Ellen Langer
Big Brains podcst

Why the secret to health lies in the mind-body connection, with Ellen Langer (Ep. 119)

Renowned psychologist examines how mindfulness can transform our well-being

Ellen Langer
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

Can you heal faster just by tricking your brain? Could you lose weight with only a change of mindset? Could you think yourself into being younger? If you think the answer to all these questions is no, you haven’t read the research from renowned Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer.

Langer is a bit of a legend. She’s the first woman to ever receive tenure in psychology at Harvard, and her work has earned her the moniker: “The Mother of Mindfulness”. Her 40-year research career into the mind-body connection—and how mindfulness can hack that system—has delivered some unbelievable results that she believes hold the key to revolutionizing our health. She complies all of her work in her latest book “The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health.”

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Ellen Langer: The thing that was the greatest impact on me was what happened with my mother.

Paul Rand: That’s Ellen Langer. When her mother was 56 years old, she was diagnosed with cancer.

Ellen Langer: My mother had breast cancer and it had metastasized and now was in her pancreas. And as you may know, that’s the end game.

Paul Rand: But something strange happened.

Ellen Langer: One day it was magically gone and the doctors had no idea how it could be, it was a spontaneous remission. And the only way I could explain it was to go back to this idea of Mind-Body unity. My mother’s experience with cancer I think was the groundwork to all of my work on health.

Paul Rand: Professor Ellen Langer is a bit of a legend.

Tape: Can you think yourself to being younger? In studies over four decades, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer, showed that mental attitude can reverse the effects of aging and improve physical health.

Paul Rand: She’s the first woman to ever receive tenure in psychology at Harvard where she still serves today and her work has become famous enough to earn her the public moniker, the Mother of Mindfulness.

Ellen Langer: I believe strongly, this is a big statement, but that virtually all of our problems, whether they are physical, interpersonal, professional, global, the result indirectly or directly of our mindlessness, which means that by these simple changes, we can produce vast improvements in every aspect of our lives.

Paul Rand: Mindfulness is a hot topic these days.

Tape: Mindfulness and meditation are two of the most effective tools to help manage emotional wellbeing.

Tape: Schools are a fantastic environment for promoting yoga and mindfulness.

Tape: It’s called mindfulness based cognitive therapy.

Tape: Mindfulness can alter the functioning of the brain.

Ellen Langer: The problem is that after a while, it just becomes an empty word. And for me, there’s a very specific definition to it. And the results of, what is it? 45 over 45 years of research says that it’s really important.

Paul Rand: In fact, she believes it may be just the single most important contributor to our health, and that harnessing it could lead us to do some really unbelievable things.

Ellen Langer: Each of these studies, and we have so many new ones, tells me that we’ve only scratched the surface of what we’re capable of.

Paul Rand: Can you heal faster just by tricking your brain? Could you lose weight with just a change of mindset? Could you think your way into being younger?

Ellen Langer: Years ago, the medical model was such that disease was only caused by the introduction of an antigen, a virus, okay, some bad guy. And psychology was more or less irrelevant. And now there’s a belief that psychology matters, but I don’t think most people realize just how much it matters.

Paul Rand: The reason it matters is because of a concept called the mind-body connection. It’s this idea that your mind can affect your body, just as much as your body can affect your mind.

Ellen Langer: Essentially, people have been brought up in a world that believes in mind-body dualism. You have a mind, you have a body, then the question is how do you get from this fuzzy thing called a thought to something material called the body? So I look at this and I say, “Oh, they’re just words.” Let’s put mind and body back together. And if we treat it as one, then wherever the mind is, so too will be the body.

Paul Rand: So if you can reshape your mind with mindfulness, how could that change your body and your health? That’s the focus of her new book, the Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health.

Ellen Langer: And so then in many, many experiments, we put the mind in unusual places and take the measurements from the body. And the results are kind of astounding because what they suggest is that almost everything we think we know is wrong.

Paul Rand: Welcome to Big Brains where we translate the biggest ideas and complex discoveries into digestible brain food. Big brains, little bites from the University of Chicago Podcast Network. I’m your host, Paul Rand. On today’s episode, the link between mindfulness and our health. Help me understand what your definition of mindfulness is.

