Interview with Ellen Langer: Is getting old inevitable, or do we have a choice? The answer appears obvious:
if an antidote to aging existed, surely we would have heard about it by now. As for growing younger, entire industries are devoted to the appearance of youth but under the surface it would seem that time marches on. How, then, is it possible for men in their late seventies and early eighties to suddenly improve their memories, hearing, eyesight, dexterity and appetite without any pharmaceutical aid? As Harvard social psychologist Ellen Langer discovered in her now famous “Counterclockwise” study, the key is the human mind.
In the 1970’s, Langer and her graduate students embarked on a quest to discover the biological impact of “acting as if” it were twenty years earlier on a group of elderly men. One of their first surprises came when they asked leading geriatricians how they could measure the biological markers of age before and after the study: they were told there are none.
The only way to actually know someone’s age is to ask him or her. They decided to continue with the study, in which a control group of older men were told that they would attend a retreat where they would spend a week “reminiscing” about the past; the experimental group, by contrast, would spend a week surrounded by paraphernalia from twenty years earlier, listening to radio shows and discussing news from the period. They were not allowed to bring up any events that happened after 1959, and they were to refer to themselves, their families, and their careers as they were at that time.
The point was not living in the past; rather, it was about giving mental signals to the body to reflect the energy and biological responses of a much younger person. By “acting as if” they were in their late fifties and early sixties, the men in the experimental group actually changed their performance on benchmark tests. At the end of the study, the experimental group demonstrated marked improvement in their hearing, eyesight, memory, dexterity and appetite.
Some who had arrived using canes, dependent on the aid of their children, walked out under their power, carrying their own suitcases. Langer concluded that by expecting them to function independently and engaging with them as individual minds rather than as old people, she and her students gave them the opportunity to see themselves differently. This, then, had an impact on them biologically.
For Langer, the “Counterclockwise” study showed the power of possibilities. If the mind could have such an impact on the body, what other potentials might exist in terms of healing? How important are the words that doctors use when talking with patients, or that patients use about their disease? Langer has continued to study what she calls mindfulness and its effects. A film based on her book is currently being made, starring Jennifer Aniston. SuperConsciousness caught up with Langer at her Harvard office.
SC: Before the Counterclockwise study, you consulted geriatricians and discovered that there are, in fact, no reliable biological markers of age. How did that change your thinking about aging?
EL: I’m not sure that it did. It changed my idea about how easy it was going to be to run a persuasive study, because if there were clear biological markers how could I change them so nobody would disagree. But if you just notice people in the world, you’ll see that some of them stand tall, some of them slouch, some still have their teeth, some don’t, and these things are not perfectly correlated with the age of the person. I think it was this great variability that led me to some of the ideas in the first place. If everybody lost their eyesight, if everybody lost their teeth, if everybody lost their memory, then it would be less likely to come up with the ideas that this doesn’t have to be.
If you let the mindset rule, then you don’t engage in lots of activities, because after all, you’re too old for them.
SC: How important is language in terms of the way that both doctors and patients talk about health and aging?
EL: It’s a little complicated. Because people are brought up to seek certainties, they become vulnerable to language in ways they need not. If I tell you something is a particular way, given that you’re eager, mistakenly so, to seek certainties, you say “Well, that’s the way it is” and that’s the end of it. If you were brought up to seek multiple understandings of things, or to recognize that we simply can’t know because things are always changing and they look different from different perspectives, then language wouldn’t matter so much.
One of the things I talk about in Counterclockwise is the difference between a chronic and an acute illness. Chronic means uncontrollable, but it turns out you can never prove uncontrollability. All you can say is that we don’t yet know how to control it. That’s very different, because if I take the medical language seriously, then if I have a disease that’s called “chronic”, I don’t do anything to try to help myself, because after all, why knock your head against the wall. If it can’t be controlled, it can’t be controlled. If you understood that we can never prove uncontrollability, that this is a disorder that we don’t yet know how to control, then you don’t feel quite as foolish trying to do things to help yourself.
If everybody lost their eyesight, if everybody lost their teeth, if everybody lost their memory, then it would be less likely to come up with the ideas that this doesn’t have to be.
When you start paying attention, you start to see that whatever your symptoms are, they change from moment to moment, from day to day. That gives rise to the question “Why? Why is it that I feel a little better now than I did before?” And you come up with ideas and test them out, and in doing so you may find a solution which may lead to fewer symptoms. Interestingly, all of my prior research suggests that this mindful search process is good for our health even if we don’t directly solve the problem. But when words have been conditioned to lead to single thoughts we don’t question them and just accept that they are true when they may not be, we don’t give it any more thought, we just accept the outcome, and thus give up control over our health.
We often let our mindsets about aging rule. If you forget something, for example, you say, “Ah. That’s because I’m old.” If you hadn’t bought into the notion that as you become old you necessarily become forgetful you might not overlook all the other reasons why you might have forgotten this particular thing. As I’m fond of saying, much of what old people think they are forgetting is not forgotten – they didn’t learn it in the first place because they didn’t care enough about it. So if you didn’t learn it in the first place and you don’t know it in the second place, it’s not because you’ve forgotten it. They just don’t consider alternative explanations to being forgetful. We all would if we were more mindful.
We often let our mindsets about aging rule. If you forget something, for example, you say, “Ah. That’s because I’m old.”
If you’re in the present, that will necessarily lead you to be more differentiated, and in being more differentiated, you’re going to be more mindful, which is again literally and figuratively enlivening. If you let the mindset rule, then you don’t engage in lots of activities, because after all, you’re too old for them. You don’t notice that your back that was killing you yesterday now feels a little better. If you’re in the present, and you notice that, you might say to yourself, “Maybe it’s not because of these dread disorders, but rather that I was gardening yesterday.” And if you recognize that, that suggests that tomorrow you’re going to be even better. You do things, then, that are forwardlooking. When you buy into the mindset, you assimilate all of your behavior to that mindset. If you’re not supposed to be able to do something, you don’t try to do it.
SC: In Counterclockwise, you say “How would things be different if we viewed all disease as psychosomatic? At that point it would be unreasonable and almost irresponsible to not try to heal ourselves.”
EL: The problem is that the medical world has helped us see the word “psychosomatic” as pretending. The symptoms are real. Now, if you see disease as in some ways guided by your thoughts and you know you have control over your thoughts, then that would mean that there’s at least a modicum of control that we can exert over any of our diseases. I actually believe our minds have almost complete control over our diseases.
If you see disease as in some ways guided by your thoughts and you know you have control over your thoughts, then that would mean that there’s at least a modicum of control that we can exert over any of our diseases. I actually believe our minds have almost complete control over our diseases.
SC: What would you see as the greatest potential of both your book and the movie that’s being made based on the book?
EL: The exciting thing is to be able to teach some of the work on mindfulness on the big screen, meaning that many, many people will see it and hopefully be influenced by it. The film is going to be entertaining, so it’s not as if I’m standing there lecturing. Hopefully, when people see the movie, they’ll have enough interest to read the book, and that will give them some of the finer points to all the information and over time, that could have considerable benefits to the whole culture in terms of how we might become healthier.
There are lots of people studying different aspects of this right now, and the more that are out there, the more interested people become, the more research that’s done, and the more change that hopefully will follow.
Another part of all of this it is that because there are so many baby boomers who refuse to get old, they’re going to be hungry for ways to keep themselves strong. Maybe they will take all of this information to heart. We have a lot more control over our health and well-being than many people realize. My hope is that people will come to that realization.
For more information about Ellen Langer and Counterclockwise, visit www.ellenlanger.com
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