The mind body connection

We can reverse any illness and even ageing simply by changing our thoughts and beliefs about our health

Positive thoughts lead to good physical health

We can change our physical health by changing our mindsets. Over time, I have come to believe less and less that biology is destiny. It is not primarily our physical selves that limit us, rather our mindset about our physical limits. In the research that we've conducted over the past 30 years, I have come to realise that mind/body dualism is just a belief. If we put the mind and the body back together so that we are just one person again, then wherever we put the mind, we would also put the body. If the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body would be as well.

The mind-body link

Examples of this connection are all around us. We see a rat and show signs of fear as our pulse races and sweat breaks out on our skin; we think about losing a significant other, and our blood pressure increases; we watch someone vomit, and we feel nauseous ourselves. While we easily see evidence of the connection, it's not well understood.

We [my colleagues/students and I] conducted several studies that question the prevailing view of physical limits. They were all driven by the simple idea of the power of our minds.

We see ourselves as having a mind and a body that is separate from it. So when the body ails, it typically doesn't occur to us to seek the solution in our thoughts. And when it does occur to us, dramatic changes take place.

Clock back

In 1979, my students and I devised a study—which we would later come to call the “Counterclockwise” study. In this study, we took elderly men to a timeless retreat for a week with the intention of turning the clock back. Could men in their 80s feel as good as they did in their 60s? We decided to find out.

We selected participants, divided them into two groups of eight—an experimental group and a control group.

The men from the experimental group were to live for a week as if it were 20 years earlier. Twice a day, they would have group discussions about the past; see movies and television shows from that era; and engage in quiz show sorts of entertainment. All the while they would be having their discussions in the present tense as though the event was happening right now. Thus, for them it ‘was’ the past.

For the men in the comparison group [control group] the task was to reminisce about the past and thus all discussions were in the past tense. Their minds were in the present looking back at the past.

We had noted down many measures before we began the study and repeated them at the end of the week. The results were dramatic.

Young again

Hearing and memory of men in both groups had improved. They gained an average of three pounds each and their grip was significantly stronger—indicating improved motor skills. We found that on many of the measures, the participants had become ‘younger’.

The experimental group showed greater improvement on joint flexibility, finger length [their arthritis diminished and they were able to straighten their fingers more], and manual dexterity. On intelligence tests, 63 per cent of the men in the experimental group had improved their scores, compared to only 44 per cent men from the control group. There were also improvements on height, weight, gait, and posture.

Finally, we asked people unaware of the study’s purpose to compare photos of the participants taken at the end of the week to those submitted at the beginning of the study. These objective observers judged that all of the experimental participants looked noticeably younger at the end of the study.

We can change our physical health by changing our minds

Perspective tweak

In another investigation, we looked at the exercise and mind connection. This time, our participants were chambermaids—women for whom work is like a good exercise. But because the Surgeon General defined exercise as something we do outside of work—since so many are at desks all day long—these women actually saw themselves as not getting any exercise.

How healthy were they? Since they are getting so much exercise and exercise is so good for one’s health, we’d expect them to be healthy. Actually, they weren’t.

We divided them into two groups and explained to one of the groups that their work gave them enough exercise. “In fact”, we told them, “you’re getting more exercise than the surgeon general recommends.” They were shown how various tasks they did were equalled working on different machines at the gym. A month later, we asked them many questions: were they exercising outside of work now? Were they working harder? Were they eating more or differently? They answered in the negative to all the questions, which means things were the same as before.

The only difference was that now they saw their work itself as exercise. So we took their measures and found that they had lost weight; had reduced their body mass, waist to hip ratio and blood pressure. All of this happened because they changed their mindset.

Mind-sight

Man sitting near a lake watching the beautyWe ran several other studies but to give just one more illustration of the hidden power of the mind, consider our work on vision. We had found in the Counterclockwise study that vision improved over time because of changes in the mind. So we wanted to see if such improvement could arise more immediately.

