what to make of it back then. Now that the idea of a mind/body connection doesn't sound so wacky, it's gaining new attention. Apparently the study is even going to be the subject of a movie starring Jennifer Aniston! (Sigh. We're still waiting for "Cranky Fitness, the Musical" to get snapped up, yet oddly enough, the phone is not ringing off the hook).

Anyway, in the study, Langer took two sets of elderly men away from their dreary nursing homes and sent them to a cabin for a week. They fixed things up at the cabin so that everything looked like it did 20 years earlier, in 1959. They surrounded these guys with songs, pictures, magazines, and tv and radio shows from the era. They gave them more autonomy and responsibility than they normally got, and did a bunch of other cool things for them too, but I'll let you read the book for further details.

One group of these old dudes, the experimental group, was told to live as though it were 1959. They were instructed to be who they were at that age, to not discuss anything that happened after time, and to try to reflect in their conversations and interactions that it was 1959, not 1979. They were also told that if they did this successfully, there was reason to believe they feel as well as they did back then.

The control group was also surrounded with the same 1959 environment, but told only to reminisce about the past, not to live as though they were 20 years younger.

Not to spoil the movie or anything... but holey moley, what a difference that week made!

It actually produced improvements for both groups, but especially the experimental group. After a week of living as though they were 20 years younger, their hearing and memory improved and the guys gained weight (and most needed to). The experimental group showed significantly greater improvement in joint flexibility, manual dexterity, and finger length; they increased their intelligence scores; and they improved in their height, weight, gait, and posture. Objective observers said all of the experimental subjects looked noticeably younger after the study was over.

Cool, huh?

The Hotel Maid Study: This study was another one that I thought was incredible. (So incredible I even scoffed a bit when I first heard about it).

Langer was curious as to why hotel room attendants were burning lots of calories in their demanding jobs, yet were still overweight, had high blood pressure, and other signs of poor health.

I woulda figured: well, because maybe they don't make much money and have crappy junk food diets? Langer wondered instead: could it be because they don't think they're getting enough exercise?

So guess what happened when some of the maids were told that their jobs actually burned enough calories to meet the surgeon general's definition of an "active lifestyle?" They changed nothing else about their routines except their expectations. And with their altered perceptions, they started losing weight and lowering their blood pressure. Those who weren't told they were already getting enough exercise... didn't.

I almost hope there were some methodological flaw in the study or something, because that result totally messed with my head. Can you really think away weight?

Challenging Medical Research and Low Expectations

Langer is respectful of research and the scientific method, but she thinks that the way we rely on doctor's diagnoses and research can be limiting. A study can be conducted thoughtfully and rigorously and still produce a "truth" that is not true for us.

Does it make more sense to be careful, mindful observers of our own health, and to think in terms of the possible rather than our limitations? What if we didn't accept the "fact" that our eyesight would start to decline in middle age? What if we thought instead that our eyesight might improve? Could it?

The Key is Mindfulness

Langer thinks we are far too mindless in the way we accept negative stereotypes about aging and conventional medical thinking about our health. By attending to the variability in our own bodies and environments, we can notice what works for us, and make incremental changes toward improving how our bodies function. She points out, for example, that a "depressed" person is not depressed 24 hours a day. But if we focus only on the depression, we may miss noticing what is occurring when that person is NOT depressed and try to make sure there's more of it going on.

Langer observes that "we apply convenient labels to most everything we encounter, blinding ourselves to alternative ways of understanding that...could turn out to be far more useful."

Lots More in the Book to Inspire

This book summarizes decades of research, and I realize I'm not doing it justice with this brief overview. (Ellen is also a very entertaining speaker, btw; if you get a chance to hear her sometime, I'd jump on it). So I may have to do another post some day on her research. I was particularly intrigued by the numerous studies she reported in which our subtle perceptions of how old or unhealthy we are can actually impact our health and longevity. And heck, if I can trick my mind and body into acting like, say, 30 until I croak at a ripe old age? I'm thinking that would be worth trying to nag myself occasionally to become a bit more mindful.

Brief Interview

So here's yet another demonstration that Dr. Langer is indeed the Anti-Crabby. After seeing her lecture, I got up the nerve to ask her if I could send her some interview questions for the blog. She said "sure!"

Almost two months later, I finally emailed her. I only asked her 3 questions because I was so embarrassed it had taken me so long to get her book and read it.

Less than an hour later, she'd responded. Ellen McSlacker, she is not.

Anyway, here is our brief interchange. Were I less of a slacker, there would be a lot more questions.

Crabby: I've been feeling vaguely guilty for years because I don't meditate. But you suggest that meditation isn't the only path to mindfulness, and that the key is "attending to variability." Which I fully intended to do after hearing your lecture, then forgot all about it a few days later.

Are there any techniques you can suggest to encourage our meandering brains to attend to what's going on around us instead of lapsing into mindlessness?

Ellen: Simply notice new things about whatever you're attending to. To make it formulaic, notice 5 new things. This will make it clear to you that you didn't know it as well as you thought you did and it will then become more interesting.

