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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.




The Three Intersecting Circles of Innovation

By Shlomo  Maital    


  My attention was recently drawn to a three-year-old report, done by MIT scholars, for the health science research community.  The report is  The Thid Revolution:  The Convergence of the Life Sciences, Physical Sciences and Engineering.   The authors, which include stellar figures like Profs. Phillip Sharp and Robert Langer,  argue that “convergence will be the emerging paradigm for how medical research will be conducted in the future.”

  In order for this convergence to happen, they say, we will not “not simply collaboration between disciplines but true disciplinary integration.”

    Today, the structure of nearly all the universities in the world is obsolete, ancient, creaky and counterproductive.  It is based on faculties, which are silos that work in direct opposition to convergence.   The exceptions are research institutes that are cross-disciplinary, specifically nanotechnology. My university has a Nanotechnology Center that draws scholars from many disciplines, and the resulting integration has been tremendously productive.   A small example:  Prof. Hossam Haick, whose discipline is chemical engineering, but who has harnessed nanotechnology, electronics, chemistry, physics and engineering to produce an ‘electronic nose’, which can sniff cancer molecules, for instance.   He recently delivered the first course in Arabic, on Coursera, on nanotechnology.   

      Structure is not strategy, it is sometimes said.  But, sometimes it is.  Let’s change the structure of universities.  Let’s find a way to restructure them, so that each faculty member has a very clear area of expertise, a clearly-defined discipline, but also has broad knowledge of other fields and above all,  works as part of a convergence interdisciplinary team.  And for this to work, their offices have to be adjacent…. Despite IT and networking, nothing beats face-to-face conversations over coffee.  

      Convergence poses a big challenge to those who would innovate.  You need to achieve two conflicting goals, both of which are highly challenging.

    First, as Nobel Laureate Dan Shechtman repeatedly urges, you must become expert, truly expert, at SOMEthing….  his expertise was in electron microscopy, and it enabled him to overcome fierce opposition to his discoveries, and ultimately win the big prize.   You need deep knowledge in at least one field or sub-field.

   Second, you need to become curious and learn a great many things about a great many fields, not in depth but sufficient to understand them.  You need wide knowledge, surface knowledge, in just about everything.   Even if you have team members who have deep knowledge, it still helps a lot to innovate if you have basic understanding of other, distant disciplines. 

    In future, all the major breakthroughs will occur at the point of convergence among several disciplines.  In order for you, innovator, to be there,  you need to acquire depth, and breadth. 

    Good luck!


From Basic Biological Science to Market Success:

How Bob Langer Changes the World

By Shlomo Maital   


Bob Langer is a renowned MIT scientist.  His famous lab has generated an endless stream of inventions that benefit mankind, including radical new methods for controlled-release drug delivery.  This is important – when we swallow a pill, the concentration of the drug in our blood rises, then falls, then rises again when we take another.  Controlled-release technology keeps the level of the drug constant, in our blood stream, so that it is more effective. 

   Prof. Langer shared his ‘secret of success’ in a recent article in Nature Biotechnology, 31 (6), June 2013.  It includes 3  “P’s”:   platform, paper, patent.

   * Platform:  develop a technology that can be used over and over in different applications and technologies. E.g., his method for controlled release drug delivery systems also found use in microspheres for food applications, e.g. fat substitutes.

   *  Paper:  Publish your results in a high profile journal;  “peer review validates the idea”.  You can of course file for a patent within a year of publishing the paper.

   *  Patent:  “ideally, file a blocking patent, that protects the platform, and all the ways it can be used and applied”. 

    Platform, paper and patent – all persuade investors of the validity of the idea.  Add to this two more P’s:   P of P,  proof of principle —   show the technology is viable.   Speed is vital, adds Langer; the more rapidly you can get to clinical trials, the better.  And you need a champion.  Langer’s champions are his doctoral students, who develop technologies in their Ph.D. theses, then go on to found companies. Langer often serves on the board, makes introductions, helps get financing.  Langer himself is a bench scientist, and focuses exclusively on scientific research.  But his vision has led to many many spin-off companies emerging from his lab.  At a time when many biotech startups fail, Langer appears to have developed a winning formula.  If I were in biotech, I would study the Langer Lab formula closely.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
June 2019
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