Creative research reveals the power of the mind to influence how we age.
When Shakespeare wrote “thinking makes it so,” he meant that our thoughts guide our actions and often become self-fulfilling prophecies. Few of us realize, however, the extent to which our thoughts can have effects beyond just our actions. All of our research on aging shows that psychologists and medical professionals overlook the enormous influence our minds can have over our health and well-being. To a very large extent, our thoughts control our health—and as we age, the consequences of our thinking can be profound.
What are some of our beliefs about aging that become self-fulfilling prophecies? The one that leaps to most minds is that as we get older, memory fails us. Many believe we also lose our ability to pay attention, and become incompetent at almost everything we used to be able to do. Does it have to be this way?
We tend not to remember information that is of little meaning to us. The world is constructed by the young for the young, and what is meaningful for them is often of no interest to older people. Television programs about twentysomethings, for example, simply may not appeal to those over 50. When an older person expects to be forgetful, she may “forget” things she doesn’t much care about and probably didn’t commit to memory in the first place—a necessary precondition to forgetting. What happens if she has more motivation to remember?
In one of our early studies, my colleagues and I provided incentives to nursing-home residents to increase their mindfulness. We ran the experiment for 3 weeks before we took our measures to see if the intervention had been effective. We found improvements in memory and concluded that when remembering mattered, memory improved.
On the last day of the study, we administered several tests of cognitive ability, including one that asked subjects to describe their roommates and another that asked participants to find novel uses for a familiar object. Those in the mindfulness intervention group outperformed the other groups (also nursing-home residents) in the “new use” portion of the program, and when asked, were able to give more detailed descriptions of their roommates and their rooms. In a follow-up to that study, we returned to the site and found, remarkably, that this memory intervention had also resulted in an increase in longevity. Only 7% of the mindful group had died, compared with over four times that in the comparison groups.
Older adults are also seen as having trouble paying attention. But many people have difficulty in this area because they mistakenly assume that paying attention means holding the stimulus still as if they were looking through a camera. In one study we instructed subjects who were diagnosed with an attention deficit disorder—both older people and a group of Harvard students—either to pay attention to what was shown on the computer in front of them or to notice new things as a way of becoming more mindful. (Noticing new things is my definition of mindfulness.) With the mindfulness intervention, the attention problems were erased.
Fish can’t ride bicycles; therefore, by the criteria established by bicycle riders, fish would seem incompetent. The difference between the (anthropomorphic) fish here and the elderly lies mainly in how both the elderly and nonelderly view the relationship between an individual and his or her environment. It seems obvious to us that considering a fish incompetent because it cannot ride a bicycle is ridiculous—the utility of a bicycle should not be judged by its ability to be used by a fish, and the ability of a fish should not be judged by whether it can use an apparatus that was designed for organisms with two arms, two legs and well-defined bottoms.
Ironically, we often forget this hierarchy of utility when evaluating the competence of the elderly. If an older person has difficulty getting out of a car, for example, we are likely to attribute this difficulty to the weakening of leg muscles and the loss of a sense of balance. Instead, we might consider the inadequacies of a car seat that does not swivel to allow the passenger to emerge straight ahead rather than sideways. While a focus on the inadequacies of automobiles may appear useless, consider how ridiculous it would seem to conclude that a 25-year-old man’s difficulty in riding a tricycle was due to an enlargement of his limbs and a loss of flexibility. Tricycles are not made with 25-year-olds in mind; car seats are not made with 75-year-olds in mind. That does not mean, however, that the 75-year-old is deficient when it comes to emerging from cars any more than it means that 25-year-olds are incompetent at tricycle racing.
There are many studies showing that much of the diminished capacity we accept as a normal part of aging may be of our own making and that our views on the elderly need to be “reconstructed.” But it is our mindsets regarding health that are perhaps the most important to reconsider.
Research has not progressed as quickly as it might have regarding the mind’s influence on our health, in part because of the pervasive dualist belief in a mind distinct from the body. The problem that dualism creates is how we get from the nonmaterial mind (thoughts) to the material body. Although philosophers and psychologists of the past weren’t able to figure this out, we’ve all experienced the direct effects of the mind-body connection—a leaf blows across our face and we’re startled, so our pulse increases; we see someone vomit, and we get nauseated; we watch lovemaking in a movie and get excited.
What happens if we put the mind and body back together? Wherever we put the mind, the body would be. We tested this idea in a series of studies where we put the mind in a “healthy place” (back in time when the body was healthy). We took many measures before we began the study and repeated them at the end. The results were dramatic.
In one study we took elderly men to a retreat and turned the clock back 20 years. They were to live for a week as if it were 20 years earlier. They would speak only in the present tense about the past; view movies and television shows from that time; and participate in events like quiz shows, all from the earlier perspective. The comparison group also lived at the retreat for a week, similarly engaged, but all their discussions about the past were discussed in the past tense. Their minds were clearly in the present looking back.
On many of the measures, the participants in both groups got “younger.” (Because those in the comparison group were treated with respect that implicitly conveyed our belief in their abilities, in contrast with the culture’s view of aging, they also improved over the course of the week.) Both groups came out of the experience with better hearing and memory and significantly increased grip strength.
The experimental group showed greater improvements in joint flexibility, arthritis measures and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63% of the experimental group improved their scores, compared with only 44% of the control group. There were also improvements in height, weight, gait and posture. Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare the photos taken of the participants at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. All of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study. It seemed that we were able to turn back the clock, which led us to refer to our research as the “counterclockwise study.” (See the sidebar “Turning the Mind on Its Head” for more on the study.)
Studies like these point to the profound power of the mind (see the sidebar “Hard Work—Or Exercise?” for another example). If we take a closer look at placebos, we become even more convinced. Someone gives us a pill that we think is medication and we get better. Clearly it was not the placebo that made us better—by definition it was inert. If it was not the pill, we must have healed ourselves.
There are many ways we can mindfully heal ourselves without going through the placebo sham. The exciting thing is that even if our strategies are not 100% effective in every case, they work to make us healthier. The strategies themselves provoke mindfulness. In study after study over 30 years, we’ve found that increasing mindfulness is itself good for our health. In several studies with older adults, we’ve found that increasing mindfulness even increases longevity. So you can see that if you don’t mind, it really does matter.