Ellen Langer: Okay, so mindfulness as we study it is not about meditation. It’s the very simple process of actively noticing new things. Everything is always changing. Everything looks different from different perspectives. Yet we think we know. And when we think we know, we don’t pay any attention. When you notice new things about the things you thought you knew, you come to see, “Gee, I didn’t really know it.” So then your attention naturally goes to it, and underneath it all is respect for uncertainty.

So by this noticing new things about the things you thought you knew and realizing, “Gee, I don’t know that.” Over time you’re going to, as I say, be more present. It’s kind of cute, people say, “Be in the moment.” That’s sweet, but I find it an empty instruction because when you’re not in the moment, you’re not there to know you’re not there. So the way to be there is this act of noticing. That my life changed when I was at this horse event. Remember, I’m Harvard, Yale, all the way through this man asked me, well I watched his horse because he wants to get his horse a hot dog. Being Harvard, Yale all the way through. I know no one knows better, horses are herbivorous, they don’t eat meat. He came back with the hot dog and the horse ate it. And then I realized everything I think I know could be wrong.

Paul Rand: Well, you make this point of one plus one isn’t always two. Is that kind of where you’re getting to on this?

Ellen Langer: I start many lectures with this just because when I first say, “How much is one and one?” I can hear that, “Oh.” The groans in the audience, then they’ll dutifully say two. And I say, “No, not always. If you add one cloud plus one cloud, one plus one is one. If you add one wad of chewing gum plus one wad of chewing gum, one plus one is one. If you add one pile of laundry plus laundry, one plus one is one. So in the real world, one plus one probably doesn’t equal two as often as it does.” So when somebody asks you how much is one plus one? And now you know that it doesn’t always equal two you, sit up and pay attention to the context, the answer to virtually any question is, it depends.

Paul Rand: Let’s go on with this definition of mindfulness, if we can Ellen, and talking about this whole mind-body connection, because that’s a big part of all of this too, isn’t it?

Ellen Langer: Well, many, many years ago I went to Paris on my honeymoon and I’m in a restaurant and I’m trying to be ever so sophisticated. And then I saw on the menu there was a mixed grill and had on among the items, pancreas. And so I was going to order this because now I was a woman of the world. So the dish finally comes and I asked my husband at the time, Which of these was the pancreas?” He pointed to something, I ate everything else. And now was the moment of truth. Could I get myself to eat the pancreas?

I start eating it and I’m getting sick to my stomach. Meanwhile, he starts laughing. I say, “Why are you laughing?” He said, “Because that’s chicken you ate the pancreas ages ago.” Okay, so it was my mind that was controlling my illness at the time. Even if you see somebody who’s vomiting, we then feel like we’re going to regurgitate ourselves. All right, so all of the experiments we’ve done keep taking you back to the idea that our mindsets have limited us enormously. The first study we did with this was many, many years ago. It’s called the Counterclockwise Study. I’m allowed to refer to it as a famous study because The Simpsons go to Havana, actually talk about the study.

Tape: A professor Ellen Langer did a story where seniors exposed to culture from the ‘50s became more vigorous and engaged.

Ellen Langer: What we did was very simple. We retrofitted a retreat to 20 years earlier and had elderly men live there as if they were their younger selves.

Paul Rand: These people walked into a room and what were they hit with? Because I just think it’s really quite fascinating. This was not a passive exercise.

Ellen Langer: How to say this in a way that is not demeaning to anybody, but when they first arrived to see if they could be in the study, they came with their adult daughters, typically. They were dottering down the hall. And I said to myself, “I’m not sure they’re going to live past today. No less be able to go through a week away.” So they were really vulnerable and firm, and almost immediately when they got to the retreat and their adult children, loving children were no longer there to baby them. Now they had to make the meals for themselves. They had to basically rise to the occasion.

Paul Rand: And when Langer’s team told them to act like their younger selves, they really meant it, to the point of making these men carry their own luggage up to their rooms. They even had to speak as though they were back in the 1950s.