To do this, we made use of the standard eye chart, which each one of us has seen in our doctor’s office. The standard eye chart has letters arranged so that they get progressively smaller as we read down the chart. This implicitly creates the expectation that soon we will not be able to see. We were curious about what would happen if we changed our minds so that the expectation was that soon we would be able to see. To accomplish this, we created another eye chart. This one had the letters getting progressively larger as we read down the chart. Now as we read down the chart and the letters are getting larger and larger, we come to expect that soon we will be able to see.

And what we found matched these expectations—people could now see what they couldn’t see before!

In another version of this, we took advantage of the expectation that about two-thirds of the way down the standard eye chart, people expect not to be able to see. Here, we started the new chart around a third of the way down—thus with smaller letters—so that even if people expect not to be able to see two-thirds of the way down the chart, the letters are actually much smaller than usual.

Again, people were able to see what they originally couldn’t see.

Attention on illness

When we are ill in almost any way, most parts of our bodies are still working well. But by paying attention to ourselves, as if we are our illnesses, we feel more helpless than we need to. Thinking we are our diseases is more of a problem than meets the eye.

It is not just that we avoid situations that might be good for us [e.g. avoiding people because we’re depressed] or over-assimilate any aches to that illness that could be caused by other things [e.g. mistaking aches from a bad mattress for arthritis]. But we fail to realise that health is more than just the absence of illness.

Folly of mindless acceptance

When someone has a chronic illness, they do not have the symptoms all the time. In fact, there isn’t even a definition of the word ‘chronic’. So, do we have to have the symptoms every day, once a week, once a month for that diagnosis? It’s not a small issue, because if we’re told our disorder is chronic v/s acute, we often become helpless. People who have asthma, for example, don’t need their inhalers most of the day. What is happening when they are symptom-free?

The dyslexic reads most words without difficulty; the person with ADHD [Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] has no trouble paying attention to most tasks; the individual with memory problems is remembering most things correctly. Even the person who thinks s/he is always depressed is not really depressed all the time. By accepting our diagnoses as chronic, we simply don’t look for the times we are without symptoms, and those are the times we’re back in control.

Controlling the uncontrollable

If we mindlessly accept a condition as chronic, we presume that it is uncontrollable and ever-present. But if it is really ‘uncontrollable’, then wouldn’t we be foolish to try and control it? On the other hand, if we recognised that the ‘facts’ about ‘chronic’ ailments were only probabilities—sometimes true and sometimes not—we might be inclined to examine when we have the problem and when we don’t.

Miss Quote

The trouble about always trying to preserve the health of the body is that it is so difficult to do without destroying the health of the mind.
- G K Chesterton, English born Gabonese
Critic, Essayist, Novelist and Poet

Once we do this, we can begin to find ways to control the so-called uncontrollable.

Let me explain. If I found that I only have symptoms when I’m with Sam and never when I’m with Brett, then the answer would be to either stop seeing Sam or make my interactions with him more like they are with Brett.

That is, noticing the variability in our symptoms, rather than mindlessly presuming they are always there, suggests things we might do to help ourselves. The same is true for any disorder.

Being more aware

When we accept that we can’t do something, we rarely try. When the world around us fosters this illusion of stability, it’s that much less likely that we will think to heal ourselves or even become better than we’ve ever been. Someone may object to my optimism and say that if people believe they can control all or part of their illnesses with their minds, won’t that get them in trouble if they can’t find the way. I don’t think so.

In research, we’ve conducted over so many years, we’ve found that being mindful by actively noticing new things results in positive health outcomes.

In fact, when we instruct elderly adults to be more mindful, they actually live longer. Therefore, attention to variability—mindful noticing—will improve our health, even if we don’t come up with the specific solution to the problem at hand.

