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No More Bad Tricks: Mindfulness and Questioning Everything...Including Aging

The more we realize that most of our views of ourselves, of others, and of presumed limits regarding our talents, our health, and our happiness were mindlessly accepted by us at an earlier time in our lives, the more we open up to the realization that these too can change. And all we need to do to begin the process is to be mindful.   Dr. Ellen Langer, Mindfulness

 Harrison’s daughter had picked him up at assisted living.  After helping Harrison get seated, she folded his walker and put it in the back of her minivan. Then she reluctantly delivered Harrison to researchers who would return him in a week. Harrison was about to be tricked…into getting younger.


According to Dr. Ellen Langer most of us are easy targets for trickery because we don’t pay attention. She calls this being mindless. Mindlessness may lead to all sorts of negative outcomes including aging and disease.


Over two decades ago I met Langer, a feisty social psychology professor, on the Harvard campus where she continues to research and teach today. Langer claims that when we are mindless, we don’t notice what’s happening in our environment and particularly how it’s affecting us. For example, we don’t notice that we walk more slowly after completing a crossword puzzle using the words dementia, senility, and confused. When the clerk calls us “sweetie,” we suddenly feel like we need help carrying our groceries.


Langer calls these unnoticed environmental cues “primes.” Their danger often lies in the fact that they are affecting our thoughts, feelings, and bodies below our conscious awareness.  Langer believes the mind and body are intimately connected so that our thoughts and feelings (psyche) affect our physiology (body) and vice versa. We are psychosomatic beings.


The fanciful story of Harrison is based on real research Langer did in 1979. She studied two groups of men in their late seventies and early eighties. She chose to release her findings in the book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. (The movie Counterclockwise was supposed to be released around 2010, Jennifer Aniston playing Langer, but I never saw it)


Langer and her assistants invited the research subjects into an environment which was made to look and sound like 1959 when the men were in their fifties and sixties. Old radio programs like Gunsmoke played on the radio. Ted Mack, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, and Perry Como entertained them. Editions of The Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine lay on tables. The men were expected to take care of themselves and be involved in chores just as they had in 1959.


When the clock was environmentally turned back for these men their physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, confidence, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision all improved.  Some who could barely walk when they arrived (typically aided by their daughters who also spoke for them) were able to play touch football and carry their own suitcases afterwards. When people told them to do something, they began to ask, “Why?”

Langer urges us to question what is going on around us and our own limiting assumptions especially around health and aging; to notice environmental cues including words, clothing, and décor; and to become more alert to those things that might prime mind-body reactions. Her maxim is “Where the mind goes, the body will follow.”


I greyed prematurely and by forty-five was often asked, “Would you like a senior discount, dear?”  I’ve quit shopping on senior discount day, no longer order from the senior menu, carry my own groceries. I don’t want to be sucked in by the negative cue.


Langer asks us to consider this question, “How much of aging is psychosomatic?”

 That’s part of the fish seeing the water it swims in (the topic of the previous blog).

I assist with an exercise group called SAIL (Staying Active and Independent for Life). I have been amazed at the progress of people in this group.  One guy came in several weeks ago with his daughter assisting him.  Now he’s laughing, he’s full of vim and vigor, he’s getting to class early to get a jump on exercising before other people get there.


I told them today of a couple of incredible articles I have read in The New York Times and Washington Post this week about elders doing physical strenuous things almost identical to people in their forties.


John’s father who was quite fit gave up a lot of his zest for living and stopped challenging himself as much after going to a workshop in which some (now proven incorrect) dismaying information about aging and lowered physical fitness was conveyed to participants. We never questioned this research.


Mindless expectations to age, to get dementia, to be incapable of building muscle. This can be the messages that we mindlessly pick up.  We must be able to catch those “primes” and counteract them.


I’ve tried to think how.  Music is one way.  Find that ole sock hop music. Get out a piece of Juicy Fruit chewing gum?  I’m not sure exactly except to say that we must be on guard.


Also there’s much research around self-fulfilling prophecies. Which is a type of mindlessness. We move toward becoming others’ prophecies of who we will be based, at least in part, because of the influence of others’ expectations on us. The main work here is to pay attention.  Noticing again, the water we swim in …especially when it comes to cues, to primes, to anything which can cause us to behave a certain way outside our awareness.


Most teachers know the studies done by Rosenthal in 1968. In this case, self-fulfilling prophecy was used positively, but still its power is scary. In this case it's around our kids. The way it goes is that teachers were led to believe that certain students would flower or bloom and show greatly enhanced performance during the year. These students were actually chosen at random. There was nothing to suggest that they would outperform their peers. But by the end of the year the researchers found that those labeled as bloomers did indeed show greater improvement in their intellectual performance. This phenomenon of teachers’ expectations influencing students’ actual academic achievement has become known as the Pygmalion Effect.


And this is one reason we ought to be thoughtful about how we are teaching and parenting…and who is influencing children’s expectations of what they can do and who they can be.


Same for us.  It’s part of that bigger issue of being mindful of the water we swim in.  People like social psychologist Dr. Claude Steele, Whistling Vivaldi, has conducted research on primes and stereotypes. His research has at least alerted us to little things like reminding people they are black or a woman can affect how they score on SAT and Math tests. Simply carrying a briefcase can make people less empathetic! If we are driving our Tesla instead of our beat up old Ford, we're less likely to stop for folks at the crosswalk. I would have to search it out to find the source, but I recall that such seemingly innocuous things like reminding people of their demise with tiny cues...standing in front of a funeral home can affect behavior and beliefs (hardening political and religious stances for example. The research is buried, no pun intended, in what's called "terror management" archives somewhere).

This stuff is hard to believe. And maybe some of it is off the wall. But hopefully it helps us get better at examining our environment and being alert to the little signals it can be sending to us below our conscious awareness. When we get better at spotting negative cues and primes, consider how they might affect us, we can better put our heads together to devise ways of counteracting them.

How might we journey together to the good life by being aware of negative cues and primes and bad trickery in our environment?





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