Ellen Langer: So they spoke about the past in the present tense, and it had paintings, books, everything there represented 1959. They would be watching movies that were of that time and discuss them all in the present tense. There were political topics that they would have discussions about. And this very simple thing of people living as if they were their younger selves, so their minds are the younger selves, resulted in improvements in their vision, their hearing, their strength, their memory, and without any medical intervention. I don’t, I have never at least heard anybody in their 80s and 90s having vision and hearing improve without some medical intervention. And what was interesting is that they looked younger. We took photos of them at the beginning, photos at the end, we gave the photos for people to rate who had no idea about the study. Now, truth be told, they didn’t look 20 years younger, but still they looked noticeably younger.

Paul Rand: At the time, Langer was still new in her field and never sent the study for publication because she assumed it would be rejected. But since then, this experiment has been retested with similar results in Italy and even on a BBC documentary.

Ellen Langer: If we accept that mind and body are a single unit, then when you believe you can do it, your body is more prepared to do it, whatever the it is. I think that most of us assume that if your vision becomes worse, that it’s only going to get worse from then on. That when you get older, so let’s say my wrist hurts and I’m 76, I just assume, what are you going to do? As you get older you fall apart. Whereas if I were 20 years old and my wrist hurt, I’d assume it’s going to get better. And then I take steps to make it better, so that we really have no sense of what we’re capable of. We stop ourselves. We’re taught, when you’re old, things fall apart. As soon as we start to fall apart, we say that’s the end of the game. The Counterclockwise Study shows, well, that’s not necessarily true.

Paul Rand: In the decades to follow, Langer would publish numerous peer-reviewed studies that proved the same ideas such as her reverse eye chart studies.

Ellen Langer: So I’m in the doctor’s office and I’m asked to read the eye chart, and the first thing I realize is that we’re going from large letters to progressively smaller and smaller letters. And that’s leading me to expect that I’m not going to be able to see. What would happen, I asked if we reverse the eye chart? So now you start with small letters and your expectation is as you go down the chart, you’re going to be able to see. And we tested this and people were able to see what they couldn’t see before. In a similar way, I think many people start having trouble about two thirds of the way down the chart. So what we did is we created an eye chart that already started a third of the way down. So two thirds of the way down there were much smaller letters, and again, people were able to see what they couldn’t see before.

Paul Rand: Just fascinating.

Ellen Langer: I used to wear a contact lens in one eye so I could read, and one day I get home from the office, I’m getting ready to go to bed, and I try and take out the contact lens and I’m killing myself really almost injuring myself. I can’t get the thing out of my eye. And then I remembered, “Oh my gosh, I didn’t put it in the first place.”

Paul Rand: Oh my gosh.

Ellen Langer: Okay. And what then I did was realize I saw fine all day, from that point forward, I didn’t wear the contact lens. You see, what people don’t realize is that the eye chart shows you that you can’t see these tiny letters, then you buy glasses and then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So the Counterclockwise Study was the first in these mind-body unity studies. The next one we did was with chambermaids.

So this is a study Alia Crum and I did where we took chambermaids and the first thing we did was ask them, “How much exercise do you get?” And interestingly, they saw themselves as not getting any exercise because they thought exercise is what you do after work and after work they’re just too tired. So what we did was divide them into two groups and all we did was teach one group that their work was indeed exercise. That making a bed was like working at this machine at the gym and so on. As well as we could find, they didn’t change how hard they were working, they didn’t change what they were eating. Nevertheless, simply changing that part of their minds to now work as exercise, they lost weight, there was a change in waist to hip ratio, body mass index and their blood pressure came down.

Paul Rand: That’s just absolutely remarkable.

Ellen Langer: We did a study with people who have type two diabetes and they come into the lab and we take all sorts of measures. It’s always the case for all of these studies. And then we have them sit down and they’re going to play computer games. They’re told, change the game you’re playing every 15 minutes or so. That was just to ensure that they’d look at the clock. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. For a third of the people, the clock was actually going twice as fast as real time. For a third of the people, it was going half as fast as real time. For a third of the people, it was real time. And what we found was that blood sugar level followed perceived time, not real time.

Paul Rand: In a second study with people who have diabetes, Langer’s team had subjects drink different beverages. Some were labeled as having more sugar than others, but secretly they all really had the same amount. Incredibly, the study found that people’s blood glucose levels spiked when they drank the beverages they believed had more sugar.