Being mindful by actively noticing new things results in positive health outcomes

Tuning into health

Open door to serenityMindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations. Nor is it about abandoning these things. It is neither about New Age medicine nor traditional understandings of illness.

It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mindsets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. Learning how to change requires understanding how we go astray.

The magic lies in being aware of the ways we mindlessly react to social and cultural cues.

Attending to the world doesn’t mean that we need to become hypervigilant. Our attention naturally goes to what is different and out of balance. If we allow it, we will begin to notice small signals without consciously searching or paying any particular attention to them. But first we need to open our minds to possibility [see box for more on this].

Opening up to wellbeing

Improved vision, a younger appearance, weight loss, and increased longevity are just four of the many experimental results that are a consequence of making these subtle changes. They are proof that with only subtle shifts in our thinking, our language, and in our expectations, we can begin to change the ingrained behaviours that sap health, optimism and vitality from our lives.

So open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours—health, wellbeing and happiness.

Anything is possible

We all pay lip service to the idea that anything is possible. Yet, whenever specific instances of ‘never- before’ happenings present themselves, most of us reject the possibility out of hand. Can limbs regenerate? Can paralysis be reversed? Many of us who otherwise agree that anything is possible will respond, ‘no’ almost without thinking. Why don’t we allow in practice what we profess to believe? One answer is that the mindsets we form from everyday experience close us off to possibility.

Impossible is nothing

My research has shown how using a different word, offering a small choice, or making a subtle change in the physical environment can improve our health and well-being. Small changes can make large differences, so we should open ourselves to the impossible and embrace a psychology of possibility.

A new beginning

The psychology of possibility first requires that we begin with the assumption that we do not know what we can do or become. Rather than starting from status quo, it argues for a starting point of what we would like to be. From that beginning, we can ask how we might reach that goal or make progress toward it.

For example, if we didn’t accept that our eyes were going to chronically get worse, they might not. If instead we thought that perhaps our eyesight could improve over time—be better than when it was at its best—we might develop ways to make that happen.

The second step toward embracing a psychology of possibility is to try out different things without evaluating ourselves as we go along.

It’s possible

Interpreting findings too is a different process in the psychology of possibility. In descriptive or traditional psychology, the majority of subjects tested have to show an effect for us to conclude that the effect is real: a large number of monkeys would need to be able to speak clearly for us to conclude that monkeys can talk.

In this new psychology, once we’ve ruled out experimenter error, only one participant is needed to prove that something is possible. If just one monkey spoke one real word, we’d have enough evidence to draw conclusions about primate communication abilities.

The question, in traditional psychology, is more often about why phenomena exist rather than if they can exist. In the psychology of possibility, the mission is to see if an outcome is possible first. After that, explanations for why and how can be pursued.

A world of possibilities

Too many of us believe the world is to be discovered, rather than a product of our own construction and thus to be invented. We often respond as if we and/or the world around us are fixed, even when we agree in theory that we are not.

We might sit uncomfortably in the bathroom each day without realising that we would feel better if we changed the height of the toilet or we don’t go to the opera because of our glaucoma, when the experience of merely listening to the music could be extremely rich.

There are many changes we would know how to make to feel better if it only occurred to us to ask. That’s how strong the illusion of stability—mindlessness—is. We imagine the stability of our mindsets to be the stability of the underlying phenomena, and so we don’t think to consider the alternatives. We hold things still in our minds, despite the fact that all the while they are changing.

If we open up our minds, a world of possibility presents itself.

Ellen Langer discusses Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility in detail in her book, Counterclockwise by Belantine Books; ISBN 978-0-345-50204-9.


A version of this was first published in the October 2009 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Ellen J Langer
Ellen J Langer is a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. She has done extensive work on the illusion of control, ageing, decision-making, and mindfulness theory which has been covered in over 200 research articles and six academic books. She has authored four books: Mindfulness, The Power of Mindful Learning, On Becoming An Artist and Counterclockwise.

1 COMMENT

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