Counterclockwise
Podcast #72 — Aired November 2, 2015

What if we could improve our health and change the way we age just by changing our mindset? This week on BetterWorldians Radio we’re speaking with Dr. Ellen Langer about her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Dr. Langer will discuss her fascinating studies on this topic and tell listeners how they can challenge their ingrained behaviors and beliefs to make every day happy and healthier.

 

 

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Dr. Ellen Langer
Author, Counterclockwise

Dr. Ellen Langer, Ph.D., is a social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. She is the author of eleven books and more than two hundred research articles written for general and academic readers on mindfulness for over 35 years. Her best selling books include Mindfulness; The Power of Mindful Learning; On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity; and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Dr. Langer has been described as the “mother of mindfulness” and has written extensively on the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, decision-making, and health.

 

Episode Transcript

Raymond Hansell
This week on BetterWorldians Radio were talking about mindful health and again with our guest Doctor Ellen Langer. Doctor Langer has been described as the mother of mindfulness and has written extensively on the illusion of control, mindful aging, stress, decision making and health. Doctor Langer is a social psychologist and the first female professor to gain tenure in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. She is also the author of eleven books and more than two hundred research articles written for general and academic readers on mindfulness for the past thirty-five years. Her best selling books include Wiley Mindfulness Handbook, Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, which we will be discussing today. Hi Doctor Langer, welcome to BetterWorldians Radio.

Ellen
Hi, its nice to be here.

Raymond Hansell
Let me start for our leaders by asking you, you describe yourself in your book as someone who wonders what is possible. Have you always been that way, and how has that point of view changed and influenced your life?

Ellen
Now I dont know that its changed, actually. I have been blessed with parents that were wonderfully supportive. So as a happy child, I would constantly encounter people who were less happy, and theyd tell me why, and then Id argue with them that it doesnt have to be that way and so on. So probably the way I discuss it has become more sophisticated hopefully over time. But I think that this idea that people are shield in unlived lives are essentially depressed, stressed and thinking that this is the status quo, and I argue strenuously against that. And when I was younger people used to ask me, why are you smiling? And then I would quickly stop smiling and get shy and scared. And then eventually I got to the point where I would stand tall and say why arent you smiling? So, it goes back many years.

Raymond Hansell
Many, many years. Can you tell our listeners about the original counterclockwise study in 1979, and what you were hoping to discover there?

Ellen
Yeah, this was derived from a simple theory that I call mind, body, unity. I dont know if people know that for, oh for decades of hundreds of years theres been whats called the mind body problem. The mind body problem is how do you get from the fuzzy thing called a thought, to something material called the body. Now everybody knows that your mind effects your body, and if you see somebody regurgitate on the side of the road, all of a sudden you feel nauseous, a leaf blows in your face and before you realize its just a leaf, your heart starts to pound and your pulse increases and so on. But the question was, well how do you get from this thought to these bodily changes? And, so I thought well maybe this is the wrong question. Maybe we should just, even if only for eristic purposes, put the mind and body back together. If you put the mind and body back together, so now theyre one, wherever youre putting one youre putting the other, and we dont have to talk about how you get from one to the other. And this explains things like placebo, spontaneous remissions and so on. So then I sat with my students and we start to think about, whats the best way we can test this? And since I was already doing a great deal of research with older populations, that was a natural place for us to begin. And so we thought, well if we can take older people, and these were people who were in their, around eighty, that was when eighty was old, it wasnt the new sixty, these people were really old, and if we put their minds in a younger place, could we bring about greater ability, health and what have you to them restore some of the functioning that time, for them had taken away. And so what we did was, we got this retreat in New Hampshire that we had retrofitted, it was a monastery, so it didnt have much in it, we had to take out the religious icons, and instead we retrofitted it to twenty years earlier. Now people were going to be living as if it was twenty years earlier, we were going to have them speak about past events, but in the present tense. And for all intents and purposes it was, for them, 1959. When we first planned this was 1979. And so we took all sorts of measures before we started, we also had comparison group, they were going to go to the same retreat that was set up in the same way, do all the same activities, but they would talk about the past in the past tense. So for them, now was now, then was then. So we took people to this retreat, they did this for a full week, and the measures that we took were amazing. What we found was that this experimental group, these people who put their minds back twenty years, their vision improved. When have you heard anyones vision improving? Their hearing improved, their memory improved, their strength improved. We also took photographs of everybody before we started, and then again at the end of this, and they looked noticeably younger. They didnt look twenty years younger to be truthful, but they did look noticeably younger. So this was very exciting, and the first test of this mind body unity idea.

Raymond Hansell
How difficult was it to get people to get involved, to participate?

Ellen
Well what we did was, we instructed them to do as well as they could do, and to help each other. So that if you slipped into talking about things in the past in the past tense, the person you were talking to would help you then just repeat the sentence in the present tense. So they had a lot of help with this, helping each other and it was, I dont think it was difficult, but it certainly wasnt easy to start. But it was, it was a novel thing and that meant that it was going to be mindful in and of itself, by itself and fun for them.

Raymond Hansell
How did they, how did they respond to it? Did they really enjoy the activities throughout the process?

Ellen
Well, what happened when I first took them to this retreat, these were people who really, really seemed old. Their loving, usually adult daughter who brought them in for the first rounds of tests to see if they could be in the study, would answer questions for them. They looked very feeble. By the end of the week, there were a couple of people who no longer used their canes, I was playing touch football with them.

Raymond Hansell
Oh.

Ellen
You know, the difference was palpable. So it was very exciting. Now what was also interesting, is that the comparison group also improved, they just didnt improve as much. Just being pushed beyond what they had assumed, limits that couldnt be surpassed, you know, by all of a sudden taking these people who had been helped and presumed to be incompetent, and now theyre on their own, cooking their own meals, living with peer group, rather than with their adult children was enough for them to get better also.