Ellen Langer: We have a newer study, Peter Aungle and I completed where we inflict a wound. The Human Subjects Committee is not going to let us, nor would I want to really hurt people. So we give people a minor wound and they’re sitting in front of a clock. Again, the clock is going twice as fast as real time, half as fast as real time or real time. And the question we’re asking is, will the wound heal based on clock time, which is perceived time or real time? And the answer again was perceived time.

Paul Rand: Remarkable. All right, well let’s go outside the lab for a moment. And so if I go off and I have a full fledged Mexican Coke, lots of good cane sugar in it, is that going to affect my body differently if I think of it as not fully loaded with sugar, then it would be otherwise? How far can my mind help me do this?

Ellen Langer: I don’t know what the limit is. What we want to do is assume that we haven’t come anywhere close to testing the limits of what we’re capable of. Years and years ago when I was at the medical school in the division of aging, I called Jack Rowe who was a chair then, and I said, “Jack, how long does it take for a broken finger to heal?” And he said, “A week.” I said, “What would you say if I could do it in five days?” He said, “All right.” I said, “What about four days?” He said, “All right.” I said, “What about three days?” He said, “No.” I said, “Okay, what about three days and 23 hours?” You get the point that where is the point where here you can and here you can’t. Right? So I think in that same vein that whatever we can do, we probably can do it even a little better, faster, more competently. But when we stop and assume we can’t then that we’re declaring it over prematurely.

Paul Rand: Well, one area that this absolutely applies to probably everybody listening is sleep. And we in our own minds think of I’ve had enough sleep or not enough sleep. And you’ve done studies on that too, right?

Ellen Langer: Yeah, yeah. I’m big with these clocks.

Paul Rand: You are.

Ellen Langer: This is another clock study. So we have people in the sleep lab, we did this at Harvard Medical School. All sorts of measures are taken again, and then the person goes to sleep. And unbeknownst to them, we change the clock in the room so that upon awakening, they see they’ve gotten two hours more sleep than they have, two hours fewer or the amount of sleep that they did get. And then we give them all sorts of tests, and all the biological and cognitive psychological tests again, were related to perceived amount of sleep rather than real sleep.

Paul Rand: That fatigue, I guess is as much if not more of a mental construct than it is a physical one.

Ellen Langer: Yes, and we have lots of data that are reported in The Mindful Body on fatigue. The first of these that we did way back when, was if I ask people to do 200 jumping jacks and then tell me, and we can see from physiological indicators when they get tired. So let’s say do a hundred. Okay, a hundred jumping jacks. They get tired at around 70. Now we have another group and their task is to do 200 jumping decks. They don’t get tired until 140. So I think that we can push fatigue around quite a bit. You’re totally exhausted, you go home and then you go play basketball. It doesn’t make sense if you’re tired, right? So context determines a large part of our fatigue.

Paul Rand: But there is back to your finger healing incident. There is a baseline of ie. How much sleep an average person genuinely needs for their body? I mean, the answer is not zero sleep I’m assuming, there is some baseline number.

Ellen Langer: There may be. But why start at that place? Most people want to sleep. Sleep is good. It’s nurturing in so many ways, but if something prevents you from getting a full night’s sleep, that’s where all of this work becomes very important. And I don’t want, I’m not suggesting that we don’t have limits. What I’m suggesting is that we don’t know what the limits are. And to start with the idea of being limited ends up limiting us.

Paul Rand: So you may be wondering, how can I put the results of these studies to use in my own life? And what does it look like to live mindfully? Anyway, that’s after the break. Have you ever wondered who you are but didn’t know who to ask? Well then join Professor Eric Oliver as he poses the nine most essential questions for knowing yourself, to some of humanity’s wisest and most interesting people. Nine Questions with Eric Oliver, part of the University of Chicago podcast Network, Big Brains is supported by the University of Chicago Graham School. Are you a lifelong learner with an insatiable curiosity? Join us at Graham and access more than 50 open enrollment courses every quarter in literature, history, religion, science, and more. We open the doors of UChicago to learners everywhere. Expand your mind and advance your leadership. Online and in-person offerings are available. Learn more at graham.uchicago.edu/bigbrains.

