The Mindful Body argues against mindlessly accepting age-related decline in cognition and health as inevitable

In 1979, Har­vard researcher Ellen Langer invit­ed elder­ly men to spend a week at a retreat designed to remind them of their younger days, sur­round­ed by the art, music, food, games, décor, and more from the late 1950s. After­ward, the men were test­ed and found to have made sig­nif­i­cant gains in hear­ing, mem­o­ry, dex­ter­i­ty, pos­ture, and gen­er­al well-being. It was as if being in a place sig­nal­ing their younger days made them phys­i­o­log­i­cal­ly “younger.”

Maybe you, too, have had an expe­ri­ence where your mind seemed to affect your health. It turns out there’s a rea­son for that, accord­ing to Langer, author of the new book The Mind­ful Body. Your mind is not sep­a­rate from your phys­i­ol­o­gy, and chang­ing your mind­set in var­i­ous ways can lead to a hap­pi­er, health­i­er life.

Though her book is called The Mind­ful Body, it’s not a book pro­mot­ing mind­ful­ness med­i­ta­tion, per se. Instead, it’s an argu­ment against mind­less­ly accept­ing that our health and cog­ni­tion will invari­ably decline, espe­cial­ly as we age, and the impor­tance of let­ting go of lim­it­ing beliefs that keep us from being our most vital selves.

I believe the mind and body com­prise a sin­gle sys­tem, and every change in the human being is essen­tial­ly simul­ta­ne­ous­ly a change at the lev­el of the mind (that is, cog­ni­tive change) as well as the body (a hor­mon­al, neur­al, and/or behav­ioral change),” she writes. “When we open our minds to this idea of mind-body uni­ty, new pos­si­bil­i­ties for con­trol­ling our health become real.”

How our minds influences our bodies:

Langer recounts dozens (if not hun­dreds) of stud­ies in her book illus­trat­ing how our mind­set affects our phys­i­ol­o­gy. For exam­ple, in one study, nurs­ing home res­i­dents who were encour­aged to take respon­si­bil­i­ty for sim­ple deci­sions or care for a plant were twice as like­ly to be alive 18 months lat­er. In anoth­er, house­keep­ers lost more weight, had low­er blood pres­sure, and had low­er body mass indices when they were prompt­ed to con­sid­er their work as com­pa­ra­ble to exer­cis­ing in a gym, com­pared to oth­er house­keep­ers giv­en gen­er­al health infor­ma­tion but doing the same work. In still anoth­er, giv­ing peo­ple infor­ma­tion about their (fic­ti­tious) lev­el of risk for obe­si­ty affect­ed their metab­o­lism and how they felt about exer­cise and hunger (regard­less of their actu­al lev­el of risk).

In one mind-blow­ing study, Langer had peo­ple with type 2 dia­betes play video games while check­ing a clock every 15 min­utes. Unbe­knownst to the par­tic­i­pants, some clocks ran on time, while oth­ers ran either twice as fast or twice as slow. Based on blood read­ings, those whose clocks ran faster (who believed more time had passed) had low­er blood sug­ar lev­els than any oth­er participants—meaning, they were using up ener­gy faster than peo­ple in groups with slow­er clocks. The par­tic­i­pants’ per­cep­tion of time affect­ed their ener­gy con­sump­tion more than the actu­al time that had passed!

Despite these kinds of find­ings, the effects of our minds on our bod­ies are often called a “place­bo effect” in research and dis­missed as irrel­e­vant, says Langer. In fact, she argues, many stud­ies find that a place­bo is as effec­tive or out­per­forms a drug, but those stud­ies are rarely pub­lished. This makes it hard to under­stand and har­ness a placebo’s poten­tial for healing.

What we should be learn­ing from these stud­ies is not that a par­tic­u­lar drug is inef­fec­tive but rather how effec­tive the place­bo may have been,” she writes.

In one review of research, for exam­ple, researchers con­clud­ed that anti-depres­sants and anti-anx­i­ety med­ica­tion were no more effec­tive than place­bos. But why were the place­bos effec­tive? No one real­ly knows, though it could be due to expec­ta­tions of get­ting bet­ter rather than any effects from the drugs them­selves. As evi­dence for the pow­er of sug­ges­tion, Langer and her col­leagues have found that you can improve your vision—seemingly an intractable condition—when you’re told it’s pos­si­ble to do so with practice.

In oth­er words, expec­ta­tions matter.

How to harness the power of our minds:

What all this means for our lives is a bit tricky, as Langer isn’t sug­gest­ing we aban­don all med­ical research and start heal­ing our­selves with our minds alone. Nor is she sug­gest­ing we put every­one in an arti­fi­cial liv­ing envi­ron­ment to pre­tend that we are young again, or that we are in total con­trol of our health. But she does think we can use the pow­er of our minds to change our health and well-being in ways that are most­ly untapped.

How can you use your mind to help your­self? To start, she sug­gests adher­ing to a few basic principles:

1. Ques­tion author­i­ty—mean­ing, don’t fol­low all rec­om­men­da­tions just because an expert tells you to. Life is uncer­tain, and we are indi­vid­u­als, with our own unique make­up. So, for exam­ple, if your doc­tor tells you that being one point above the thresh­old for “high cho­les­terol” requires a com­plete change of diet or med­ica­tion, you might ques­tion that before com­ply­ing. After all, there is lit­tle real dif­fer­ence between some­one one point above ver­sus one point below the thresh­old, and that read­ing may change one day to the next.

