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How Do Thoughts Affect Health?

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.

Putting Mind and Body Back Together

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, startling us and causing our pulse to increase; we see someone vomit, and we feel 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. The men 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. A 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.”

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.

For other fascinating research results, please see the complete article, “If You Don’t Mind, It Really Does Matter,” in the online IDEA Library or in January 2010 IDEA Fitness Journal.

Ellen Langer, PhD

Ellen J. Langer, PhD, is a professor in the psychology department at Harvard University. The studies mentioned here are discussed in her latest book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine 2009). A movie based on the book is in the works, with Jennifer Aniston playing Ellen Langer.

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