Ellen Langer

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  • Counterclockwise
  • Aug 17, 02:52 PM

Do We Need to Stay Sick Until Congress Saves Us?

The current healthcare bill may have a hard time passing in Congress. Do we need to wait for Washington to improve our health and well-being? “ The answer ought to be a resounding “NO.” As much as we need to reform the healthcare system, we really need what I call personal healthcare reform.

If we exercised the control we actually have over our health and well being, we’d find ourselves healthier and happier, and far less dependent on how any particular congressperson voted.

Imagine that you’re 20 years younger. How do you feel? Well, if you’re at all like the subjects in a provocative experiment my students and I conducted, you actually feel as if your body clock has been turned back two decades. We took a group of elderly men, to an isolated New England retreat that we retrofit so that in every possible manner it appreared to be 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 age might lead to actual changes in health and fitness.

After just one week, the men in the experimental group (compared with controls of the same age) had more joint flexibility, increased dexterity, improved vision, 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.

Currently most of us live sealed in unlived lives constrained by stereotypes we’ve adopted as truths. Once we shake loose from the negative clichés that dominate our thinking about health, we can mindfully open ourselves to possibilities for more productive lives no matter what our age.

I’m not simply stating a wish, there’s a great deal of hard science that backs up my assertion. Imagine if the eye chart at your optometrist’s office was upside down, with the letters going from small to large rather than large to small. Would that have any effect on how you see? My lab looked at just this question. A standard eye char—moving from large to small letter—creates the expectation that at some point you will be unable to read a line. When we turned the chart upside down, we reversed that expectation and people were able to read smaller letters than they could with standard charts. Their expectation—their mindset—improved their actual vision.

But other health consequences might be more important than that. In another study, we considered how clothing can be a trigger for aging stereotypes. Most people try to dress appropriately for their age, so clothing in effect becomes a cue for ingrained attitudes about age. But what if this cue disappeared? We found that people who routinely wear uniforms as part of their work life, compared with people who dress in street clothes, missed fewer days owing to illness or injury, had fewer doctors’ visits and hospitalizations, and had fewer chronic diseases—even though they all had the same socioeconomic status. This doesn’t mean we should all start wearing uniforms. The point is that we are surrounded every day by subtle signals that aging is an undesirable period of decline. These signals make it difficult to continue developing a healthy mindset throughout adulthood.

Similar signals also lock all of us—regardless of age—into pigeonholes for disease. We are too quick to accept diagnostic categories like cancer and depression, and let them define us. Doing so preempts the possibility of a healthful future.

That’s not to say that we won’t encounter illness or bad moods—or that dressing like a teenager—will eliminate those things completely. But if we’re open to the idea that the common beliefs we hold don’t have to be correct, and begin exercising the control we have over our health, we just might feel as healthy as we did when we were younger.

So how do we heal ourselves? First, we should take medical information about our health with a grain of salt. Medicine is not an exact science and only tells us what may be true for most people under the tested conditions, and may not be true for any of us individually—none of us is the norm. Second, realize that nothing stays the same. Even if we think we have some symptom—an ache, depression, etc.—all the time, sometimes it’s less than at other times and sometimes it’s not there at all. We need to become aware of when it changes and ask why now and not then. Third, we need to recognize that full health is possible and take small steps towards that healthy goal rather than accept helplessness. Fourth, while we are doing each of these we should recognize that we are not our diseases, they don’t define us and they shouldn’t limit our potential.

You don’t have to rely on Congress to enjoy a healthier and more fulfilling life, your own personal reform is a lot closer than you might think.

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  • Mindful Health
  • Aug 4, 12:14 PM

Same Thing Only Different

We often believe that people’s behavior reveal important differences about them. But wherein does the difference lie? It’s mid summer and my friends seem to have no trouble walking straight into the ocean water. I love to swim, but the water is often just too cold for me. I imagine that I look like a coward of sorts—not strong enough to brave it and jump in. While it appears as though they are simply braver than I am, a second thought leads to a different conclusion. If my body sensed the water just as theirs did, I too would be willing to go right in. Conversely, if the water felt as cold to them as it does to me, most would stay on the shore. That others can have a different experience of a situation is not as obvious as the difference in our overt behavior and so we often draw the wrong conclusions about people and become judgmental.