Let’s talk, continue about this idea of changing health. And there’s a mechanism that you talk about called attention to variability.

Ellen Langer: Yeah, this is very important, Paul, because we know from the chambermaid study, from lots of our studies on the studies of other people that possibly the most powerful medication out there is a placebo, but it’s hard to give yourself a placebo. So for a placebo, you’d still need somebody to give you that medication. And then it occurred to me, no matter what symptom we’re experiencing, it doesn’t stay constant.

Let’s just take stress. It’s the same thing for people’s behavior, for stress, for chronic health, any illness, people who are stressed, think they’re distressed all the time. Nobody is stressed all the time. The problem is that when you’re not stressed, you’re not thinking about whether or not you’re stressed. You’re just being, and then you have the stress again. Okay, so if I were to call you periodically throughout the day, throughout the week and say, “How do you feel now, Paul? How stressed are you?” You’d see that it varies. And if it varies, then the question is for us to ask ourselves, “Well, why am I in less pain right now? Why am I less stressed right now?” The search for, “Why now?”, makes you mindful, and if you look for a solution, I think you’re more likely to find it.

Paul Rand: Langer and her team put this concept to the test with patients who suffer from chronic illnesses. The results were surprising.

Ellen Langer: So what we did was we took people with all sorts of disorders, chronic illness, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, stroke, chronic pain, arthritis, and many, many disorders. We called them periodically throughout the day, the experimental group, and asked them, “How are you now? And is it better or worse than before? And why?” And there are significant improvements across the board for all of these disorders.

Paul Rand: Amazing.

Ellen Langer: Now you might say, “Well, isn’t that just like taking a placebo? You need somebody to call you?” Not really just set your phone, your smartphone to ring in an hour and ask yourself the question, how am I now? Is it better or worse than before? And why? And then set it again for three hours, an hour and a half, vary the times. And over time, I think that most people will see improvement, but it’s also in a social psychological sense. Are you married?

Paul Rand: I am.

Ellen Langer: And there must be something your wife always does that drives you crazy.

Paul Rand: Nothing whatsoever.

Ellen Langer: Oh, you’re a saint, I’m sure she’ll appreciate that. But okay, there’s something about you that drives her crazy.

Paul Rand: That’s entirely likely.

Ellen Langer: Okay. And that she thinks you always do this thing, but you don’t always do it. And it would irritate her less if she were able to see, gee, it only occurs under these small set of circumstances. So the main idea behind that goes back to where we started that everything is changing, everything looks different from different perspectives, and we mindlessly try to hold things still. And when we hold things still, we’re holding it still with our mind. It’s still varying. We’re giving up the control that we’re actually seeking.

Paul Rand: If it’s not clear already, Langer is quite critical of our modern healthcare establishment. She thinks that it’s disregard from mindfulness and psychology more generally may be harming patients.

Ellen Langer: It’s most important for people to understand that medical data, like all science, only gives us probabilities. And those probabilities are translated in textbooks and in talks, magazines as absolute facts. And it’s very important because when you’re given a diagnosis, it’s really a maybe, it says most of the people who look like this are victims of this or that set of symptoms. Not, you will experience this.

Paul Rand: You talk about also in the book the borderline effect in relation to this.

Ellen Langer: Yeah. So let’s say for argument’s sake that you and I took an IQ test, and on this IQ test, you got 70, but I got 69. Now that would be the cutoff point that would make me cognitively deficient and you’re perfectly normal. But no one in their right mind would think that there’s a meaningful difference between 69 and 70. I might have sneezed and misread the question. There’s no meaningful difference. From that point forward, I’m treated as if I am mentally incompetent, you’re treated as competent. It becomes self-fulfilling over time, right? So we started studying this with diabetes. Those people who were at the borderline who were told they were pre-diabetic, and those not meaningfully different, right beneath them at the borderline were told this, were more likely the first group was more likely to become diabetic.

Paul Rand: Really amazing. One of the questions you asked about is what would happen if instead of being given an expectation for average healing time, we were told the quickest known time someone took to heal, and would we heal faster?

