You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Shows How Mental Attitude Can Potentially Reverse the Effects of Aging

You’re only as old as you feel, right? The platitude may be true. In a scientifically verifiable sense, “feeling”—a state of mind—may not only determine psychological well-being but physical health as well, including the natural aging processes of the body.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent decades testing the hypothesis, and has come to some interesting conclusions about the relationship between mental processes and bodily aging. In order to do the kind of work she has for decades, she has had to put aside the thorny “mind-body” problem—a longstanding philosophical and practical impasse in figuring out how the two interact. “Let’s forget about how you get from one to the other,” she tells CBS This Morning in a 2014 interview above, “and in fact see those as just words…. Wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body.”




What happens to the one, she theorized, will necessarily affect the other. In a 1981 experiment, which she called the “counterclockwise study,” she and her research team placed eight men in their late 70s in a monastery in New Hampshire, converted to transport them all to 1959 when they were in their prime. Furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies: every cultural reference dated from the period. There were no mirrors, only photos of the men in their 20s. They spoke and acted as though they had traveled back in time and gotten younger.

The results were extraordinary, almost too good to be true, she felt. “On several measures,” The New York Times reported in 2014, “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 "counterclockwise" participants "were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller…. Perhaps most improbably, their sight improved” as well as their hearing.  Given the seemingly miraculous outcomes, tiny sample size, and the unorthodoxy of the experiment, Langer decided not to publish at the time but continued to work on similar studies looking at how the mind affects the body.

Then, almost thirty years later, the BBC contacted her about staging a televised recreation of the monastery experiment, “with six aging former celebrities as guinea pigs,” who were transported back to 1975 by similar means. The stars “emerged after a week as apparently rejuvenated as Langer’s septuagenarians in New Hampshire.” These experiments and several others Langer has conducted over the years strongly suggest that chronological age is not a linear clock pushing us inexorably toward decline. It is, rather, a collection of variables that include psychological well-being and something called an “epigenetic clock,” a mechanism that UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath has discovered directly correlates with the aging process, and may show us how to change it.

But while Horvath has yet to answer several pressing questions about how certain genetic mechanisms interact, Langer has put such questions aside in favor of testing the mind-body connection in a series of experiments, which engage the aging—or people with specific conditions—in studies that stretch their minds. By creating illusions like the monastery time machine, Langer has found that perception has a significant effect on aging. If we perceive ourselves to be younger, healthier, more capable, more vibrant, despite the messages about how we should look and act at our chronological age, then our cells and tissues get the message. Not only can a change in perception affect aging, but also, Langer theorizes, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic or life-threatening conditions. Much of her research here gets spelled out in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

“Whether it’s about aging or anything else,” says Lager, “if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative.” The social expectation for the aging is that they will get weaker, less capable, and more prone to deterioration and illness. Ignoring these expectations and changing our perception of what chronological age means—and doesn’t mean—Langer says, seems to actually slow or partially reverse the decline and to ward off disease. Those psychological changes can come about through interventions like caring for children, plants, or animals and using mindfulness practices to learn how to be attentive to change.

You can read more about Langer and Horvath’s specific findings on aging, psychology, and epigenetics at Nautilus.

Note: you can get Langer's book--Counterclockwise Mindful Health and the Transformative Power of Possibility--as a free audiobook through Audible.com's free trial program. Get more details on the free trial here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Meditation Can Change Your Brain: The Neuroscience of Buddhist Practice

Nirvana is a place on earth. Popularly thought of a Buddhist “heaven,” religious scholars discuss the concept not as an arrival at someplace other than the physical place we are, but as the extinction of suffering in the mind, achieved in large part through intensive meditation. If this state of enlightenment exists in the here and now—the scientific inquirer is justified in asking—shouldn’t it be something we can measure?

Maybe it is. Psychologist Daniel Goleman and neuroscientist Richard Davidson set out to do just that when they flew several “Olympic level meditators” from Nepal, India, and France to Davidson’s lab at the University of Wisconsin. Once they put the meditators under Davidson's scanners, researchers found that “their brain waves are really different,” as Goleman says in the Big Think video above.

