Ellen Langer

Read Chapter One ·

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Listen to Counterclockwise

What we need is not the will to believe, but the wish to find out.
— William Wordsworth

There’s no way to turn back the clock or to fight the inevitable. We age and the vigor of youth becomes only a memory as we are ravaged by time. Chronic illnesses take their toll, our health and strength diminish accordingly, and the best we can do is graciously accept our fate. Once sickness is upon us, we give our- selves over to modern medicine and hope for the best. We can’t intervene as time marches on. Or can we?

In the 1970s my colleague Judith Rodin and I conducted an experiment with nursing home residents.1 We encouraged one group of participants to find ways to make more decisions for themselves. For example, they were allowed to choose where to receive visitors, and if and when to watch the movies that were shown at the home. Each also chose a houseplant to care for, and they were to decide where to place the plant in their room, as well as when and how much to water it. Our intent was to make the nursing home residents more mindful, to help them engage with the world and live their lives more fully.

A second, control group received no such instructions to make their own decisions; they were given houseplants but told that the nursing staff would care for them. A year and a half later, we found that members of the first group were more cheerful, active, and alert, based on a variety of tests we had administered both before and after the experiment. Allowing for the fact that they were all elderly and quite frail at the start, we were pleased that they were also much healthier: we were surprised, however, that less than half as many of the more engaged group had died than had those in the control group.

Over the next several years, I spent a lot of time thinking about what had happened. Our explanation was that the results were due to the power of making choices and the increased personal control it affords. Although we couldn’t make an airtight case, subsequent research would bear out our original under- standing. Our research had taken place at the beginning of what was later termed the “New Age” movement and well before mind/body studies were conducted in laboratories around the country. It raised a nagging question: “What is the nature of the link from the nonmaterial mind to the material body?” Examples of this connection are all around us. We see a rat and show signs of fear as our pulse races and sweat breaks out on our skin; we think about losing a significant other and our blood pressure increases; we watch someone vomit and we feel nauseous our- selves. While we easily see evidence of the connection, it’s not well understood. Even we had been surprised: it seemed odd that simply asking people to make choices would result in the power ful consequences that our study showed. Subsequently, I realized that making choices results in mindfulness, and perhaps our surprise was because of the mindlessness we shared with most of the culture.I began to realize that ideas about mind/body dualism were just that, ideas, and a different, nondualist view of the mind and the body could be more useful. If we put the mind and the body back together so that we are just one person again, then wherever we put the mind, we would also put the body. If the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body would be as well—and so we could change our physical health by changing our minds.

To read the rest of Chapter One, download the PDF file here.