Counter Clockwise - Professor Ellen J Langer

Ellen Langer is a Harvard Psychology Professor, whose ground breaking anti ageing experiment in the late 1970’s was successfully replicated by the BBC in its 2010 series, ‘The Young Ones.’

The experiment Professor Langer describes turned back the clock psychologically for a group of elderly people, to see if this could also turn back the clock physically. The participants spent a week in an environment specially recreated to reflect a year when they were in their prime and were asked to speak and act as if this were now the present day. On a range of measures (hearing, memory, intelligence, dexterity, height, weight, gait and posture) after just one week the participants emerged ‘younger.’

This is one of a number of experiments Langer describes, all of which suggest the direct influence of the mind over the body, both mentally and physically. For example when female Asian women were asked to do a maths test and were primed on their gender identity they achieved lower scores than when they were primed on their ethnic origin (suggesting they were influenced by stereotypes that women aren’t good at maths but Asians are). Similarly, when cleaners in a number of Boston hotels were helped to see how much exercise they got in their daily work it wasn’t only their perspective that changed. They lost weight and body fat – despite not changing their activity levels.

Langer also sees parallels in the well known placebo effect in medicine and goes on to comment, ‘Asking how placebos work means that we are essentially asking how we get from our thoughts to our bodies… since the placebo is inert, we must be the ones responsible for the improvement.’

Langer’s key message is that if we open our mind to what is possible, instead of assuming it is impossible, our body may well respond accordingly. She also suggests the importance of ‘Mindfulness’ (the title of another of her books), including actively noticing detailed changes and variations in our daily health. 

Langer’s approach is not anti medicine but recognizes that, in medicine as in life, one approach doesn’t necessarily work for everyone and that patients who are not content to remain passive recipients of medical treatment but take a mindful approach to the sometimes subtle changes in their experience/symptoms can contribute to their own recovery.

Counter Clockwise – Ellen J Langer (Hodder & Stoughton 2010 ISBN 978 0 340 99476 4)

Published 18/01/2011