Perhaps the most remarkable findings in the Olympic level meditators has to do with what’s called a gamma wave. All of us get gamma for a very short period when we solve a problem we’ve been grappling with, even if it’s something that’s vexed us for months. We get about half second of gamma; it’s the strongest wave in the EEG spectrum….

What was stunning was that the Olympic level meditators, these are people who have done up to 62,000 lifetime hours of meditation, their brainwave shows gamma very strong all the time as a lasting trait just no matter what they’re doing. It’s not a state effect, it’s not during their meditation alone, but it’s just their every day state of mind. We actually have no idea what that means experientially. Science has never seen it before.

The meditators themselves describe the state of mind in terms consistent with thousands of years of literature on the subject; “it’s very spacious and you’re wide open, you’re prepared for whatever may come.” Goleman and Davidson have elaborated their findings for the public in the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. For more on Davidson’s work on the subject, see his talk at Google, “Transform Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”

The bar to enlightenment seems high. Goleman and Davidson’s “Olympic level” test subjects spent a minimum of 62,000 hours in meditation, which amounts to something like 20 years of eight-hour days, seven days a week (and maybe explains why the path to enlightenment is often spread out over several lifetimes in the tradition). But that doesn’t mean meditation in lesser doses does not have significant effects on the brain as well.

As Goleman explains in the video above, meditation induces a state of hyper-focus, or “flow,” that acts as a gym for your brain: lowering stress, raising the level of resilience under stress, and increasing focus “in the midst of distractions.” As some point, he says, these temporary “altered states” become permanent “altered traits." Along the way, as with any consistent, long-term workout program, meditators develop strength, stamina, and flexibility the longer they stick with the practice. Find resources to get you started in the Relateds below.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Charles Bukowski Explains How to Beat Depression: Spend 3-4 Days in Bed and You’ll Get the Juices Flowing Again (NSFW)

Image by Graziano Origa, via Wikimedia Commons

I felt like sleeping for five years but they wouldn’t let me

—Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye

I don’t know about you, but the grind gets me down. Day in, day out, the same routine, never a break but the odd vacation. And you know what they say about vacations; when you get back, you need another one. Used to be days were more regular, in the heydays of the unions. You put in your time and you get some back, enough at least for a good night’s sleep. No more. The machine never sleeps, and neither can we. If you have the good fortune to live in the U.S., you and I can call ourselves blessed residents of the most overworked nation in the world. Europeans may have it better, but maybe not by much.

Screw it, you want to say sometimes. I just want to get some rest. We’re entitled to it. According to that great folk theorist of the grind, Charles Bukowski, three or four days in bed may be just the thing to get the juices flowing again when spirits are low, and we don’t even have enough gas in the tank to revolt against a culture that’s trying to work us all to death. At the dawn of the age of deregulation and supply-side dominance, Bukowski saw the perils of mind-numbing, soul-killing, work, castigating the “9 to 5,” which is “never 9 to 5,” in a brutally honest letter to his publisher and benefactor, John Martin.

Bukowski’s prescription for the depression engendered by modern life (aside from blackout drinking, that is): Sleep, a need as physically urgent as food or water. It wards off morbid rumination: “sleeping in the rain,” he wrote, “helps me forget things like I am going to die and you are going to die and the cats are going to die.” And when “the Wheaties aren’t going down right,” he says in the spoken word piece above, “when I feel a little weak or depressed,” it’s sleep he recommends.

I just go to bed for three days and four nights, pull down all the shades and just go to bed. Get up. Shit. Piss. Drink a beer now and then and go back to bed. I come out of that completely re-enlightened for 2 or 3 months. I get power from that.

I think someday...they'll say this psychotic guy knew something that...you know in days ahead and medicine, and how they figure these things out. Everybody should go to bed now and then, when they're down low and give it up for three or four days. Then they'll come back good for a while. But we're so obsessed with, we have to get up and do it and go back to sleep.

Can you get time off for three or four days in bed? Probably not. But hey, maybe there are more humane days ahead, as Bukowski forecasts in a rare moment of optimism, when jobs won't literally kill us, when medical science will give us license to take “sleep leave.”