Raymond Hansell
So tell our listeners, what is mindful health?

Ellen
Okay, well, mindfulness, first let me tell what mindfulness is in general.

Raymond Hansell
Okay.

Ellen
And I think that its very funny when I describe mindfulness, people think that theyre mindful, but over thirty-five years of research made clear to me that virtually all of us, almost all the time, are mindless, were not there. And as Im fond of saying, when youre not there, youre not there to know youre not there. But the data suggests that its sadly true for virtually all of us. When youre mindless, the past is over-determining what youre doing. Youre trapped in a rigid perspective, oblivious to it, youre oblivious to the fact that things change based on context and perspective, and youre rule and routine governed, youre doing things that make sense in the past, that may no longer even make sense. Alright, now it contrast to this, being mindful as we study it couldnt be simpler. Its the act of noticing new things. Thats all, as soon as you notice new things that puts you in the present. More important, that makes you aware that the things you thought you knew, you didnt know, and you cant know anything for sure, because everything is always changing, everything looks different from different perspectives. So a simple act of noticing new things, puts you in the present, it shows you that context and perspective matter, and that we can still have rules and routines, but they should guide, rather than govern what were doing. And this act of noticing new things, which by the way is energy begetting, is the essence of engagement. Thats how you become engaged in things, you notice.

Raymond Hansell
You notice.

Ellen
So its very simple, we make people notice things that they thought they knew, and we find they live longer, their healthier, their happier, their more competent, their more attractive to other people. Ive been doing this for a long time, so the number of findings is almost overwhelming.

Raymond Hansell
One of the findings that you brought up in the book, was sort of a humorous story about somebody who was I think standing on a toilet seat or something, in order to try, and she fell and had an accident. And you had asked her about what lessons shed derived, or what she learned.

Ellen
Yes, there are several. When you think seriously about what we think we know and how we dont actually know it, many of our proverbial truths tend to become open for question. Remind me to talk to you about forgiveness, after I tell you this story.

Raymond Hansell
Okay.

Ellen
So the story that youre referring to is about learning from experience. Everybody is always told, usually youre reprimanded if you didnt do something a particular way and the outcome was seen as negative, and dont you ever learn anything? Dont you learn from experience? And I was thinking about that, because the essence of that is this is only one thing one could learn. So when she was telling me that she was having her house remodeled, she stood on the toilet seat of this not yet completed bathroom to change a light bulb, and she fell, and she fell and that slit open her leg, so she needed, excuse me, something like one hundred and sixty stitches.

Raymond Hansell
Oh my goodness.

Ellen
And then she said, she learned her lesson. And the I said to her, what lesson did you learn? That you shouldnt stand on toilet seats? That you shouldnt change light bulbs? That you shouldnt go into a house until its complete?

Raymond Hansell
Right.

Ellen
That you shouldnt try to change a light bulb in the morning? You know, I just kept listing them. And she said, okay, uncle, you know. So once you realize that theres so much you can learn, then when we take each other to task for not learning anything in particular, we need to rethink that. And what we should do is also pay attention to what we think we could have learned. Because you can always learn something, but its not as if theres any one lesson to be learned. The other example I wanted to give to you about forgiveness. I was asked one time to give this sermon, and Im not a religious person, and even though I lecture to thousands of people, you know, all of a sudden I found myself a little nervous about the whole thing. And Im thinking, what could I talk about? And then I decided, okay, Ill talk about forgiveness, that sounds sort of spiritual and religious and what have you. And then I came up with this thing that turned out to be almost sacrilegious, and I didnt realize it. So to summarize it, I said to people, if, is forgiveness good or bad? And everybody says forgiveness is good. And then I say, is blame good or bad? And everyone says blame is bad. And then I say, but dont you have to blame before it makes sense to forgive? So our forgivers are our blamers. Now it gets one step worse, do you blame people for bringing about good things or bad things? And everybody says you blame people for bringing about bad things. But things in and of themselves are neither good nor bad, those are views we take of events. So we end up having people who see the world negatively, who blame, who then forgive. And I say hardly divine.

Raymond Hansell
Hardly

Ellen
Point is that, if youre going to blame, surely its good to forgive. But I think that we need to replace blame in the first place, with understanding. Peoples behavior makes sense from their perspective, or else they wouldnt do it.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, you know, today Im going to be bigoted, and stupid and clumsy.

Raymond Hansell
Right.

Ellen
So when we see them being this way, what were they intending? And it turns out that every negative description of somebody has an equally powerful positive alternative. So you may see me as gullible, when Im being trusting. I may see you as being rigid, when youre being solid, stable, someone I can count on. You may see me as impulsive, but what Im intending is to be spontaneous, and so on and so forth. And when we recognize that behavior makes sense from the actors perspective, or else the actor wouldnt do it. Then we turn to, we end up less evaluative, more appreciative of each other. And also then, we end up less evaluative of ourselves. And that allows up to be more open to the world around us, and more mindful.

Raymond Hansell
Yeah, its interesting, I started recently, in some of my readings, looking back at things that happened in the past and saying, now this somebody I had a hard time forgiving, and what was the context in which that forgiveness was withheld. And then looking at it, Id say, now wait a minute if they hadnt done that then this wouldnt have happened.

Ellen
Exactly.

Raymond Hansell
So sometimes things that we think of are bad in and of themselves, and that were bad actors that performed them, played a role that we could not see because we didnt see the end of the play yet. So I experienced that

Ellen
Exactly, the thing is that we control, we write the play.

Raymond Hansell
Thats right.

Ellen
So we dont have to wait, you know, if I invite you over for dinner, well make it a not so bad, bad. I invite you over for dinner, youre supposed to come over at seven oclock, and you dont come over until eight oclock.

Raymond Hansell
Right.

