Ellen Langer, Harvard’s longest serving professor of psychology and also the first ever female professor to obtain tenure in the university’s psychology department, has spent decades researching mindfulness and the mind body connection. Langer has given us a wealth of fascinating research into the impact that the mind has upon the body.
The power of the mind-body connection
Langer began her mind-body research in the 1970’s with a, now classic, experiment in which she gave two groups of elderly nursing home residents a house plant to care for. One group was told that they were responsible for nurturing and caring for the plant, they were also told that they would be able to make some decisions in relation to their daily schedule. The other group of residents were told that the nursing staff would take care of their plants and were given no choice regarding their schedule. Langer’s team monitored both groups. After eighteen months twice as many of the people in the plant nurturing and decision making group were alive compared to the other group.
Can self-perception reverse the effects of ageing?
Next, Langer proposed the idea of testing a psychological ‘prime’ that would prompt the body into healing mode when illness occurred. Langer embarked on a new experiment. Eight men, all in their seventies, were taken to a converted monastery in New Hampshire. The men were in good health but showing the signs of ageing, some with poor mobility, walking slowly and aided by sticks. For the next five days the men would live as if they were in 1959, they would listen to music and watch TV from the fifties, wear clothes from the fifties and read magazines and books from the fifties. They spoke about the 1950s in the present tense, had no reminders of their current age, no mirrors (only photos of them 22 years earlier were displayed). The group was told that if they fully participated in living as if they were in the 1950s, it was strongly believed that they would feel younger.
Before the experiment began the men’s vision, hearing, flexibility, strength of grip and cognitive abilities were measured. The team hoped to see a difference in each man’s test results at the end of the five day experiment. The men were encouraged not to merely reminisce about the life they lived 22 years earlier but to really try and live as if they were there.
A control group, eight men of similar age, were asked to live in the house (before the experiment began) for five days and reminisce but not instructed to live as if they were actually back in the 1950s.
At the end of the five days, the men were tested again. The results were amazing. The men significantly beat the scores of their counterparts in the control group. Their flexibility, dexterity and even their sight had improved. This groundbreaking experiment became known as the counterclockwise research.
Changing perceptions to lose weight
Langer also tested her idea in different environments. Interviewing hotel chamber maids, Langer asked, “how much exercise do you do?” and was told, “we don’t do any exercise.” Next, Langer’s team divided the 84 chamber maids into two groups. One group was told that their daily cleaning routine was the same as exercise, changing a bed for example, was the same as using a machine at the gym. Langer changed the women’s perception of their daily activity. The other group were the control group, they were not told that their cleaning activities were the same as exercise. Three months later, the research team found that the group who had their perception of activity changed experienced a reduction in waste to hip ratio, weight loss, lower blood pressure and a reduction in body mass index.
The mind-body connection and illness
Langer is now pushing the boundaries of her research by testing the impact of the mind-body connection on illness. In recent research, which still needs to be replicated, Langer’s team had people with type two diabetes complete a test on the computer. A clock in the lower right hand corner of the computer displayed time twice as fast as real time, half as fast as real time or at real time. Langer wanted to know if blood sugar levels would spike and dip following real or perceived time. Results so far appear to show that the blood sugar levels follow perceived time.
Looking ahead, Langer intends to do a study with women who have stage four breast cancer. Twenty four women will be placed in a retreat setting and taken back eight to ten years in time, whilst practising mindfulness. Langer’s team will then track tumour size and blood markers to see if they can be reduced or eliminated. Watch this space!
4 ways to harness the mind-body connection
1. Actively notice new things. In all of Langer’s research on the mind-body connection, subjects actively noticed something new or developed a new way of looking at the familiar.
2. Act on new observations. The subjects in Langer’s research acted on the new things they observed, think about the men in counterclockwise really living as if they were back in the 1950s.
3. Let go of pre-conceived mindsets. Be open to new ideas and different perspectives in the same way that the chamber maids were able to change their perception of activities they routinely completed.
4. Focus on caring for something, especially something that will experience positive change as a result of your input, remember the positive effect of caring for something even as small as a plant.
Want to find out more? Take a look at this video of Ellen Langer, talking about Counterclockwise: