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.
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.
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?