Ellen
Now many people would be angry, would think you misbehaved, so on and so forth. For me, as soon as you didnt show up at seven oclock, I would start doing something. So lets say Id start painting, or Id start writing, or taking care of some phone calls that I had to make that had been waiting on me. And so lets say Im painting and Im really enjoying myself, you walk in, Id say thank you for giving me that extra hour.

Raymond Hansell
There you go, thats interesting. You know, the other thing I thought that was rather interesting, is as I read the book, and found it very intriguing all the way through, and backed up by such really interesting studies, which well get into in a few minutes after the break. I also started thinking about how this applied outside of healthcare, I started looking at the situations and saying, theres a lot of parallels in my experience in business and in raising money and working with people, where suddenly I went back and said, well if I had really taken sort of the more traditional view, I would have ruled out that any of these outcomes would have been possible.

Ellen
Right.

Raymond Hansell
I would have said, well

Ellen
Yeah, no, it turns out that no matter what youre doing, youre doing it mindfully or mindlessly. And the consequences are quite different depending on which state of mind youre in. And it doesnt matter if youre ever talking about you at work, at play, that the same thing is going to be true across the board. So when I talk about, limits, and questioning limits, they can be personal limits, professional limits, or the limits we foolishly impose on us with respect to our health. You know, thinking that our vision once its bad overtime as we get older, just has to get worse. You know, why need that be the case? Theres no evidence that can prove that it has to be the case.

Raymond Hansell
Absolutely.

Ellen
And so the same thing when you think that you couldnt run a marathon. Well you cant go from being a slug to running a marathon overnight, but you can run, you know, a couple of blocks and then you run a couple blocks more, and then before you know it youre running a marathon. And so it is with all the things that we do, we keep ourselves from doing it because of the mindless notion of limits.

Raymond Hansell
Well Im going to have to be mindful, no pun intended of the time right now. So were going to take a short break, but when we return our listeners will really look forward to talking more and listening more with Doctor Ellen Langer and co-host MarySue. By the way, before we go, in the spirit of the holiday season, our social game on Facebook called A Better World is now one hundred percent free until the end of the year. Through January 1st the only currency accepted is acts of kindness and other social good that you can do in the game. Were challenging our players to perform over one million good deeds total by the end of the year. And when they do, which Im sure they will, A Better World will release funds to provide new coats for children in need nationwide through our arrangement with Operation Warm.

Raymond Hansell
Youre listening to Better Worldians radio. Were speaking with Doctor Ellen Langer, author of Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. Now lets welcome back Doctor Langer and MarySue.

MarySue Hansell
Hi Doctor Langer.

Ellen
Hi Mary.

MarySue Hansell
You know youve been talking about what mindfulness is, and you said that its learning new things, being in the present, learning novel, doing novel things, how does that differ from the definition typically, you know, the eastern side, the Buddhist?

Ellen
Yeah, thats a good question. I did some of the very earliest research in meditation. Meditation is a tool, its what you do that leads to post-meditative mindfulness. What we do is more active and right in the moment, theyre not at odds with each other at all. You know, its sort of, its taking a plane or a ship to Paris, once youre in Paris, youre in Paris. Theyre some people that find it hard to meditate.

MarySue Hansell
Yes.

Ellen
Or some people that think that the eastern stuff is just too strange. And for them ours is the answer. Theyre other people who think their problems are so great that ours just sounds too simple.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, I see what you mean.

Ellen
So for them, perhaps meditation, but again, one can do both.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah, and I liked your

Ellen
But the point is, Im sorry.

MarySue Hansell
No I was going to say I liked your definition of mindlessness, in other words, just not paying attention.

Ellen
Well youre not there.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
And the important part of that is that youre not there to know youre not there, so you cant even really correct it.

MarySue Hansell
I love that.

Ellen
Lots of pop psychology that tells you be in the moment, be in the present.

MarySue Hansell
Right.

Ellen
But it falls on deaf ears, because people think they are in the present.

MarySue Hansell
Right, right.

Ellen
And all of our research says, no thats simply not true. That the way to be in the present, is to recognize you dont know. Then youre naturally in the present. If you were going to take a plane to Paris, and you had never been there before, you would expect to see new things. And you should expect to see new things at home as well. Because everything is changing, everything looks different from different perspectives. So the simple act of noticing new things about the things you think you know, reveals that you dont know them at all, and that uncertainty naturally brings your attention to them.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah, I remember reading in the book that you said, when people are mindless, like I think it was about the airplane pilot that they do a checklist and if theyre not really mindful when theyre doing it, they can really overlook something and big mistakes can be made.

Ellen
Exactly, exactly. You know, its like if you do a lot of international traveling and you have to fill out these forms on the plane, and it says, did you come in contact with livestock? No. And they ask you a few more questions, you know, the next one, and you say no.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
And you dont bother reading them, you just check no, no, no, all the way down. And so when you have checklists, Atul Gawande has done this wonderful research with checklists in surgical areas, you know, in the hospital, and even there, a checklist is better than no checklist. But, the questions that you ask on the checklist have to lead to differentiated answers. So you just cant say a simple, mindless yes or no. You actually have to pay attention to what youre being asked.

MarySue Hansell
Right. I agree with that, I know a lot of mistakes get made that way. You know, you write that noticing variability is the key to mindfulness.

Ellen
Yes.

MarySue Hansell
I guess thats more of what youre talking about.

Ellen
Yeah, Im glad you brought that up. Its just a fancy way of saying notice new things.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
What happens is that, almost always when we think we know something, we pay no attention to it, and we think its always the same. But everything is always changing. So if instead of thinking its going to be the same, we think that its going to be changing, and we notice how it changes, we end up with much more control over, even things that we think are beyond our control, like some of the chronic illnesses we have.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah, neat, neat. Can you tell us how reversing that Zeno Paradox that you mentioned in the book can help us reach our goals?

Ellen
Yeah, Zeno is a philosopher who I think was a cynic, and he believed, his paradox was respect to distance, is if you always go half the distance from where you are to where you want to be, youre never going to get there, youll get closer, you know, lets say youre an inch away, well then youre a half an inch away, and then youre a quarter of an inch away, an eighth of an inch, you never get there.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah, you never get there.

Ellen
So I say its Langers reverse Zenos Paradox, theres always a distance you can go, from where you are to where you want to get to. If you cant go the full distance, go half the distance, you cant go half the distance, go a quarter of the distance, and so on. So lets say, you cant get yourself not to eat a cookie. Well you can, you know, get yourself not to eat a half a cookie. You cant not eat a half a cookie, dont eat, you know, a quarter of a cookie. We can get it down to just a crumb left.

MarySue Hansell
Yes.

Ellen
And then start from there and build up.

MarySue Hansell
There you go. Make that goal a little goal, just have one bite of ice cream, you know.

Ellen
Yes, right, right. Well the first test I did of that, wasnt a test actually, I was doing some consulting in a nursing home, and I asked the people there, what is it that youd like to be able to do that you cant do anymore? And this woman whos arms were paralyzed said, that she wanted to be able to blow her own nose, because for her it was humiliating to have somebody else do this for her. And so, I asked, I held my hand about two feet from her arm at rest, and I said, well raise your hand to here, she couldnt, and I kept bringing it down halfway, halfway, until it was right near where she was and she was able to move it a tiny bit, and a tiny bit more, and at the end of this, and I dont remember the what period of time, cause it was forty years ago.

MarySue Hansell
Oh geez.

Ellen
And she was able to blow her nose.

MarySue Hansell
Oh thats wonderful.

Ellen
I think I wrote about this in the Counterclockwise book, knowing that well my medical colleagues will say, wait a second, she was probably misdiagnosed. And my first response to that, is how many of us are being misdiagnosed?

MarySue Hansell
Thats scary.

Ellen
And then I have other arguments that I dont recall at the moment, but people should read the book and then theyll see.

MarySue Hansell
Yes, its a wonderful book.

Ellen
And then write to me and tell me what I said.

MarySue Hansell
Now you write that mindfulness is energizing, not enervating. What do you mean by that?

Ellen
Yeah, well its interesting because when I tell people that we should be mindful all the time, I mean, people get scared by that. My God, it sounds exhausting. And what theyre doing, is first theyre confusing it with thinking, and even thinking has gotten a bad rap. Whats hard is worrying that were not going to get the solution, or that were going to be mistaken in whatever our thinking leads us to. That if you recognize that this mindfulness, this act of noticing is the essence of humor, you know, that something is funny only when you hear it at first one way, and then youre given the punch line, and you say, oh yeah, and realize it could have been understood in this other way. So could you laugh all the time? Could you enjoy yourself all the time? When youre laughing and enjoying yourself, arent you energized?

MarySue Hansell
Yes, absolutely.

Ellen
And so we can deduce that this mindfulness is in fact energy beginning.

MarySue Hansell
Well you know, how can you, wheres the line between being, you know, mindful, can you be too mindful and then become a hypochondriac?

Ellen
No, because, to be a hypochondriac has built into it a worry.

MarySue Hansell
Oh.

Ellen
Right? And stress is mindless. So, you know, you have, you notice a little, something strange in your arm, and then you jump to a conclusion that oh my goodness, I have cancer or something. And you go down that path and all of that is mindless thinking. The original noticing is fine. What you do with the noticing then depends on whether youre mindful or mindless.

MarySue Hansell
I see. Now theres an interesting story you told about consulting, you were actually a consultant at a nursing home and you suggested that the nurses stopped wearing uniforms. What happened with that? Was that good or bad?

Ellen
Okay, well it was interesting to me that, and I was very young and I would show up at the nursing home, and because I was Doctor Langer people were listening to me.

MarySue Hansell
Right.

Ellen
So it didnt take very much from me. And then I decided, you know, and I think I even had a clipboard, God knows why. And I decided let me put the clipboard away, let me be Ellen instead of Doctor Langer, let me be persuasive because of the sense of what Im saying, rather than the status of the person saying it.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
And so what happened is that I had to engage the whole, each of the activities, each of the issues in a much more authentic way. And then, it was uplifting for me. So prior to this when I was just Doctor Langer, relying on things from the past, I would leave there and go home and I was tired. Now I was actually involved in solving puzzle after puzzle, and it felt good. And it felt to me that uniforms do the same thing. And if we took the nurses out of uniforms, and had them be just who they are, relying on their expertise, but not resting on it in some sense, I dont know if that distinction is clear.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
But, you know, that could have a positive effect. And you know, so the nurses were against this at first, and I said look if its a matter of getting dressed in the morning, pick two outfits out and just alternate them, you know, you could make a uniform out of anything.

MarySue Hansell
Oh I see, right.

Ellen
But we dont want it to be something that says, you know, Im the person who knows.

MarySue Hansell
Thats right.

Ellen
And the whole nursing home became enlivened as a result. The other thing I did, and this was well before we had any of the similar things on the market now, this was thirty-five years ago, I, you know, would say to people, look if youre going to be in that wheelchair, every day all day long, make it your own. Change the way it looks, make it so its doing what you need it to do. And so, we had a contest for the person who personalized their wheelchair the best, was being given, I think it was a hundred dollars at that point.

MarySue Hansell
Oh, thats neat.

Ellen
You know, and so now we have people in, you know, you see some of these people in the super market or wherever, you almost envy them driving around, you know in their little carts.

MarySue Hansell
Oh yes, thats funny. You know, does over helping people, you mentioned that such as the elderly

Ellen
Yes.

