Ellen Langer

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  • Oct 8, 06:54 AM

Our Innate Power to Heal

A recent article in the New York Times by Barry Meier discussed the problems of setting guidelines for treating different patients suffering from the same disease. Creating one set of guidelines for diabetes, for example, might save money but some people will suffer grave health consequences from a treatment that helps others. While early research showed that excess glucose was responsible for blindness and kidney failure, leading to a glucose control guideline, later research revealed that others may suffer seizures or even die as a result of reduced glucose.

This problem will not go away by shifting the guidelines, or requiring more rigorous research as some argue. No matter how rigorous the research is that the guidelines are based on, some people will suffer. There are hidden decisions in medical research—dosage, times administered, subject population, context, definition of disease severity and so on—for which a slight change in any one of these could change the results of the study. As I’ve argued, research only yields probabilities, not absolute facts. Given that the data are only normative—what may be true for most people under the same circumstances—surely for some people it will prove to be untrue. None of us is the norm—none of us is us. This dilemma makes clear the importance of adopting a new way for people deal with health issues.

We have far more control over our health than most of us realize. My research—where in some studies we increase mindfulness and in others we eliminate negative health mindsets—has shown that not infrequently health can be restored and limits even extended by our minds. Indeed all of the research on placebos makes this clear. Placebos are powerful medication. The pills may be inert, but they unleash the innate power we have to heal ourselves.

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  • Oct 7, 03:20 PM

Big Dog Musings

Have you ever heard anyone say that their large dog thinks he’s small or that their small dog thinks he’s big? I found myself saying just that recently when a friend was describing the dog he was about to dog sit—a bulldog that is as large as a Lab. Right after I said it I thought it was a strange idea. Dogs probably don’t think about their size. So what does it mean when a German Sheppard acts like a lap dog? I think it means that he’s strong enough to make himself vulnerable and be soft. It’s much harder for dogs and humans to be soft than tough, and clearly more desirable for everyone. The stronger an animal is, the softer he can be.

In a similar vein, we’ve got it wrong when we admire someone for being “cool.” Rather than congratulate someone for being aloof, wouldn’t it be great it we admired their warmth? Maybe if we did, there’d be fewer scared little puppies, human or otherwise, making trouble for the rest of us.

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  • Counterclockwise
  • Aug 28, 09:25 AM

Positive Health On Mindful Health

Michael Horgan has written a terrific article that gives an overview of mindfulness and health, “ Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.” He concludes:

Langer’s definition of mindfulness is very interesting, because it aligns more with definitions of critical thinking than with definitions of mindfulness as a meditative acceptance of all that is. Langer’s mindfulness is very pro-active, energized, engaged, optimistic, constructive, and uninhibited in the face of failure. Langer believes that the future is largely indeterminate, not uncontrollable. We don’t know for sure whether or not we can control something unless we try, and if we fail this does not imply that we cannot control the thing we set of to control, only that we failed to control it at the time of trying; the situation remains indeterminate, but the possibility of control is still a possibility. Langer maintains a beautiful balance: she is sceptical and constructive at the same time, open to the possibility that she may be right or wrong, or right and wrong—only experience will tell and only mindful experience will transform.

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  • Counterclockwise
  • Aug 27, 12:15 PM

Scientific American MIND Review

Counterclockwise succeeds in presenting powerful ideas about largely untapped human abilities, grounded in a body of fiendishly intriguing research.

That’s the last sentence of Robert Epstein’s kind review of Counterclockwise, which you can read in full on the website.

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  • Counterclockwise
  • Aug 26, 03:37 PM

Botox for the Brain

Tom Jacobs at Miller-McCune reviews Counterclockwise.

In a sense, this is a book about the limits of empirical knowledge. But as Langer sees it, the ambiguity that inevitably accompanies medical research can be profoundly liberating. If we can’t be sure that a diagnosis — or a widely accepted truism such as “memory loss is inevitable with age” — truly applies in our case, we’re less likely to stick ourselves with a self-limiting label. “While many of our experienced disabilities may be a natural part of aging,” she writes, “many are instead a function of our mindsets about old age.”

You can read the whole review at their website.