Ellen Langer and the Psychology of Possibility

“Wherever you put the mind, the body will follow.” That is how Ellen Langer sums up her work.

Harvard Magazine has a wonderful feature article on the life and ground-breaking research of the psychologist Ellen Langer. I know about her work on windfulness (Wikipedia mindfulness entry), including her international bestseller Mindfulness and her more recent Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. The piece does a good job with that, covering her ideas, the research she has done, even some critiques.

Mindfulness, she tells the medical school audience, is the process of actively noticing new things, relinquishing preconceived mindsets, and then acting on the new observations. Much of the time, she says, our behavior is mindless… Mindlessness blinds us to new possibilities, says Langer, and that is what drove her to study its flip side.

But what I most liked about the article was the discussion of her early research:

In 1981, early in her career at Harvard, Ellen Langer and her colleagues piled two groups of men in their seventies and eighties into vans, drove them two hours north to a sprawling old monastery in New Hampshire, and dropped them off 22 years earlier, in 1959. The group who went first stayed for one week and were asked to pretend they were young men, once again living in the 1950s. The second group, who arrived the week afterward, were told to stay in the present and simply reminisce about that era.

Both groups were surrounded by mid-century mementos—1950s issues of Life magazine and the Saturday Evening Post, a black-and-white television, a vintage radio—and they discussed the events of the time: the launch of the first U.S. satellite, Castro’s victory ride into Havana, Nikita Khrushchev and the need for bomb shelters. There was entertainment (a screening of the 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder with Jimmy Stewart) and spirited discussions of such 1950s sports greats as Mickey Mantle and Floyd Patterson. One night, the men sat glued to the radio, listening as Royal Orbit won the 1959 Preakness. For the second group it brought back a flood of memories; for the other group, it was a race being run for the first time…

As Langer points out in one of her published accounts of the monastery study, because an experiment like this had never been run before, “any positive results would be meaningful…old age is taken to be a one-way street to incapacitation.” What she found, however, surprised even her own team of researchers. Before and after the experiment, both groups of men took a battery of cognitive and physical tests, and after just one week, there were dramatic positive changes across the board.

Both groups were stronger and more flexible. Height, weight, gait, posture, hearing, vision—even their performance on intelligence tests had improved. Their joints were more flexible, their shoulders wider, their fingers not only more agile, but longer and less gnarled by arthritis. But the men who had acted as if they were actually back in 1959 showed significantly more improvement. Those who had impersonated younger men seemed to have bodies that actually were younger.

She followed that up with an empirical demonstration of the benefits of mindfulness, or at least a sense of agency:

She and Yale colleague Judith Rodin found that simply giving nursing-home residents plants to take care of, as well as control over certain decisions—where they would meet guests, what activities to do—not only improved their subjects’ psychological and physical health, but also their longevity: a year and a half later, fewer of those residents had died.

The Harvard article includes lots of useful links, including to this BBC program where she discusses the aging and plant care study. The piece also covers the film that will be made about her life, and will star Jennifer Aniston:

“Didn’t anyone tell you there’ll be a movie where Jennifer Aniston will be playing me?” she asked a hotel ballroom packed with psychologists and physicians at a recent Harvard Medical School conference… “Why am I telling you about the movie? Because I’m telling everybody.”

There is also a link to her artwork, including her site at Scouting for Art. The image above is actually her painting Me and My Shadow. Click on it to go buy or browse!

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4 Responses to Ellen Langer and the Psychology of Possibility

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  2. J says:


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  4. Ti says:

    This is reminiscent of Betty Friedan’s “The Fountain of Age.” I believe the aging and plants study is actually discussed in the book.

    On a side note, my condolences to Langer re: being played by Jennifer Aniston.