MarySue Hansell
Or the disabled, actually hurt them, rather than help them?

Ellen
Yeah, well its interesting that when youre helping somebody, thats good for the helper, that says Im a person who can do this, Im top dog, and it has the exact opposite effect on the person being helped. And so what happens is, when we take care of people, often times the elderly, when we start taking over and doing everything for them, they come to see themselves as incompetent. Instead of doing it for them, we should be guiding other people and showing them how to do it for themselves.

MarySue Hansell
But you know, you mentioned that in that counterclockwise study, that a lot of that was going on with the children of those elderly men that you had in the study. That they were doing everything for them.

Ellen
Yeah, when they first came to see if they could be in the study, I mean they were really enfeebled, and their adult, usually daughters, very loving people.

MarySue Hansell
Right.

Ellen
Caring for them, but over caring. And you know, if you make a mistake when youre eighty years old, thats terrible, thats because youre old. When you make the same mistake when youre twenty, well you know, its no big deal. Same thing with memory, you know, I was talking about this in my class the other day, in health psychology

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Ellen
And, you know, I was talking about memory, and I had asked them questions that I knew they couldnt answer. And I said, we just went over this last week, you know, and to make clear that they forget, and they cant forget that they forget now so when theyre older and they forget they dont have to jump to the conclusion that theyre becoming senile, suffering from dementia.

MarySue Hansell
Thats really good for people to listen to, because you always hear that, oh it must be because theyre getting old. No, everyone forgets, theres just little techniques you can use to remember no matter how old you are.

Ellen
Right. And things change when youre young, because youre so active in the world, youre probably given lots of reminders of things. You know, if youre no longer working and youre in your house, youre missing all the discussion about the party thats coming up, you know, and all the flyers that are hanging on the walls and so on.

MarySue Hansell
Right, right.

Ellen
So of course youre going to be more likely to forget. And most important, and most often overlooked is that your values change. You know, when I was an up and coming, it was important for me to learn everybodys name.

MarySue Hansell
Right.

Ellen
Right, because it could effect my whole future, right?

MarySue Hansell
Right, sure, sure.

Ellen
Probably mindlessly thought. At my, at this stage in my life, and you know when I say to my students, its good for you for me to know your names, so you make sure I know your names.

MarySue Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
Because Im not going to learn it because frankly it doesnt matter to me. You know, now Im exaggerating.

MarySue Hansell
I know what you mean.

Ellen
But its still the case that when you dont care, you dont learn it, and then when you dont know it later on its not that youve forgotten it. It was because you didnt learn it in the first place. So people misunderstand and think they have forgotten things that they never had a chance to remember because they didnt care enough at time one.

MarySue Hansell
You know, you did another very interesting experiment, and Im sure youve had thousands and thousands of interesting ones, but I found that with the

Ellen
Thousands and thousands at least.

MarySue Hansell
With the hotel workers, that were very interesting.

Ellen
Yeah.

MarySue Hansell
Could you share that story with the listeners?

Ellen
Im happy to.

MarySue Hansell
Thank you.

Ellen
And then Ill even tell you about the most recent.

MarySue Hansell
Okay.

Ellen
But that was the second test of the mind, body, unity theory. Take the mind and body, put them back together, wherever youre putting the mind, youre necessarily putting the body. So we took hotel workers, chamber maids, and the first thing we did was to ask them how much exercise they get. And oddly, even though theyre exercising all day long, they dont see themselves as getting exercise. And thats because according to the Surgeon General, that exercise is what you do after work. Alright, so what we did simply, was to take these women and teach half of them that their work was exercise, they were, you know, they were shown making a bed is like working on this or that machine at the gym and so on. So at the end of this, we have two groups, one group that now sees, all they did was change their mindset, work is exercise, and thats not the case for the other group. We took all sorts of measures, we go away, we come back, some months later, it might have been six weeks, I dont recall, and we take a bunch of other measures to see are the groups different on certain ways, are you eating more? No. Is she eating more, and you exercising more? No. Is she working harder? No. Then all these sorts of questions, there were no differences between the two groups. And then we took the important measures, and what we found that those people who now saw their work as exercise lost weight, there was a change in waste to hip ratio, body mass index, and their blood pressure came down.

MarySue Hansell
Wow, thats amazing.

Ellen
All because of a change in mindset.

MarySue Hansell
Thats really amazing, Ive been trying to do that ever since I read that in your book, and everything that I do, now Im going to get on the scale and let you know how much weight Ive lost.

Ellen
Okay.

MarySue Hansell
What was the other thing you were going to tell me about?

Ellen
Oh yeah, I was going to tell you that, so the very recent test of this mind and body, unity theory was the test we did with diabetes.

MarySue Hansell
Oh.

Ellen
We had people show up who have type two diabetes, and they were going to play a video game on the computer, and in the lower right hand corner of the screen was a clock. For a third of the people the clock was going twice as fast as real. For a third of the people, the clock was going half as fast as real. For a third of the people it was real time. And the question we were asking, was does blood sugar level follow real or perceived time? And the answer seems to be perceived time. So we have a lot more control over our bodily functions, over our health, certainly over our wellbeing than most people understand or accept.

Raymond Hansell
Thats a great point. Were going to take another break now and well be right back with co-host Greg and Doctor Langer.

Raymond Hansell
Were back now with Doctor Ellen Langer, author of Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

Gregory Hansell
Hi Doctor Langer, this is Greg.

Ellen
Hi Greg.

Gregory Hansell
You know, I wanted to discuss in this last segment some of the important implications for health and healthcare with your work. And you eluded to that at the end of the last segment. I wanted to say in kind of in prefacing all that, I just in the last few months went through a situation where your book really resonated with my experience where I found I was over relying on doctors judgments, and disregarding my own sense of what was going on with me, empticating responsibility for my own health, so I think its really important that we jump into some of that. I know for example you talk in the book about the importance of words. And so how does the language we use effect the way we view our own health?