Ellen Langer: Yeah, we’re in the process of studying that. But again, you know that the doctor tells you it’s going to take three months to heal and you broke your leg, let’s say for example. And so then you set your expectations for three months in the future. You don’t do anything to make yourself heal sooner. But when the doctor is saying that there are some people who’ve healed much more quickly and others probably much more slowly. So what we are doing in the study is having the doctors say, some people heal as quickly as and give the quickest healing time. And I expect that people will heal that quickly.

Paul Rand: If we tie this into like everybody’s listening to this saying, all right, I want to start applying this to my own life, and this idea of living mindfully, and you talked about this, it means reassessing things and questioning things on a day-to-day basis. And so how about this idea about how we think about and talk about risk-taking and prediction and how all these things tie together?

Ellen Langer: Yeah, this is a big one. People think they can predict and prediction is an illusion.

Paul Rand: Tell me, predict what?

Ellen Langer: Anything. All prediction is an illusion. So that I say to my class, this is an advanced seminar in decision-making, right? Harvard students. And I say, okay, I have taught a version of this course for the last 40 years. I have never missed a class, never. What is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week? Predict how likely it is. And they go around the room, and these are Harvard students, so they don’t give simple answers. They say 97%. So essentially they’re all saying, I will be there. Now I say to them, okay, I want to go around the room again and I want each of you to give me a good reason why I might not be here next week. And the first person always says, well, you’ve always been here, you deserve the time off. The next person says, your dog had to go to the vet.

The next person said you had a flat tire. And we get 13,14 of these explanations. Now I say, okay, what is the likelihood I’m going to be here next week? And the 100% drops to 50%. What people don’t realize is that making decisions depends on being able to predict. If you can’t predict, then, oh my goodness, how can you make decisions? And so we have a mindful theory of decision-making, which becomes very simple. Then the bottom line is, you don’t do any cost benefit analysis, certainly not before you’re making the decision. Everything you’re deciding is between or among things that are the same or different. If they have a same, it makes no difference, randomly choose one. If they’re different, if I say to you, do you want A or B? You say, I don’t know. I said, do you want a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars?

You want a thousand dollars? So once you know what the A and B are, you don’t have to do any cost benefit analysis. It just unfolds. The other reason that it makes no sense to do a cost benefit analysis is every cost is also a benefit, every benefit is also a cost. Events don’t have positive or negative attached to them, we attach it.

So let me skip to the chase, which is rather than drive yourself crazy trying to make the right decision, you should make the decision right. Stress, I think, is the number one killer. Most people take stress as just the way things are, I don’t. But if you said to yourself, stress relies on two things. First, a belief that something’s going to happen, and when it happens, it’s going to be awful. So whatever you’re stressed about, give yourself three, four reasons why it might not happen. And then all of a sudden the world opens up, hey, maybe I won’t get fired. Maybe he or she won’t leave me, what have you. But then go to the next step and say to yourself, let’s assume it does happen. How is it an advantage?

Paul Rand: If you’re giving advice to folks and they’ve gotten through this book and they understand it intellectually, and they say, how do I practice this with great regularity? How do I think about it in a way that’s going to stick? How do you answer them?

Ellen Langer: I think there are a couple of things. If we’re raising children and educating people in schools, we want to teach them to be conditional, rather than absolute. If you’re taking up a new sport as an adult and someone says, here, this is the way you hold the tennis racket, well, may be for you, but not necessarily for me. So you translate that yourself and you say, sort of, it could be like that. You make it conditional and so that you’re doing what’s best for you, not what’s best for the person who derived the activity in the first place. So everything we learn, we now should be learning in this more conditional, mindful way. It’s very hard to undo the mindlessness whenever we’re feeling we can’t, whenever we’re feeling bad, because at those moments, we’re going to be looking for ways to get out of that uncomfortable feeling. Then we call up this information, I think life will take a very positive turn for us.

Matt Hodapp: Big Brains is a production of the University of Chicago Podcast Network. If you like what you heard, please leave us a rating and a review. The show is hosted by Paul M. Rand and produced by me, Matt Hodapp and Lea Ceasrine. Thanks for listening.

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