2. Rec­og­nize that what counts as “risky” is dif­fer­ent from per­son to per­son. One person’s risk is another’s rea­son­able plan of action, mak­ing sense to them in the moment (based on their self-knowl­edge and avail­able resources). Behav­ior can’t be judged in a vac­u­um. So, for exam­ple, back­coun­try ski­ing may seem risky to you and not worth doing, but it could be great fun and adven­tur­ous for some­one else.

3. Approach pre­dic­tions with skep­ti­cism. The future is nev­er com­plete­ly know­able. If things are look­ing bad, you shouldn’t assume you’re on a tra­jec­to­ry that will only get worse. In fact, many dire pre­dic­tions turn out to be wrong or are lat­er dis­proven. For exam­ple, not all peo­ple with pre-can­cer go on to get can­cer, nor is surgery or chemother­a­py always nec­es­sary. In fact, some chemother­a­py treat­ments once com­mon­ly used have been dis­con­tin­ued because they do more harm than good.

4. Under­stand how our choic­es are nev­er com­plete­ly “right” or “wrong.” You should focus less on regret­ting “bad deci­sions” and more on how to make your choic­es, what­ev­er they are, work out for you. Look for the pos­i­tive. For exam­ple, if you move to a new city and don’t love it right away, you shouldn’t regret your deci­sion to move. Instead, you can focus on what the new city offers—maybe new forms of enter­tain­ment, dif­fer­ent peo­ple to meet and befriend, or clos­er pub­lic parks to enjoy.

5. Avoid social com­par­isons or rank­ing your­self. This is nev­er good for our health or hap­pi­ness. Instead of chas­ing achieve­ment rel­a­tive to oth­ers, focus on find­ing mean­ing in what you’re already doing—whatever it is. For exam­ple, care­tak­ing the elder­ly can be bor­ing or stress­ful, and is often poor­ly com­pen­sat­ed. But when you do it out of love or a sense of pro­vid­ing dig­ni­ty to oth­ers, it can feel more rewarding.

As Langer notes, “When we make these shifts in our think­ing, our rela­tion­ships with oth­ers and our­selves improve, and our stress lessens, all in the ser­vice of improv­ing our health.”

Being mindful of how everything changes:

Langer also cau­tions us to be more mind­ful of our every­day expe­ri­ences. She doesn’t mean med­i­tate more—she wants us to notice vari­a­tions in our state of being. If we pay atten­tion to how our pain, ener­gy lev­els, poor mood, or oth­er symp­toms of ill­ness are chang­ing over time, moment to moment, we can break out of rigid, fixed beliefs that we are sick or dam­aged and notice the moments when we feel hap­py, healthy, or pain-free.

Pay­ing atten­tion to vari­abil­i­ty helps us see that symp­toms come and go, which helps us home in on the sit­u­a­tions and cir­cum­stances that might con­tribute to these fluc­tu­a­tions so that we might exert some con­trol over them,” she writes. For exam­ple, if you pay mind­ful atten­tion to vari­ances in knee pain dur­ing the day, you may notice that you feel bet­ter after a walk and make a plan to take more walks.

In the book, she presents sev­er­al stud­ies where peo­ple with var­i­ous ail­ments were trained to notice more vari­abil­i­ty in their symptoms—when they felt bet­ter or worse over time—and had bet­ter out­comes as a result. For exam­ple, stud­ies have found that mind­ful atten­tion to vari­abil­i­ty has helped peo­ple con­trol their own heart rate, helped ALS patients expe­ri­ence less pain and phys­i­cal impair­ment, and helped expec­tant moth­ers enjoy greater well-being—as well as bet­ter out­comes for their newborns.

Per­haps Langer’s most provoca­tive advice is reserved for doc­tors and oth­ers who treat ill­ness, men­tal or phys­i­cal. When deliv­er­ing news to patients, she writes, prac­ti­tion­ers would do well to present diag­noses and prog­noses in ten­ta­tive ways, allow­ing for the pos­si­bil­i­ty of being wrong and for more opti­mistic out­looks. By doing so, she says, prac­ti­tion­ers could help patients hold loose­ly the labels that make them see them­selves in fixed ways and become, instead, more mind­ful, active par­tic­i­pants in their own health care.

When health pro­fes­sion­als mind­less­ly assume every symp­tom is part of the dis­ease they’ve diag­nosed or are treat­ing, they give up the pos­si­bil­i­ty to poten­tial­ly influ­ence the course of a patient’s ill­ness,” she writes. “Diag­noses, while use­ful, direct atten­tion to only a frac­tion of lived expe­ri­ence; con­text influ­ences our phys­i­cal responses.”

To that end, Langer hopes that all of us can hold cer­tain­ty more light­ly, not accept dire prog­noses with­out ques­tion, pay more atten­tion to how our expe­ri­ences change over time, and be open to using the pow­er of our minds to help our­selves enjoy life more.

Once we rec­og­nize that mind­less deci­sions from the past are lim­it­ing us, there is lit­tle stop­ping us from redesign­ing the world to bet­ter fit our cur­rent needs rather than using yes­ter­day to deter­mine today and tomor­row,” she writes.

— Jill Sut­tie, Psy.D., serves as a staff writer and con­tribut­ing edi­tor for Greater Good. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good. This is a book review of The Mind­ful Body, the lat­est book by Har­vard researcher Ellen Langer.

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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