Posted by: physicalimmortalitythemasspossibility | October 14, 2013

The Psychology of Possibility – quotes from Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer’s Counter Clockwise

I find the ‘psychology of possibility’ interesting. Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has this to say about the approach –
‘In most of psychology, researchers describe what is. Often they do this with great acumen and creativity. But knowing what is and knowing what can be are not the same thing. My interest, for as long as I can remember, is in what can be, and in learning what subtle changes might make this happen. My research has shown how using a different word, offering a small choice, or making a subtle change in the physical environment can improve our health and well – being. Small changes can make large differences, so we should open ourselves to the impossible and embrace a psychology of possibility.
The psychology of possibility first requires that we begin with the assumption that we do not know what we can do or become. Rather than starting from the status quo , it argues for a starting point of what we would like to be. From that beginning, we can ask how we might reach that goal or make progress toward it. It’s a subtle change in thinking although not difficult to make once we realise how stuck we are in culture, language and modes of thought that limit our potential…..
If I had never wondered about what is possible, I would never have conducted the counterclockwise study and never have witnessed the transformative power of our minds.’
Ellen Langer ‘Counter Clockwise – Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility’

A study was done in 1979, by psychologist Ellen Langer and her team at Harvard, which demonstrates the power of the mind to reverse ageing. Deepak Chopra describes this study in “Ageless Body, Timeless Mind” –
“The subjects, all 75 or older and in good health, were asked to meet for a weeks retreat at a country resort. They were informed in advance that they would be given a battery of physical and mental exams, but in addition one unusual stipulation was placed upon them; they were not allowed to bring any newspapers, magazines, books or family photos dated later than 1959. The purpose of this odd request became clear when they arrived – the resort had been set up to duplicate life as it was 20 years earlier. Instead of magazines from 1979, the reading tables held issues of Life and Saturday Evening Post from 1959. The only music played was 20 years old, and in keeping with this flashback, the men were asked to behave entirely as if the year were 1959. All talk had to refer to events and people of that year. Every detail of their week in the country was geared to make each subject feel, look, talk and behave as he had in his mid 50′s.

During this period, Langer’s team made extensive measurements of the subjects biological age. Gerontologists have not been able to fix the precise markers that define biological age, as I noted earlier, but a general profile was compiled for each man using measurements of physical strength, posture, perception, cognition and short term memory along with thresholds of hearing, sight and taste.

The Harvard team wanted to change the context in which these men saw themselves. The premise of their experiment was that seeing oneself as old or young directly influences the ageing process itself. To shift their context back to 1959 the researchers had their subjects wear ID photo’s taken 20 years before – the group learned to identify one another through these pictures rather than present appearance, they were instructed to talk exclusively in the present tense of 1959 (“I wonder if President Eisenhower will go with Nixon next election”); their wives and children were referred to as if they were also 20 years younger; although all the men were retired, they talked about their careers as if they were still in full swing.

The results of this playacting were remarkable. Compared to a control group that went on retreat but continued to live in the world of 1979, the make believe group improved in memory and manual dexterity. They were more active and self sufficient about such things as taking their own food at meals and cleaning up their rooms, behaving much more like 55 year olds than 75 year olds (many had become dependant on younger family members to perform everyday tasks for them).

Perhaps the most remarkable change had to do with aspects of ageing that were considered irreversible. Impartial judges who were asked to study before and after pictures of the men detected that their faces looked visibly younger by an average of three years. Measurements of finger length, which tends to shorten with age, indicated that their fingers had lengthened, stiffened joints were more flexible and posture had started to straighten as it had in younger years. The control group also showed some improvements (Langer explained this by the fact that going on a trip and being treated specially made them feel younger too). But the control group actually declined in certain markers such as manual dexterity and finger length. Intelligence is considered fixed in adults, yet over half of the experimental group showed increased intelligence over the five days of their return to 1959, while a quarter of the control group declined in IQ test scores.

Professor Langer’s study was a landmark in proving that the so called irreversible signs of ageing could be reversed using psychological intervention.”

Is it Possible to be Ageless? eBook Dr Janni Lloyd


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