Crabby: You seem to be far more optimistic than many scientists about what the mind can accomplish. Is there anything you believe to be outright impossible, or do you stay open-minded about everything? Say ESP or psychokinesis or other parapsychological phenomena?

Ellen: Yes, I try to stay open to everything.

Crabby: I love the research about the subtle ways our perception of our own age can actually affect our physical health. Do you have any practical suggestions for cultivating a younger mindset and fooling ourselves into feeling like spring chickens again?

Ellen: It won't be a problem if we recognize the effects mindless age-related cues can have on us, and either become mindful or replace these old age cues with younger ones.

Crabby: Thanks Ellen!

So do you folks believe you can "think" your way to better health? Or does this notion seem far fetched?


  1. Well, believing is seeing, so I like it! I'm gonna build that cabin in the backyard, circa 1979, groovy!!

  2. This was an interesting post, Crabby! I observed many people in their later years who seem much younger than their chronological years, and many who seem much older. It seems to me that if you 'perceive' yourself to be old (or in failing health, or whatever) then it becomes true.
    That is perhaps a simplistic view, but seems to have some truth to it.

    I am going to try to think of myself as 30 again. (Rather than the 35 I seem to be stuck at....) to see if it will make a difference!

    Thanks for this post!

  3. Oh, yes I do. The mind creates what we are. If we can think ourselves sick, then we can think ourselves healthy.
    There's some long-standing adage about you're only as old as you think you are, and another one about being as pretty as you feel, and probably others along the same theme. They have their truths.I'm glad this has been researched.

  4. What a wonderful & very "thinking" post! I "think" I will have to take these studies & thoughts under consideration. Although I don't want to go back to some of my harder younger days, I do think the mind can "set us free" in some ways. I know that I don't think about my age in terms of what I try exercise wise & I do things people half my age do. But that other outside the exercise room, I must try that!


  5. `I can't believe that!' said Alice.

    `Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. `Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

    Alice laughed. `There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'

    `I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. `When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.

    --Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

    I am believing right now that I am going to sail through my kick-box classes for the next eight weeks, just like I did with I was 27 and could do the 90-minute class without sucking wind. I'll let you know how that works out.

  6. I do believe it .. it's just a matter of wrapping the mind around the process. Wonderful food for thought.. and practice. I'm heading back to the 60s.. please pass the pipe.

  7. I definitely believe it! That's why I don't cut my hair like most people my age do. Long hair = Young mind. Is that right??

  8. I can't believe you fill up your blog with so much useful and interesting information. Where do you find the time? Mine is chock-full of gibberish and I'm still always running around like a chicken sans-head.

    Keep up the great bloggin'!

  9. What is the title of that one Funkadelic song...Free Your Mind, and Your Ass Will Follow? More proof that there's some truth to this way of thinking.

    Oh, and basenjis are a breed of dog that yodels. Check out youtube for clips.

  10. I do believe - I've always chosen to ignore certain "facts" and just gone with what felt right, no matter what conventional wisdom told me I should be feeling and doing. Very interesting post...I'll have to check out her book!

  11. I do believe. I admit that "in my head and body" I feel 30-ish. And I'm being mistaken for someone who IS about that young. The secret is to embrace the youthful energetic things in my life over the "age appropriate". So my 10-20 friends in their 20s and early 30s are really keeping me young.

    Now I'm going to have to think myself leaner.

  12. Ms. Crabby, this post comes dangerously close to being positive and cheerful.

    I'd be worried -- if it weren't also filled with pretty damn interesting ideas.

    Alas, I think most producers lack the vision to see how creative and provocative and money-making Cranky Fitness: The Musical could be.

  13. I've been a clinical research coordinator for 13 years and I can attest to the placebo/nocebo effect. Big Time.
    For example:The hardest time we had enrolling subjects into a cholesterol study was getting lab work on a potential patient, putting them on a placebo run-in for 2 weeks with instructions to not change their diet--and inevitably 80% wouldn't qualify at the 2nd blood draw. Their cholesterol levels would have dropped. We didn't tell them it was placebo--just that it was "study drug".
    Most probably did watch their fatty intake a little, but not to the extent that their blood levels would drastically change.

  14. I believe there's a lot to the idea that thinking yourself young keeps you young. It's not magic, though. If you think you're young, you'll try new things. You'll view the world in terms of the possible, instead of labeling things beyond you because you're "too old" for that. You'll even carry yourself differently.

    If you're above ground and moving of your own volition, you're not too old to try whatever your mind can dream up. You may need to start slow and have a plan, but you probably would've done better to have had a plan when you were twenty, so what the hey.

  15. Wow, that's a lot of interesting info. I'm definitely going to have to go get that book now.

    I believe perception is 9/10 of reality, I've seen it influence people in a million ways every day.

    I'm going to try to "think myself thin" now ^_~

  16. I so want to read the book now....hmmm going to have to look into that.

    Anyway I think that there is a mind/body connection when it comes to health. I had a friend who uses the mind over matter concept when dealing with everything from physical pain to emotional pain and it really seems to make a difference.

  17. It's things like this that make me wish I'd gone into social science after all. How fun are these studies?!? I could read stuff like this all day and never get enough. I must must read Langer's book now. Thanks for the tip!