People are nailed to the processes. Up. Down. Do something. Get up, do something, go to sleep. Get up. They can't get out of that circle. You'll see, someday they'll say: "Bukowski knew." Lay down for 3 or 4 days till you get your juices back, then get up, look around and do it. But who the hell can do it cause you need a dollar. That's all. That's a long speech, isn't it?"

It's not a long speech at all, but it’s a damned good one.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Med Schools Are Requiring Students to Take Art Classes, and How It Makes Med Students Better Doctors

I have followed several debates recently about the lack of arts and humanities education in STEM programs. One argument runs thus: scientists, engineers, and programmers often move into careers designing products for human use, without having spent much time learning about other humans. Without required courses, say, in psychology, philosophy, sociology, literature, etc., students can end up unthinkingly reproducing harmful biases or overlooking serious ethical problems and social inequities.

Technological malpractice is bad enough. Medical malpractice can have even more immediately harmful, or fatal, effects. We might take for granted that a doctor’s “bedside manner” is purely a matter of personality, but many medicals schools have decided they need to be more proactive when it comes to training future doctors in compassionate listening. And some have begun using the arts to foster creative thinking and empathy and to improve doctor-patient communication. The verbally-abusive Dr. House aside, the best diagnosticians actually have sympathetic ears.




As Dr. Michael Flanagan of Penn State’s College of Medicine puts it, “Our job is to elicit information from our patients. By communicating more effectively and establishing rapport with patients so they are more comfortable telling you about their symptoms, you are more likely to make the diagnosis and have higher patient satisfaction.” From the patient side of things, an accurate diagnosis can mean more than “satisfaction”; it can mean the difference between life and death, long-term suffering or rapid recovery.

Can impressionist painting make that difference? Dr. Flanagan thinks it’s a start. His seminar “Impressionism and the Art of Communication” asks fourth-year medical students to engage with the work of Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet, in exercises “ranging from observation and writing activities to painting in the style of said artists,” notes Artsy. “Through the process, they learn to better communicate with patients by developing insights on subjects like mental illness and cognitive bias.” Why not just study these subjects in psychology courses?

One answer comes from Penn State associate professor of art history Nancy Locke, who presents to Flanagan’s classes. “Art can make people see their lives differently,” she says, “Doctors will see people regularly with certain problems.” And they can begin to schematize their patients the way they schematize diseases and disorders. “But a painting can continue to be challenging, and there are always new questions to ask.” Impressionist painting represents only one road, among many others, to the ambiguities of the human mind.

Another Penn State professor, Dr. Paul Haidet, director of medical education research, offered a seminar on jazz and medical communications to fourth-year students in 2014 and 2015. As he mentions in the video above, Flanagan himself took the course. “Just as one jazz musician provides space to another to improvise,” he tells Penn State News, “as physicians we need to provide space to our patients to communicate in their own style. It was a transformational experience, unlike anything I ever had in medical school myself.” He was inspired thereafter to introduce his painting course.

One could imagine classes on the Victorian novel, modernist poetry, or improvisational dance having similar effects. Other medical schools have certainly agreed. Dr. Delphine Taylor, associate professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, “emphasizes that arts-focused activities are important in training future doctors to be present and aware,” Artsy writes, “which is more and more difficult today given the pervasiveness of technology and media.” Arts programs have also been adopted in the medical schools at Yale, Harvard, and UT Austin.

The precedents for incorporating the arts into a science education abound—many a famous scientist has also had a passion for literature, photography, painting, or music. (Einstein, for example, wouldn’t be parted from his violin.) As the arts and sciences grew further apart, for reasons having to do with the structure of higher education and the dictates of market economies, it became far less common for scientists and doctors to receive a liberal arts education. On the other hand, todays liberal arts students might benefit from more required STEM courses, but that’s a story for another day.

via Artsy

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The French Village Designed to Promote the Well-Being of Alzheimer’s Patients: A Visual Introduction to the Pioneering Experiment

Having seen firsthand in my own family how devastating Alzheimer’s disease can be to the sufferer and those who care for them, I acutely feel the need for better social remedies than those we currently have. Institutionalizing relatives places them at risk of abuse, neglect, or extreme loneliness and anxiety, over and above what they already experience. Relying on family members can result in highly overstressed caretakers who lack resources, time, and training. In either case, patients and caretakers can end up isolated, emotionally overwhelmed, and heavily reliant on medications.

