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April 15, 2009

Mind over Matter


Langer did a study like this with a group of elderly men some years ago, retrofitting an isolated old New England hotel so that every visible sign said it was 20 years earlier. The men—in their late 70s and early 80s—were told not to reminisce about the past, but to actually act as if they had traveled back in time. The idea was to see if changing the men's mindset about their own age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

Langer's findings were stunning: After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity and less arthritis in their hands. Their mental acuity had risen measurably, and they had improved gait and posture. Outsiders who were shown the men's photographs judged them to be significantly younger than the controls. In other words, the aging process had in some measure been reversed.

I know this sounds a bit woo-wooey, but stay with me. Langer and her Harvard colleagues have been running similarly inventive experiments for decades, and the accumulated weight of the evidence is convincing. Her theory, argued in her new book, "Counterclockwise," is that we are all victims of our own stereotypes about aging and health. We mindlessly accept negative cultural cues about disease and old age, and these cues shape our self-concepts and our behavior. If we can shake loose from the negative clichés that dominate our thinking about health, we can "mindfully" open ourselves to possibilities for more productive lives even into old age.

Consider another of Langer's mindfulness studies, this one using an ordinary optometrist's eye chart. That's the chart with the huge E on top, and descending lines of smaller and smaller letters that eventually become unreadable. Langer and her colleagues wondered: what if we reversed it? The regular chart creates the expectation that at some point you will be unable to read. Would turning the chart upside down reverse that expectation, so that people would expect the letters to become readable? That's exactly what they found. The subjects still couldn't read the tiniest letters, but when they were expecting the letters to get more legible, they were able to read smaller letters than they could have normally. Their expectation—their mindset—improved their actual vision.

Hmmmm... now where have we heard this before?

Posted by Cassandra at April 15, 2009 12:55 PM

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You hear books talking to you now?
That makes me *anxious*.

Posted by: DL Sly at April 15, 2009 01:46 PM

If you want to see the effects of Positive Thinking go to a Geezer Warehouse (Old Folks Home) and watch most of the people light up when someone shows an interest in their story and personal worth. Bring a dog and the results are even more spectacular.

Posted by: vet66 at April 15, 2009 02:14 PM

Bring a *large* friendly dog and watch the smiles pop. The diocese maintains a retirement cloister near the towpath where I walk my three furry monsters.

The *second* time I showed up, none of the Ladies were sitting down -- they were all crowded by the gate, giggling and waiting to collect doggie kisses.

Posted by: Ron White's Better Muse's Evil Twin at April 15, 2009 02:34 PM

I'll be the doggies loved it, too. A Win/Win situation if ever there was one.


Posted by: DL Sly at April 15, 2009 02:50 PM

"If you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them." - Richard Bach

Since I got back into the Guard my military peer group is in their 20's to 30's for the most part. I find that I set my expectations for myself on what my peer group is doing rather than my age. I have no intention of "acting my age" ever again! (I had a set of BDU's on my last deployment that were older than our youngest soldier.)

Posted by: Pogue at April 15, 2009 03:32 PM

As I always like to remind my sons,

"Youth is but a fleeting thing.
Immaturity, on the other hand, is forever..."

Posted by: Cassandra at April 15, 2009 03:34 PM

(that wasn't aimed at you, by the way).

Self-defecation is a bad habit of mine.

Posted by: Cassandra at April 15, 2009 03:35 PM

I wanna be just like the Blog Princess when I grow up!!

Posted by: Princess Angelina Contessa Louisa Francesca Banana Fanna Bo Besca the Third--but you can call me Dot at April 15, 2009 03:39 PM

There's hope for Bill yet!


Posted by: MikeD at April 15, 2009 04:20 PM

Self-defecation normally requires a TARP bailout. Unless, of course, you happen to be Goldman Sachs. Which means that you poop in someone else's drawers.

Posted by: spd rdr at April 15, 2009 04:50 PM

"Youth is but a fleeting thing. Immaturity, on the other hand, is forever..."
Then aging, periodic fits of youthful exuberance and a sense of humor go a long way towards maintaining clarity and functionality in a dusty old carcass... Or so I'm told. =;^}

Posted by: bt_in-an-indeterminate-state_hun at April 15, 2009 04:51 PM

Please substitute Then again for the Then aging above.

Ok, it doesn't seem to do much for one's keyboard dexterity.

Posted by: bt_in-an-indeterminate-state_hun at April 15, 2009 04:55 PM

Oh, I dunno, bthun -- "Then aging, periodic fits of youthful exuberance" is kind of poetic. Visualize Jack Kerouac on gingko biloba...

There's hope for Bill yet!

No hope for change, though. I'm so firmly entrenched in the Peter Pan Syndrome, you'd need a satchel charge to evict me...

Posted by: Ron White's Better Muse's Evil Twin at April 15, 2009 05:19 PM

Ok, it doesn't seem to do much for one's keyboard dexterity.

Or for remembering to change tags...

Posted by: BillT at April 15, 2009 05:40 PM

Which means that you poop in someone else's drawers.

A lady, sir, does not "poop" (other than verbally) in anyone's drawers :p

Posted by: Cassandra at April 15, 2009 05:50 PM

And don't you dare, mr rdr :D

Posted by: Cassandra at April 15, 2009 05:50 PM

Oh my! I never simply dare, my dear Princess! I always challenge outright, and then I take on all comers until they surrender, or they die. Or I apologize.

Eh... that's all I got.

Posted by: The Hockey Goon at April 15, 2009 06:17 PM

"A lady, sir, does not 'poop'..."

Soooo, that explains the brown eyes....

*skipping away through the trees and breeze*

Posted by: DL Sly at April 15, 2009 09:46 PM

Six years ago this month, I enlisted in the National Guard and my aging rate, compared to several of my friends in my own age and station, slowed dramatically.

(I'll admit it sped up a fair bit for a year in Afghanistan; I probably caught up just during that summer.)

However, I do things regularly at age 31 that I never imagined doing when I was in my early 20s--running 3 1/2 miles regularly before work, for example.

At the end of this month, one of our E7s retires. He just missed being able to deploy to Operation Enduring Freedom last year, which would have been a nice capstone to a career of service that began in Vietnam. In energy, capability, and enthusiasm for life, I would favor him heavily against virtually any other 60-year-old in this country.

(SSG) Sig

Posted by: Sig at April 16, 2009 11:29 PM

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