Ellen
You know, you can ask yourself, how am I awful? And youre going to then do a search for how youre awful. If you reverse the question, and you say how am I wonderful? Youre going to come up with very different data. So the words lead us to behave in different ways, to do different kinds of information searches and so on. Some of the words I was concerned with in the area of health are things like acute versus chronic. You go to the doctor and the doctor tells you, you have a chronic illness. The way most people understand that, is that its uncontrollable, theres nothing you can do about it.

Gregory Hansell
Right.

Ellen
Well I started to, to pay attention to when I was writing the book to what is the definition of a chronic illness? Do you have to have the symptoms every hour of every day, every other day, four hours a week, what defines it being chronic? And there is no definition. That was the first thing that was interesting to me. The second thing is that, what happens when you dont have the symptoms? Do you not have the disease?

Gregory Hansell
Sure.

Ellen
And so thats where, I had spoken a bit earlier about attention to variability, thats where an enormous amount of our health comes under our control, by attending to the variability in our symptoms. When do I have them, when dont I have them? Then you ask why. Why now am I not feeling whatever it is? You know, I was talking to someone the other day who was complaining to me about being in so much pain, and we had this long conversation, and then I just asked, I said, were you in pain in the last ten minutes? And she said, no. Well, theres a cue to how you might fix yourself. You know, that even if we have pain, or whatever the symptoms are. When is it greater? When is it less? An example to understand this, I take asthma, so people who have asthma just, you know, doctor says you have asthma, and you reach for the inhaler and you think you need the inhaler and thats the end of it. Rather than saying, when do I need the inhaler? So lets say, they found that when they were talking to Mary, they didnt need the inhaler. When they were talking to me, they needed the inhaler. Well, clearly then stop talking to me. Or make the conversations with me more like they are with Mary. Do you see? Once we notice the variability and ask, well why now and not before? We get to test out different theories that we have. The testing of those theories is mindful, and the host of studies that weve done, show that in itself is good for your health, and then you very well find the solution. If you dont look, youre not likely to find it.

Gregory Hansell
I thought one really powerful example you give in the book, in terms of the importance of words, is the difference between beating cancer versus it being in remission. Can you speak to that?

Ellen
In the medical world, for reasons that had more to do with insurance claims, and blame, than whats best for the patient. Peoples whose cancer is gone are said to be in remission. Now if youre told that your cancer is in remission, the way most people understand that, is that its lurking, its there somewhere, at any moment it could show its ugly head. And so that leads a person to feel a great deal of stress. The medical world, again, and I have great respect for most of these people, but not like any other profession, theyre mistakes that are made. And one of things they did, is they would tell women whos cancer is quote, in remission, that it has to be in remission for five years before they can see themselves as cured. Well, where did the five years come from? Nowhere. Now imagine worrying for five years? That cant be good for your health.

Gregory Hansell
Oh we were talking about this in the studio today, you know

Ellen
Right, so now Im thinking about, and as Im writing about it in the book, if I have a cold, and the cold goes away, I see myself as cured. And that empowers me to deal with the next cold that comes. If I get another cold, in some ways its like the last cold, so I could have said its in remission, but in other ways its different. So I can see it as having been cured. And its the same thing with cancer, if the cancer is there and then it goes away, if it returns, in some ways it will be the same, thats why you call it cancer, in other ways it will be different, and if you recognize the ways that its different, and see yourself as cured, you get on with your life. So we took women who were on a breast cancer awareness walk, who had all had a bout with cancer, and we simply asked them if they saw their cancer as in remission, or cured. And then we followed them up, I think a year and a half later with a host of measures, psychological and physical, and on virtually all the measures, those people who saw themselves as cured faired much better.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, we were just speaking about this at lunch before the show, I thought, you know, if I had cancer and I was just told I was in remission, Id feel like a ticking time bomb, I wouldnt feel healthful, you know.

Ellen
Right, right. And were doing other work now that, where were doing a counterclockwise study with women who have stage four breast cancer. We want to bring them back in time to when they didnt have the cancer and see if we put their minds in that healthier place, can we get rid of the cancer? Or at least reduce the size of the tumors? And, you know, were doing this with oncologists from ND Anderson, its actually all ready to go, all I have to do is get the funding for it and then I can speak to you next year and tell you the results of that study.

Gregory Hansell
Thats great, well actually direct our listeners at the end of the show to the website where they can find out more about that study. Thank you for sharing that. You know, another question that I had, was how can we be sure to not allow ourselves to be confined or restrained by our diagnoses? Because obviously thats a key part of, you know, paying attention to the language thats used here.

Ellen
Yeah, Andre Debus wrote a wonderful story, he was hit by a car, and this women said, you know, oh my God, how terrible for you or something of that sort, and said that he was paralyzed, and he said, no its just my legs, the rest of me is fine. And to realize that were not our diseases.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
You know, so that. And also the medical world, I think is probably going to start soon paying more attention to this, but if you were, imagine that we have some grave illness, and a person who gets it is homeless, undernourished, and out in the cold most of the time, versus somebody who is an Olympic athlete? I think most of us would presume, we dont have data for this, but that the Olympic athlete might stand a better chance of beating the disease. And so what that means is that, with whatever we have, while were trying to take care of the specifics, we should also build up the rest of our bodies and our strength.

Gregory Hansell
And I think it also points to just the importance of, you know, paying attention to variability and difference in people. You talk about that in your book as well. I mean, everyones very familiar with a lot of the side effects of medication, some people have them, some people dont. Ive often wondered how much of that is just the fact that this is a one size fits all kind of cure, or treatment, when people are just so different, have different circumstances.