While there is yet no cure for Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia, the good news is that there may soon be a treatment that provides sufferers with care, attention, dignity, and generous social interaction, while also giving researchers humane and ethical opportunities to study the progression of the disease. The not-so-good news is that it might require building an entire village, complete with a supermarket, hairdresser, library, gym and other facilities. But if an experiment in Dax, in southwestern France, proves viable, many other municipalities might willingly shoulder the expense.




Designed by Champagnat & Grègoire Architects and NORD Architects, the 12-acre Village Landais Alzheimer will cost a hefty $28 million, reports Newsweek. Curbed quotes the even higher figure of $34 million, “primarily funded by the government.” Expected to open at the end of 2019, the village will “house 120 patients, 100 live-in caretakers, 12 volunteers, and a team of researchers who will approach the treatment center as a testbed for alternative Alzheimer’s care.” Designed to replicate a traditional medieval town common to the area, the experiment was inspired by a similar undertaking in the Netherlands, in which residents showed increased well-being and lived longer than expected.

Neurologist and epidemiologist Jean-François Dartigues explains the purpose of the village as maintaining “the participation of residents in social life,” a proven factor in slowing memory loss and improving mental health, as studies have shown. The village will also give residents a sense of freedom and control over their environment, while making sure attentive care is on hand at all times, and it will “host trained dogs,” reports the BBC, “to help residents escape their psychological isolation.” Moreover, “drug treatments will be set aside,” along with the side effects of medication that can negatively affect quality of life.

The previous experiment and current state of the research predict that Village Landais Alzheimer will be successful in improving the lives of its residents. While one can imagine this idea taking hold among private investors willing to build exclusive villages for wealthy patients, the question is whether countries far less inclined to fund healthcare would invest public resources. Local officials in Dax at least “have promised,” Curbed reports, “to match nursing home fees and make some form of government assistance available so as not to prevent poorer patients from residing in the facility.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How to Use Psychedelic Drugs to Improve Mental Health: Michael Pollan’s New Book, How to Change Your Mind, Makes the Case

The history of research on psychedelic drugs is so sensational that more sober-minded experiments (so to speak) often get obscured by the hip, the weird, and the nefarious, the latter including secret CIA and Army testing of LSD and other drugs as a means of psychological warfare and “enhanced interrogation.” These experiments inadvertently led to Ken Kesey’s infamous “Acid Tests” in Northern California. On the other side of the country, Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary used questionable methods in his psilocybin experiments with prisoners and students, before getting fired and going on to expand the mind of the counterculture, earning the distinction of having Richard Nixon call him “the most dangerous man in America.”

Meanwhile, working in relative obscurity in very different circumstances in the late 50s, a UC Irvine psychiatrist named Oscar Janiger brought volunteer subjects, including several dozen artists, to a house outside L.A., where they were given LSD and psychotherapy. Janiger’s work has its sensational side—a cousin of Allen Ginsberg, he reportedly introduced Cary Grant, Anais Nin, Jack Nicholson, and Aldous Huxley to acid. But his primary achievement, in data that remained mostly unpublished during his lifetime, were his discoveries of the therapeutic and creative use of psychedelic drugs under controlled conditions with subjects who were prepared for the experience and guided through it by trained professionals.




The experiments conducted by Janiger and others differed markedly from the freewheeling recreational drug use of the counterculture and the weaponization of psychedelics by the U.S. government. In recent years, scientists and psychologists have conducted similar kinds of research under even more tightly controlled conditions, substantiating and expanding on the conclusions of early experimenters who found that psychedelics seem remarkably effective in treating depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, and other stubbornly destructive human ills. This research supports with sound evidence LSD inventor Albert Hoffman’s description of his drug as “medicine for the soul.”