The example I often use in class is of a several horses running toward a group of people. If everyone else runs and one person stays put, she or he is seen as being in denial. If everyone stays put and one person runs, she or he is seen as a coward. What might actually be going on is that those who stay put think the approaching horses are friendly and the runners think they are in harm’s way. The only thing that differs between them is their understanding of the situation based on their individual, past experience. If those that stayed put felt they were going to be hurt, they too would run.

Next week, later in the summer, I may actually get a chance to swim.

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  • Jul 17, 01:19 PM

A Mismatch of Theory and Evidence

Last week I was visiting a friend who was telling me about a trip to India that she and her friends took many years ago. They met a guru and asked a bystander to take a picture of them with him. Two pictures were taken, using two different cameras. When they got home and developed the film—digital cameras didn’t yet exist—they found themselves in the photos but the guru was missing. How could this be? When we can’t explain a phenomena, we dismiss it out of hand and that’s what many people who see the pictures do. Interestingly, they often accept without question other phenomena that they also can’t explain.

When we’re faced with findings that our theories can’t accommodate, we too often throw out the data. The other alternative, of course, is to abandon the theory, but we don’t often let go of the mindsets that attach to theory. Scientists are no different from the general public in our mindless adherence to long-standing views. Eventually, there may be a paradigm shift when the evidence for a new view becomes overwhelming, but much progress may be lost in the wait. No amount of evidence for example, for some “paranormal” phenomena, would currently be accepted by most scientists. My own research teeters at times on the edge of believability for some, when it shows that if we change our mindset our body changes accordingly. Publishing in leading journals helps gain acceptance. While I’ve taken this approach, it often means dealing with reviewers who also are stuck in soon-to-be outdated theories.

We need to open our minds to possibility. Who knows what could be in store for us if we do. I personally have no desire to disappear from photos, although looking thinner than I may be would be a nice alternative.

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  • Mindful Health
  • Jul 6, 10:41 AM

Rainy Day Thoughts

It rained for so many days in Provincetown the month of June that it felt like it was never going to end. Each day of showers felt so familiar that many of us forgot what it was like to be outside enjoying the sunshine. It made me think of what happens to those experiencing depression. Depression feels like it’s never going to end. In fact, some—perhaps many—depressed people believe they will always be depressed.

Rarely is anyone “always” depressed, but even if one were, never is the depression the same each day. If we took note, we’d see that there are many moments of nondepression and many moments when the depression is less worse than at other times. When we feel depressed we think about all the times we’ve felt this way, as if the feeling is always the same. When we’re just experiencing ourselves, we’re not evaluating how we feel.

So the upshot is we have a lot of “being depressed data” and no “not depressed data” about ourselves. The comparison makes the depression feel interminable. One solution is to keep a diary, so we’d see that there are many moments where we’re feeling good. If we did so, we would see that none of us is literally depressed all the time. Noticing when we’re not feeling bad would naturally lead us to ask why at times we feel bad and why we don’t now. Mindfully considering these questions should itself be engaging enough to erase many moments of the depression. It will also feel good just to see that we’re not depressed all the time.

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  • Mindful Health
  • Jun 21, 04:31 PM

More Like Dogs

Someone decided that dogs are a lower species than humans. He clearly didn’t consider emotional well being—things like blame, regret, being evaluative — when coming to that conclusion. There are so many ways dogs seem superior to me, but the one I wanted to mention was their approach to “disability.”

Gus, my twelve year old Westie recently went blind all of a sudden. It doesn’t seem to stop him from running around and enjoying himself fully, however. He was never conforatable with being on a leash and so he’s not on one now. On walks, I try to direct him with my voice, and he mostly listens and I mostly remember to stop him from walking into trees. The thing that is noteworthy is when we both miss. He hits the tree, regains his composure and is ready to strut his stuff again. No wallowing, no helplessness, no apparent regret. All that seems to matter to him is the moment.

When Gus first went blind I brought him to a specialist who said it was not retinal and may be indicative of a brain tumor. She suggested a battery of intrusive tests. Having just published Counterclockwise, in which I discuss the inherent limits to medical knowledge, it felt like the same must be even more true for vetinerary medicine since they get even less feedback from their patients than human doctors. Since the vet can’t know for sure, I’m letting Gus take care of himself for as long as he can. He doesn’t know he’s supposed to be stressed while he’s waiting to see if he does indeed have a brain tumor.

The vet says the blindness is permanent. We’ll just have to wait and see.