If there is anything we thought we could be sure of, it’s that time moves in only one direction. That was the prevailing view anyway, right up until my mentor Ellen Langer proved it wrong with one brilliant stroke.
In 1979, Langer designed a week-long experiment on a group of 75-year-old men. The men knew little about the nature of the experiment except that they would be gone for a week at a retreat center, and they could bring along no pictures, newspapers, magazines or books dated later than 1959.
When they arrived, the men were gathered into a room and told that for the next week, they were to pretend as though it was the year 1959—a time when these 75-year-old men were merely 55 years young. To reinforce the scenario, they were supposed to dress and act like they did at the time, and they were given ID badges with pictures of themselves in their mid-50s. Over the course of the week, they were instructed to talk about President Eisenhower and other events in their lives that had happened at that time. Some took to referring to their old jobs in the present tense, as if they had never retired. Life and Saturday Evening Post issues from 1959 were displayed on the coffee tables. In short, everything was designed to make them see the world through the lens of being 55.
Langer is a rogue psychologist. For nearly 40 years, she has challenged the expectations of the scientific community in ways no one saw coming. True to form, in this case, she had a truly radical hypothesis. She wanted to prove that our “mental construction”—the way we conceive of ourselves—has a direct influence upon the physical aging process. Langer had other words for it, but essentially she was arguing that by moving the fulcrum and level of these 75-year-old men, she could change the “objective” reality of their age.
And that is exactly what happened. Before the retreat, the men were tested on every aspect we assume deteriorates with age: physical strength, posture, perception, cognition and short-term memory. After the retreat, most of the men had improved in every category; they were significantly more flexible, had better posture, and even much-improved hand strength. Their average eyesight even improved by almost 10 percent, as did their performance on tests of memory. In more than half the men, intelligence, long thought to be fixed from adolescence, moved up as well. Even their physical appearance changed; random people who didn’t know anything about the experiment were shown pictures of the men both before and after the experiment, and asked to guess their age. Based on these objective ratings, the men looked, on average, three years young than when they arrived. This flew in the face of everything we thought we understood about physiology and aging, and revealed radical new implications about the power of mindset to shape reality.
Our external “reality” is far more malleable than many of us think, and far more dependent on the eyes through which we view it. With the right mindset, our power to dictate this reality—and in turn the results of our actions—increases exponentially.