While research organizations like MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies) have centralized and promoted much of the current research, it’s now getting a huge popular boost from none other than food writer Michael Pollan, bestselling author of books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food. “A self-described ‘reluctant psychonaut,’” writes NPR, Pollan submitted himself as a test subject for experiments with “LSD, psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT, a substance in the venom of the Sonoran Desert toad.” He has described his experiences and the work of the research community in a new book titled How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

At the top of the post, see Pollan describe the book in a short video from Penguin. He discusses such ancient ideas (as he has in past writings) of psychoactive drugs as “entheagens”—or chemical conduits to the divine. "In the Darwinian sense,” he says, the evolutionary purpose of psychedelic experiences may be an increase in cognitive variety and the stimulation of “more metaphors, more insights.” In his Fresh Air interview above, Pollan further explains how this works therapeutically. “One of the things our mind does is tell stories about ourselves,” he says. “If you’re depressed, you’re being told a story perhaps that you’re worthless, that no one could possibly love you... that life will not get better.”

“These stories,” Pollan says, “trap us in these ruminative loops that are very hard to get out of. They’re very destructive patterns of thought.” Psychedelic drugs “disable for a period of time the part of the brain where the self talks to itself. It's called the default mode network, and it's a group of structures that connect parts of the cortex — the evolutionarily most recent part of the brain — to deeper levels where emotion and memory reside.” Disrupting old narratives helps people to write better, healthier stories.

As Pollan says in the Time video above, psychedelics have been popularly conceived as drugs that make you crazy—and in some cases, that happens. But they are also “drugs that can make you sane, or more sane.”  One of the major differences between one outcome and the other is the conditions under which the drug is taken. When quality and dosage of the drugs are controlled, and when subjects are prepared for “bad trips” with specific instructions, even frightening hallucinations can contribute to better mental health.

In his psilocybin experiment, for example, Pollan was accompanied by two “guides” and given “a set of ‘flight instructions,” including what to do if you see a monster.

…don't try to run away. Walk right up to it, plant your feet and say, "What do you have to teach me? What are you doing in my mind?" And if you do that, according to the flight instructions, your fear will morph into something much more positive very quickly.

In another example, another psylocybin subject, Alana, describes in the Vox video below her guided experience with the drug during a smoking cessation trial at Johns Hopkins. “There were scary parts, foreboding parts,” she says, but thanks to controlled conditions and the reassuring presence of a guide, “I always knew there was joy and peace on the other side of it. It was freeing.”

Using psychedelics to confront and conquer fears goes back many thousands of years in traditional societies. Modern technological culture has largely turned to antidepressants and other pharmaceuticals to regulate anxiety, but as Pollan points out, “Prozac doesn’t help when you’re confronting mortality,” the deepest, most universal fear of all. But psychedelics—as Aldous Huxley found when he took LSD on his deathbed—can “occasion an experience in people—a mystical experience—that somehow makes it easier to let go.” Surely, there are other ways to do so. In any case, psychedelic drugs seem so beneficial to psychological well-being that they can be, and hopefully will be in the future, used to positively (responsibly) shift the consciousness and creative potential of millions of suffering people.

For more on this subject, read Pollan's latest book--How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Sitting Is The New Smoking: An Animated Explanation

In recent years, sitting has become the new smoking. "Past studies have found," declares a 2014 article in The New York Times, "the more hours that people spend sitting, the more likely they are to develop diabetes, heart disease and other conditions, and potentially to die prematurely — even if they exercise regularly." What's the science behind this alarming claim? The animated TED-ED video (watch above) begins to paint the picture. But it doesn't get into the latest and perhaps most important research. According to science writer Gretchen Reynolds, a recent Swedish study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that when you sit all day, your telomeres (the tiny caps on the ends of DNA strands) get shorter. Which is not a good thing. As telomeres get shorter, the rate at which the body ages and decays speeds up. Conversely, the study found "that the telomeres in [those] who were sitting the least had lengthened. Their cells seemed to be growing physiologically younger."




Several years ago, KQED radio in San Francisco aired a program dedicated to this question, featuring medical and ergonomics experts. To delve deeper into it, listen below.

Note: An earlier version of this post appeared on our site in 2015.

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