  18. As more time passes we see even science beginning to embrace the concept of the power of the mind. There are fields of study now that can scientifically quantify the power of thought.

    I'm not a tremendously metaphysical person, but I do greatly believe in the power of the mind. It seems inarguable to me that having clean, healthy thinking at the very least provides a positive framework for your life, more happiness and, consequently, more success. I don't believe that thinking ALONE an alter your life, but that thinking in combination with ACTION is the success formula. If nothing else, thinking positively and visualization practices instill confidence that carries through in your actions and, as the world is more likely to embrace something attractive like positivity, is again likely to yield greater happiness and success.

    Simply put: Negativity and dark thinking can make you something the world wants to repel, not embrace. After all, who wants to spend time with, date, marry or buy something from someone dark, brooding and fatalist?

  19. I'm a believer. We are capable of a wide variety of things, depending on the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Fascinating stuff.

  20. Great post! I had an interesting experience at a new yoga class. The instructor asked us to extend our arm, turn to the left and put our arm back as far as we possibly could.

    She then asked us to close our eyes and visualize our arm moving much farther then it had.

    She then asked us to open our eyes and repeat the first arm went at least 6 inches further.

    I am also unable to do some of the yoga but she said when I am practicing to just visualize my body going all the way.

    Strange but true.

  21. Can I give this a big ol' HELL YEAH?

    I work with people with enormous amounts of brain damage. Most of them have had what we call in the neuroscience biz "severe insults" to their brains, in the form of bleeds or clots or head injuries of various types.

    If I were to take two patients, one who was simply certain that they would get better, and one who was unsure, I can guar-an-darn-tee you that the one who refused to accept their deficits would get substantially better than the one who focused on them.

    I have seen this over and over again: when a patient, or their family, refuses to accept the doctors' prognosis and simply assumes that the person will get better, *they do*. Even in the face of really devastating injury (like two near-lethal bleeds in six weeks), they GET BETTER. Like, nearly 100% better. It's the darndest thing.

    Limitations are so often self-placed and other-enforced that they should, I think, be ignored as much as possible.

    I, personally, intend to live like I'm 27 (the age I feel like) for as long as possible. Even at nearly-forty, I don't have the aches and pains and movement restrictions that most of my (younger!) peers do. Some of it's genetics, some of it's general fitness, but most of it is how I think and how I act.

    Childish. Goofy. Immature. Whee!

  22. I plumb dug me a bomb shelter and I'm agoin to live in it like it's the 50s again.

    I could read this book. Is it available on Kindle? I'm going to keep my mind open to that possibility.

    I'm not sure but this sounds like she's describing buddism, mindfulness, being aware, keeping your heart and mind open and living lives over and over again.

    This idea of Dr. Langers sort of explains why lots of people go back to their high school reunions and bask in that glow for months afterward. I had read or heard that people want to go back to more youthful ideas and surroundings when they become ill. Of course, when I was diagnosed with cancer, I did not call everyone a doodyhead even though I was really tempted.

  23. Hmmm...not sure what to think on this one.

    On one hand, it totally makes sense. The placebo effect has been long recorded and I completely agree with the whole mind over matter - I have an aunt that is a hypochondriac that manages to make herself sick. When her and my mom were living together as adults and my mom wanted a day to herself, she said she was staying home from work because she felt like she was getting a sinus infection. My aunt, three days later, is home sick with sinus pain, and goes to the doctor and has a sinus infection! Beyond the fact it didn't exist, it's not even contagious.

    Someone once told me, though I haven't seen the information myself, that with people with multiple personalities will need glasses with one personality but not another, and their eyesight actually changes from one to the other. That would correlate with that thought, and maybe the reason I'm blind as a bat is because when I was five and saw my parents had glasses I wanted to be like them and mentally deteriorated my eyesight, which is now worst that either of theirs?

    However, if it is all mind over matter and all people need to know is that they are actually exercising a lot and they magically lose weight...then why do people have such a hard time losing weight? I understand the mind over-emphasizing the candy bar you snuck to equal twenty pounds, but how many times have people lamented that they have counted every calorie and exercised, yet they haven't lost weight or are in a plateau? Would the argument then be that deep down inside they don't want to lose weight or don't think they can? Or does every dieter hit the plateau because they know they're supposed to and condition themselves to it?

    Likewise, I wanted hearing aids and braces when I was a kid (because we know how the weirdest things are cool when you're eleven), yet my hearing is fine and I managed to inherit my father's Eric Estrada smile and had to settle for the paperclip retainer. (Did you guys ever do that? Ah, memories.) The most ironic part of that is that my mom and sister have teeth that put Austin Powers to shame and have had braces. So how does that fall into it?

    I'm having a philosophical conversation with myself now. Time for bed, where I will convince myself that I really can teleport. :)

  24. I think we really under-estimate the power of our thoughts and our beliefs. Thanks for this reminder, Crabby! It was very interesting and left me with lots of food for thought.

  25. I'm late to comment, but great post!

    Yes, I'm all for a broader definition of health, that includes not just physical, but mental, emotional, spiritual, etc.

    In humans, the whole is more than the sum of the parts.


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