A friend of mine, who is in his early seventies, rides his bicycle hundreds of miles a week. He kayaks in the Atlantic Ocean and snowshoes in the mountains of New Hampshire. He has a twinkle in his eye. And he published his latest book last year.
He sent me an article from the New York Times about the work of Ellen Langer, the Harvard psychology professor whose experiments on the power of the mind to affect health and performance have been shaking up many preconceived notions.*
In an early experiment, she sequestered a group of senior citizens in a monastery. There were no mirrors, nor comparisons to young people. The stories they told were to be only about their younger selves. At the end of the week, the subjects “were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller… their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger.” Langer told the interviewer that they “put their minds in an earlier time,” and their bodies went along for the ride.**
The writer outlines a number of other Langer experiments. In one, she discovered that nursing-home residents showing early stages of memory loss did better on memory tests when they were given a reason to remember. What had been considered mental deterioration was actually indifference. In another, office workers complied with a nonsensical interdepartmental memo because it looked like an official memo. Habitual mind patterns got in the way of actual observation. In a third, subjects were fooled into thinking they had more or less sleep than they actually did. Short-term memory and reaction time varied depending on what the subjects thought, regardless of how long they had actually slept.
Langer’s experiments with self-perception are even more compelling. Hotel maids reported that they didn’t get enough exercise in a typical week. The researchers told the experimental group that cleaning rooms was significant exercise. With this change in mind set, those maids lost weight. The control group didn’t. The only difference was the change in how they perceived themselves in their work. She posited in another trial that diabetics’ blood-glucose levels would spike and dip according to the subjects’ expectations, exactly what her data proved. Does that mean there might be a different approach to diabetes?
Langer says, “You change a word here or there, and you get vastly different results.”** In other words, if the mind can make things better, it might also have the power to make things worse. In an unpublished study from 2010 she discovered that breast-cancer survivors who used the words in remission to describe themselves were less functional, less healthy and in more pain than those who used the word cured. She is currently engaged in a longer study to examine and possibly reverse the effects of negative language on Stage 4 metastatic breast cancer patients.
I have experienced Langer’s theories working in my own life in both mundane and profound ways. The weekend before my first appearance in my first play as a first year acting student at the American Conservatory Theater (I was playing Madge in Picnic directed by Danny Davis), I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep. My heart was skipping beats and I felt as if I was jumping out of my skin. My panic was so great I didn’t know if I could even step on stage. Someone recommended taking hot baths. A friend gave me a Valium to calm me down. But the solution that worked was given to me by another actor. “Nancy,” he said, “change your language. Let go of the words ‘I don’t know IF I can do this.’ Think instead ‘HOW do I BEST do this.’” That advice has been with me ever since.
Five years ago, my husband was admitted to the hospital for an emergency quadruple coronary bypass. That first night when I saw him attached by tubes to a heart-lung machine in the ICU, a million fearful thoughts overwhelmed me. I was paralyzed. I knew I had to manage my mind-set. I would have been debilitated for what was to come when I needed to be fully present.
I happened, coincidentally, to be reading a book called The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles by Dr. Bruce H. Lipton.*** Lipton researches how cells receive and process information. His results imply that cells may be controlled not only by DNA but also by the energetic messages emanating from our positive and negative thoughts. He believes, as does Langer, that our bodies can be changed as we retrain our thinking. As I sat by Al in the ICU for hours and hours, I focused my mind on seeing his cells healing. And Al was doing the same from inside his fog of physical trauma and pain medication. He told me later that he was thinking, “I could just let go right now. It would be easy. But I’m not going to. I don’t want to make Nancy a widow.”
I’ve discovered that ANY positive thought can supplant a cycle of negative thinking. Try it right now. Think of a wonderful moment in your life. See and smell and taste and feel and touch the details in your mind. Does your face open in a smile? Does your heart rate slow down? Can you feel a big breath fill your body? If you notice a swarm of automatic negative thoughts (ANTS) beginning to overtake your mind, stop. Replace them with this wonderful moment. Your metabolism will change; your energy will shift.
The days, week, and months that followed Al’s surgery were not without challenge. But underlying every moment was a solid belief that he would fully recover. Which he did. Each day, the sentence wasn’t, “I don’t know if I can do this.” It was “HOW do we BEST do this.”
Langer is well aware that people might blame themselves if a change in language fails to change their lives. Of course, things happen. Time passes; people have emergency surgery; careers change. But, Griersonoct writes, “Langer imagines a day when blame isn’t the first thing people reach for when things go awry. Instead, we will simply bring to bear the power of our own minds — which she believes will turn out to be far greater than we imagined.”**
So I thought I’d try a small experiment of my own this week. Lately, when I’ve been going to the gym to work out, I’ve been watching the cross-fit athletes training in an adjacent room. I realized that I’d been thinking things like, “I’m not in shape. I could never do that. I’m not getting enough exercise. I’m losing my fitness, etc.” I had forgotten that essential sports psychology adage: if the mind can conceive it, the body can achieve it. Today, I said to myself, “Change your language, Nancy.” My new words were, “I’m in fantastic shape. I get plenty of exercise.” I automatically increased distance, heart rate, and level on the recumbent bicycle and added weight and reps on all the machines. I was both surprised and not surprised.
It made me think about the subtle, and sometimes bold, negative words that can invade our minds every day. Notice them. Then change them. Ask, “HOW do I BEST do this?” See healing. Think of your favorite moments. Carry these new thoughts with you. Try this in the little moments, so that you are ready for the big ones. Change your language; change your life.
*Her books are the following:
Langer, Ellen J. Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1989.
Langer, Ellen J. The Power of Mindful Learning. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1997.
Langer, Ellen J. On Becoming an Artist. New York: Ballantine Books, 2005.
Langer, Ellen J. Counter Clockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility. New York: Ballantine Books, 2009.
**Griersonoct, Bruce. “What if Age Is Nothing but a Mind-Set?” New York Times Magazine/The Health Issue 22 Oct. 2014. Print & online.
***Lipton, Bruce H. The Biology of Belief: Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter & Miracles. 2nd ed. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc., 2011.