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The idea that getting old means getting frail and forgetful is so
embedded in our cultural understanding of aging that it can be hard to
tease apart medical realities and simple biases about the elderly. But Ellen Langer
, a Harvard psychologist, has long wanted to try.
"Social conditions may foster what may erroneously appear to be necessary consequences of aging," Langer suggested in "Old Age: An Artifact?"
a 1981 book chapter. So-called senior moments, after all, are not only
the purview of seniors. "Young nonsenile people also are often
How many of aging's negative effects could be manipulated and even erased by a psychological intervention?
In a radical experiment in 1979 that was featured in a New York Times Magazine cover story
last fall, Langer and her grad students decided to take this question as far as they possibly could.
results were extraordinary — but the research was also so unorthodox,
so small, and so lacking in rigor that interpreting exactly what those
results mean requires caution.
The 'counterclockwise' study
for a moment, living in a nursing home. Your meals are in a cafeteria,
your recreation is at scheduled times, and you're surrounded by other
old people, mostly strangers. You've been robbed of your autonomy, maybe
even your identity — the very things that make you you
may be more tied to your past than your present, and nobody expects very much of you anymore.
No matter your age, this is not an environment in which most people thrive
But Langer thought that maybe, just maybe, if you could put people in a
psychologically better setting — one they would associate with a
better, younger version of themselves — their bodies might follow along.
"Wherever you put the mind, you're necessarily putting the body," she
explained many years later, on CBS This Morning
Since Langer couldn't actually send elderly people into
the past, she decided to bring the past into the present. "We would
recreate the world of 1959 and ask subjects to live as though it were
twenty years earlier," she wrote
, in her 2009 book "Counterclockwise
How exactly did that work? Here's how Bruce Grierson described the beginning of this experiment in The New York Times Magazine
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. Then they passed through the door and
entered a time warp. Perry Como crooned on a vintage radio. Ed Sullivan
welcomed guests on a black-and-white TV. Everything inside — including
the books on the shelves and the magazines lying around — were designed
to conjure 1959.
The men didn't just reminisce about what
things were like at that time (a control group did that). They were
instructed to behave as if it were actually
1959, while the control group lived in a similar environment but didn't act as if it were decades ago.
discussed historical events as if they were current news, and no
provisions were made that acknowledged the men's weakened physical
state; no one carried their bags or helped them up the stairs or treated
them like they were old.
"Nothing — no mirrors, no modern-day
clothing, no photos except portraits of their much younger selves —
spoiled the illusion that they had shaken off 22 years," Grierson wrote.
week later, both the control group and the experimental group showed
improvements in "physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture,
perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision,"
according to Langer's account, most of those improvements were much
more significant in the group told to live as if it were actually 1959; a
full 63% of them
had better scores at the end of the experiment than they did at the
beginning, compared to 44% in the control group. Four independent
volunteers, who knew nothing about the study, looked at before-and-after
photos of the men in the experimental group and perceived those in the
"after" photos as an average of two years younger than those in the
On the last day of the study, Langer wrote
, men "who had seemed so frail" just days before ended up playing "an impromptu touch football game on the front lawn."
In some ways, the results should not be surprising. Grierson writes
that Langer actually said to the participants that "we have good reason
to believe that if you are successful at this, you will feel as you did
When you believe that something will affect you in a
particular way, it often does. That's why placebo controls are baked
into every rigorous clinical trial.
Your own expectations, and the
expectations of others, are powerful. And expectations of the declining
cognitive and physical abilities that come with age are pervasive.
But as Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow noted in The Boston Globe Ideas section, in a story about the power of placebos
"there are limits to even the strongest placebo effect. No simulation
could set a broken arm, of course, or clear a blocked artery. As a rule,
placebos appear to affect symptoms rather than underlying diseases."
Langer seemed to take the "counterclockwise" results as further
confirmation of her theories about the power of the mind over the body,
even as fuel for her argument that — as she wrote
in 1981 — "many of the consequences of old age may be environmentally
determined and thereby potentially reversed through manipulations of the
Years later, she remained convinced. "These findings are in some ways astounding," Langer said
, in a 2010 BBC documentary
. "Remember, old people are only supposed to get worse."
Science... or stunt?
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Langer has talked and written about her "counterclockwise"
experiment many times in the decades since it happened. She offered the
most detailed record of it in a chapter of an Oxford University Press book she co-edited
The findings, however, were never actually published in a peer-reviewed journal. And they were never replicated, except as made-for-TV
"Langer’s sensibility can feel at odds with the rigors of contemporary academia," Grierson wrote
in The New York Times Magazine article. "Sometimes she will give equal
weight to casually hatched ideas and peer-reviewed studies."
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In an interview
about his cover story, Grierson acknowledged that while Langer's
unorthodox techniques may inspire wonder, they should also provoke
skepticism. "She’s still pretty far out there on a limb with some of
this work," he said. "People won’t be convinced until it has been
replicated under strictly controlled conditions. Nor should they be."
, a longtime University of Pennsylvania psychologist and an indefatigable skeptic
, goes even further.
Langer’s identification as an eminent, well-published Harvard
psychologist is an important part of her branding and the promotion of
herself.... Yet, she assumes none of the responsibility that goes with
being a scientist," he argues, in a critical response
to Grierson's article on the blog Science-Based Medicine. "She does not
consistently submit her work to peer review. She makes references to
unpublished studies, even those that have remained so for many years...
Langer has published in scientific journals, but she is not otherwise
acting like a scientist."
Coyne takes issue not only with the
unpublished counterclockwise experiment, but also with some of Langer's
other work — especially her plans to test her theories in an upcoming
study of cancer patients, who will be told to live as if it is 2003,
before they had any signs of illness.
As Grierson writes
, "positive psychology doesn't have a great track record as a way to fight cancer."
media and general public seems to be especially captivated by the
counterclockwise study — intuitively appealing in a society so fearful
of aging — but it's of course just one part of Langer's decades-spanning career
While there are plenty of compelling reasons to be skeptical of her most famous experiment (and, Coyne argues, many others too
the takeaways from most of Langer's work remain compelling: Mindfulness
(conscious awareness of and focus on the present moment) is important
; placebo effects cannot be discounted
; and evidence supports
the benefits of making sure people maintain agency and independence as they get older.
So what if we can't actually turn back the clock? Our lives need not be dictated by it.
Full Article & Source:
A radical experiment tried to make old people young again — and the results were astonishing