Ellen
Yeah, you know, well people engage in hypothesis confirming data searches.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
No matter what you conjecture, hypothesize, question, youre not going to be able to find evidence for it. And so if people tell you, youre going to experience something in particular, now youre going to notice anything thats remotely like that. And that is going to be stressful, and again, thats going to have a negative effect on your health. You know, when you fill out these questionnaires, or the physician has asked you how much did it hurt? Or does it hurt? I never know how to answer that. You know, if it hurts, a six for me, is that the same thing as a one or ten for you?

Gregory Hansell
Right.

Ellen
And the basing some diagnosis and prescriptions and so on, based on my answers. So what we need to do is pay more attention to the ways were strong, build up all parts of ourselves. We have to recognize that the medical world as well trained as these people are, that were all sort of shooting in the dark.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
That we dont know most things, and not only that, but all medical data, like all data, are only probabilities. And what probabilities mean, and science means, if we were to replicate this study, that means that if we did the exact same thing, but we can never do the exact same thing, but if we were to do the exact same thing, we would probably find these results. Thats then translated into absolute facts.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
And its those absolute facts that often to lead us to feel helpless, to give up, and to cause in some sense, or to exacerbate whatever the problem is.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, yeah. I was thinking, you use a term from philosophy, theres a misplaced concreteness that people put on these things as if

Ellen
Exactly, exactly. In fact, I argue that every, everything we think we know is this misplaced concreteness.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, I agree.

Ellen
You know, I start off many lectures and I ask people, how much is one and one? And, you know, so everybody says two, and then I say, well no, its not always two. If youre using a base ten number system, its two. If youre using a base two number system its written as ten. If you add wad of chewing gum to one wad of chewing gum, one plus one is one.

Gregory Hansell
Right.

Ellen
So once we recognize that nothing is true across all context, possibly even that statement, then we tune in. You know, we have this confident, but uncertain attitude towards the world, and life becomes more exciting, we pay more attention to things, the neurons are firing. If somebody tells us we have some disease, we know that, we may have it, we may not have it. It may follow the predicted course, it may not follow it. But nevertheless, were going to tune into our bodies and see what our bodies tell us, attend to the variability in our symptoms and possibly get a handle on it ourselves.

Gregory Hansell
Sure, in some ways I think that brings us to medical tests. Thats one of those numbers that people put a lot of faith in, and a lot of importance in. And you tell them that youre not against them, but your against a kind of mindless reliance on them.

Ellen
Yeah, I think that if youre, if youre told that your cholesterol level, for example, is very high. Then what happens is you get stressed. And you do whatever youre supposed to do without realizing that high cholesterol levels does not predict for each and every person that there are going to be problems. The reverse of that is also important. Youre told your cholesterol level is very low, that also can be a mistake. And, you know, lets say you put in the Mercedes of fire alarms, once you spent all this money on a fire alarm, you assume its going to work, so you dont pay any attention. And thats what happens when our numbers are good. When our numbers are bad, we lose sleep because every moment were afraid that that fire alarm isnt going to work, and theres going to be a fire in the house. Numbers hold things still. If you were to take any of these tests, multiple times in the course of a day, no less over a week, the numbers would vary. The one that I find most distressing are these eye charts. And this I spend a lot of time when Im lecturing talking about, because to me its just insane. You go into an environment that makes people stressed, a doctors office, you see a bunch of letters that mean nothing, that are static and black and white, and then the doctor gives you a number and tells you how well you see. Well I dont know about you, but my vision varies in the course of a day. In the mornings I probably see better, than when Im tired late in the afternoon. If Im hungry, an example I often use, I see the sign to the restaurant a lot sooner.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
I see things in color.

Gregory Hansell
Sure.

Ellen
Different from black and white. Things are always changing.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah.

Ellen
But they hold it all still, and say this is your vision. Then you buy glasses to correct your vision as if thats the way it always is. And then you become dependent on those glasses. Rather than attending to the variability. Why do I see better now than I did before? And what can I do physically to change things to improve my vision?

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, its funny

Ellen
Remember in the counterclockwise study we took these men, and it was sort of like a placebo, right? That we have them live as if theyre their younger selves, and their vision improves. The other thing that I find interesting is that if you were to lose your hearing, your vision would improve. If you were to lose your sight, your hearing improves. So our hearing and our vision can improve. Why wait to have them improve?

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, thats great. Thats great. No, everyone of the hosts here in this room is wearing glasses, so were all paying attention. You know, I think that brings up something for me because you talked about, you know, listening to what, you know, your doctors, your eye doctors in that case are telling you. You know, in the book you offer some advice on how to deal with doctors who, you know, although theyre trained and theyre usually caring people, they so frequently make mistakes. So you say we should trust in ourselves more than our doctors. You know, whats the advice, how do we do that?

Ellen
Well, its not, its not trusting ourselves more than our doctors, trust everybody, but always knowing that what any of us know is limited. And so, ask more questions, and when youre given a prescription ask for alternative prescriptions, and then well see what the doctor knows and doesnt know. And if the doctor tells you its going to follow a particular course, ask how he knows or she knows this. And, you know, for the people for whom its not true, what are their circumstances? And so then when youre both in the place where you recognize that the doctor has more information than you, but certainly the doctors knowledge is not foolproof, then together you will figure it out. And you should always pay attention to, given that medicine can only be made for one size fits all, the research is one size fits all, and yet these probabilities become absolute facts and are given to you as if its true for you, when it might not be. And theres no way for the doctor to know that. So you need to step in and say, well maybe. You know, when I had smashed my ankle, and I was in the hospital, and I felt terrible, other than the excruciating pain of it, then eventually I looked at my chart, and I saw the chart, and I said what is this? And they told me it was anti-anxiety drugs. I said Ive never been anxious in my life, which of course is an exaggeration, but Im sure I said that. You know, that most people are anxious there, most people are going to get this medication, most people feel this kind of pain, most people are going to get this medication. Well you know if its true for you, or not true for you. So youre given medication, you need to see how you feel with it. If you feel worse, call the doctor immediately and say, I feel worse. Dont keep taking it because the doctor said to take it. You know, pay attention in the course of the day as to how you feel. When you feel better, when you feel worse, and ask yourself why. And weve done this now with diseases like MS, arthritis, you know, with very exciting results.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, you know, its interesting. Its great advice because that could be so difficult to do, you know, I mean part of it is just the fact that we place so much confidence in our doctors, just because the kind of aura around, you know, their training, and the whole medical establishment. But also because so many doctors can be so touchy when it comes to asking them a little bit of questions.

