Believing You are Younger Can Make You Younger

Belief Can Even Change Our Age

On a fall day in 1982, eight men in their 70s stepped out of a van in front of a converted monastery in New Hampshire. They shuffled forward, a few of them arthritically stooped, a couple with canes. This was to be the men’s home for five days as they participated in a radical experiment set up by a young psychologist named Ellen Langer.

They were about to pass through a time warp.

As they entered the monastery, Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio, and Ed Sullivan announced his guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside the monastery, the books on the shelves, the furniture, and the magazines on the coffee tables, harkened back to 1959.

The subjects were in good health for their age, but they were normal for their age, too. Before arriving, the men were measured for dexterity, grip strength, flexibility, hearing and vision, memory and cognition. Dr. Langer predicted the numbers would be quite different after five days, when the men emerged from what was to be a fairly intense psychological intervention.

Dr. Langer had already completed studies involving nursing-home residents who had exhibited early stages of memory loss, but were able to do better on memory tests when they were given incentives to remember. Dr. Langer showed that in many cases indifference was being mistaken for brain deterioration.

In another experiment, Dr. Langer gave houseplants to two groups of nursing-home residents. She told one group that they were responsible for keeping the plant alive and that they could also make choices about their schedules during the day. She told the other group that the staff would care for the plants, and they were not given any choice in their schedules. Eighteen months later, twice as many subjects in the plant-caring, decision-making group were still alive than in the control group.

Langer believes that this is further evidence of the power of belief. She is no different from others who have studied this obvious connection, people like Dr. Norman Cousins. In short, thought is the most powerful force in the universe. Our beliefs control our outcomes.

The men in the monastery were told not only to reminisce about an earlier era, but to pretend they were in that era, and be the person they were in 1959. “We have good reason to believe that if you are successful at this,” Langer told the men, “you will feel as you did in 1959.” And from the time the men walked through the doors of the monastery that fall day, they were treated as if they were young men. For example, just as you would tell a young man in his twenties or thirties, these men in their seventies were told that they would have to do things on their own without help, like take their own suitcases to their rooms, etc.

When they discussed news or sports, they discussed what was happening in 1959, for example, the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants 31 to 16 to win the National Football League championship. They watched “Anatomy of a Murder” with Jimmy Stewart. There were no mirrors or modern day clothing or photos (except of when they were young) that would interfere with the illusion that they were back in time.

At the end of their stay, the men were tested, and they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce. The men who imagined they were younger actually looked younger with suppler skin, and they showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller. More astonishing, their sight improved.

The results were staggering, and and almost miraculous. “It sounded like Lourdes,” Langer said. Though she and her students would write up the experiment for a chapter in a book for Oxford University Press called “Higher Stages of Human Development,” the book actually left out a lot of interesting tidbits, like the touch football game that the men played as they were leaving.

Now, since that time other studies have been made evidencing a clear and uncontroverted connection of beliefs to our mental health and physical health. Science tells us that what we are, what we accomplish, is based on a field of pure consciousness. In other words, life is a dream we live in – you and I – and what happens in that dream depends on what we believe.

Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” In other words, the old saying, “I’ll believe it when I see it” has got it backwards because it should be, “I’ll see it when I believe it.”

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