Is Aging (and Everything) a Matter of Mindfulness?

By Shlomo Maital

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Ellen Langer is a Harvard University psychologist who 25 years ago published a landmark book on “Mindfulness” – defined as “”the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one’s attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present …”. In other words: Being here, in the ‘now’, not in the past, and not in the future.

   Lately, attention has returned to her work, with results showing that it can halt ‘aging’ and perhaps even…. cure cancer?

   An Oct. 22 New York Times article reports:

   “ In one [study], she found that nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember — showing that in many cases, indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration. In another, now considered a classic of social psychology, Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.”

     Langer feels that “what [sick] people needed to heal themselves was a psychological “prime” — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.” In 1981, She tried to show this with a group of older men told to reminisce about what they were like 22 years ago.

     “The men in the experimental group were told not merely to reminisce about this earlier era, but to inhabit it — to “make a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago,” she told the NYT. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” From the time they walked through the doors, they were treated as if they were younger. The men were told that they would have to take their belongings upstairs themselves, even if they had to do it one shirt at a time.” The study was called the Counter Clockwise study.

     What were the results????

     “Each day, as they discussed sports (Johnny Unitas and Wilt Chamberlain) or “current” events (the first U.S. satellite launch) or dissected the movie they just watched (“Anatomy of a Murder,” with Jimmy Stewart), they spoke about these late-’50s artifacts and events in the present tense — one of Langer’s chief priming strategies. Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves — spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years.”

     “At the end of their stay, the men were tested again. On several measures, they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. They were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told [the NYT reporter], had “put their mind in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.”

       I’ll soon turn 72. I believe Prof. Langer. I believe that what you believe about your age, your aging, and your body, is close to what is. We seniors do not have to accept what society decrees – that we are retired, irrelevant, marginal, ill, feeble, forgetful and of little use to anyone. It’s time for a Grey Revolution…and Ellen Langer is providing the ammunition.

 

 

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