How Much of Aging Is in Your Head?

How Much of Aging Is in Your Head?

In 1979 a young Harvard psychology professor named Ellen Langer (soon to be played by Jennifer Aniston in Counter Clockwise) realized something astonishing — and true. “Without knowing someone’s chronological age, science cannot pinpoint how old someone is.” Langer had also built a basic theory of mindfulness that has guided her entire career: “It occurred to me that wherever we put the mind, the body should follow.” And so she came up with an experiment on aging worthy of a Hollywood feature.

Dr. Langer recruited elderly men — men who were not ill but “extremely dependent” — and brought them to a beautiful monastery for a week. The men didn’t come to pray or to meditate; they came to turn the clock back 20 years. For that week, all the magazines, music, art, clothing, and personal photographs were from 1959. Conversations had to be in the present tense and not be about events or experiences after that year. The entire week was carefully choreographed, says Langer; nevertheless, there were surprises: like arriving at the monastery and having no one to carry luggage. So she decided on the spot that each man would somehow have to get his own luggage to his room.

In just one week, the men showed significant changes in physical strength, perception, cognition, taste, hearing, and visual thresholds, as compared to a control group. Their photographs before and after were judged to look, on average, two years younger than when they arrived. But the main difference can be summed up by their condition when they arrived — dismayed and struggling with their bags — versus when they departed . . . and had to pulled away from their touch football game to climb back into the van.

Dr. Langer’s career, as well as her recent book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, is a wonderful collection of groundbreaking research and perceptions. Simple studies, like turning the eye charts upside down to read from smallest to largest, have revealed powerful insights. (Doing so, it turns out, creates an expectation that people can see the smaller print, and their eye tests show better vision.) Says Langer, “Mindfulness comes about from simple acts of noticing new things — it doesn’t matter how smart or silly they may be, so long as we notice them. Noticing engages us and puts us in the present, better able to take advantage of opportunities. Mindfulness is crucial to our health in several ways. First, when we’re mindless, we ignore all the ways we could exercise control over our health. Second, we turn that control over to the medical world, which despite the many things it can do, can’t treat us as individuals. Third, we mindlessly accept health limits that we’d be better off questioning, which closes us off to the power of possibility.”

If Jennifer Aniston can convey all that, this new movie may change health care forever.

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