Ellen
Well yeah, no I couldnt agree more. I remember I was lecturing to a large group of people, and I was not particularly tactful about some of my medical beliefs, Ive changed it since, and I found out that the room was at least a third of the people in that room were medical doctors, and they loved it, because they know they dont know, and its a burden for them. So if you recognize that everybody is better off acknowledging peoples expertise but also limiting the faith we put in it. You know, it just becomes more real.

Gregory Hansell
Yeah, that is really interesting that the expectation hurts both.

Ellen
So Im not suggesting to any of us that we attack our doctors.

Gregory Hansell
Sure, sure. No, no, I think the point you are making is that the expectation hurts both people, it hurts the doctors too, it increases their burden, which Im sure does not necessarily make their diagnoses any better, you know.

Ellen
Right.

Gregory Hansell
Let me just ask you, shifting direction for one second here about aging. We only have time for one question on this before we end the show, but, you know, you write about a lot of the ways we view aging as having a decreasing ability versus just different abilities, and it seems like a similar thing. I dont know if the Becca Levis study, Levy study touched on this, talk to us a bit about how we can improve our lives as we get older with that kind of changed mindset?

Ellen
Well, you know, we have to change many of our mindsets. Right now we see developing for the first part of our lives and aging for the second part of our lives. And people should be developing and growing throughout their lives. And when people think that, you know, if you were twenty years old and you hurt your wrist, you would do things to make it better. If you buy into the mindset that when you get older you just fall apart, and then you hurt your wrist, youre not going to do anything. Because after all, what do you expect? Well we have to change those expectations. We dont know how good we can be at any age, and all of my data, especially that original counterclockwise study, where these eighty year olds are seeing better, are stronger, hearing better, we dont know what the limits are. So I think its best just to act, act as if you can do it all, and if you fall apart a little bit, you pick yourself up and you try it again. You know, that, rather than give in to these negative stereotypes. Theres no data that any science can produce that can say that it cant be. Uncontrollable cannot be proven. All we can prove with science, is the way we try it, under the particular circumstances under which we tried it, didnt work. So thats really different, you know, if you have a sense that, well it didnt work this way, then maybe you try it that way. When you have a sense that Im just old and what else do you expect, you get old you cant do it, then you dont even try. You know, and then the world has been designed by younger people, so when it doesnt fit older people, older people need to redesign it. You know, what happens is, you have a twenty year old and an eighty year old watching some twenty something television show, and the eighty year finds it boring, been there, done that, theres too many years ago, and who cares anyway. The younger person is all too quick to think they have attention problems. You know, so older people have to stand up for themselves and which, people, Im part of the baby boomer generation, and we didnt tolerate anything all the way through our lives, there was so many of us. So I think a lot of this is going to naturally change. But the biggest takeaway is that this diminished performance that people see as wired in, may not be wired in to the extent that we assume. And there may be ways to continue growing throughout our lives. Pain and old age are separate concepts. One can live a full life without pain.

Gregory Hansell
We only have time for one more question, its a question we ask

Ellen
Ah, thats what you said the last time.

Gregory Hansell
I said almost one more last time. This time I really mean it.

Ellen
Oh, okay.

Gregory Hansell
But this is the last question.

Ellen
We could have three more questions if I gave shorter answers.

Gregory Hansell
No, its been wonderful, thank you. So let me ask you this question, which is just, and I ask it every week of every guest as the listeners know. In your case, how do you hope your book, Counterclockwise, and the research youre doing on mindfulness and mindful health, helps people improve their lives? Whats the main takeaway that youd like to share?

Ellen
Oh there are so many, just on the face of it, Im suggesting that we have more control over every aspect of our lives. Of our physical health, of our psychological wellbeing, and that if people take seriously some of the things that Im saying, and start to explore that, all sorts of things should change for all of us. And then when you see just a few people doing well, then it becomes more possible in your mind for you to do well, and it sort of grows exponentially. And I think that once, I did this research way back when in the seventies, where we gave people plants to take care of and mindful choices to make, and found that they lived longer, and that, that was sort of the beginning of much of the mind, body medicine. And I think the medical world is aware that we have enormous control that hasnt yet been tapped. So I think that now were starting to be in the place, were all in it together with the same goal, and I think that ten years from now its going to be a very different life that people will be living. But the good news is for those of us who are older, theres no need to wait. You know, we dont have to wait for our doctors to change, for our schools to change, we can make the changes right now for ourselves.

Raymond Hansell
Thats wonderful news, especially for some of us in this room here.

Ellen
The eyeglass wearers.

Raymond Hansell
The eyeglass wearers. You can learn more about Doctor Ellen Langers work by going to Langer Mindfulness Institute dot com. Doctor Langer, thank you very much for joining us today on BetterWorldians Radio.

Ellen
This was fun, thanks for having me.

Raymond Hansell
Youre very welcome. As we end our show each week we like to share our mission at BetterWorldians. We strive to make the world a better place by encouraging the very best in everyone. We focus on positive thinking, positive values, and positive actions. In short, our vision here is to make, to bring out the BetterWorldian in everyone, so that we can all make it a better world. So until next time, be a BetterWorldian.