The Mind is so powerful, it can reverse aging

When you read the headline, did you believe it? A very small number of us think it’s true; the rest of us don’t. Many people think that aging can never be reversed and certainly not with positive thinking. The whole idea would be laughable if it weren’t for Professor Ellen Langer and her Counterclockwise Study conducted more than three decades ago.

The first woman to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University, Dr. Langer has written extensively on the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, decision making and health. But it is the ground-breaking experiment she organized and carried out in 1979 that rocked the world of psychology.

Dr. Langer designed her Counterclockwise Study to find out if turning back the clock psychologically could also turn it back physically. In other words, if we mentally become younger, will our bodies also become younger?

To explore this provocative question, Langer enrolled a group of men in their 70s and 80s to participate. The men were divided into two groups and each group was taken by bus to live for a week in a secluded location about two hours north of Boston.

The first group arrived and stepped into a virtual time-warp – back into the 1950s. They were instructed to live as though they were actually in that time – with Life and Saturday Evening Post magazines from that era, a black-and-white TV and old movies that had been new then. They listened to radio news from the ‘50s and discussed “current” events such as the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Castro’s victory ride into Havana, Nikita Khrushchev and the need for bomb shelters. Dr. Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by putting them in an environment connected with their own past lives.

The men also found themselves in a place that wasn’t adapted to their infirmities – no ramps or hand rails and they weren’t assisted with anything. Langer wanted them to be totally self-reliant during their stay. She insisted they carry their own suitcases, even if it meant scooting it along an inch at a time.

Dr. Langer almost abandoned the study as she observed, “When these people came to see if they could be in the study and they were walking down the hall to my office, they looked like they were on their last legs, so much so that I said to my students, ‘Why are we doing this? It’s too risky’.”

However, during that week, Langer and her team observed many changes in the participants. They were standing more erect, walking faster and some even decided they didn’t need their walking sticks.

After a week, they returned home and the second group of men arrived. These men, given a slightly different set of instructions, were told to simply spend the week remembering their experiences of the ‘50s and reminiscing.

During each week, on one evening the men sat by the radio, listening as Royal Orbit won the 1959 Preakness. For the second group it brought back a flood of memories; for the first group, it was a race being run for the first time.

None of the participants was told they were part of a study about aging. Before and after the experiment, both groups took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, the test results had changed significantly – for the better.

Langer points out in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, published in 2009, “any positive results would be meaningful…old age is taken to be a one-way street to incapacitation.”  However, she and her team were amazed by the changes evidenced in the tests. Both groups were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision – even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis.

Perhaps the most remarkable finding was that the men in the first group – those who acted as if they were actually back in the ‘50s showed significantly more improvement. After spending a week pretending to be younger, they seemed to have bodies that actually were younger.

The physiological results provided evidence for a simple but invaluable fact: the aging process is indeed less fixed than most people think. In Langer’s words, the study showed conclusively “that opening our minds to what’s possible, instead of clinging to accepted notions about what’s not, can lead to better health at any age.”

And to satisfy that part of your mind that still may be muttering some doubts, I’ll just share with you a part of what the American Psychological Association said in their citation to Dr. Langer when she received their Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest. The award reads, in part, “…her pioneering work revealed the profound effects of increasing mindful behavior…and offers new hope to millions whose problems were previously seen as unalterable and inevitable. Ellen Langer has demonstrated repeatedly how our limits are of our own making.”


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