We have far more control over our health and well-being than is commonly assumed. Unfortunately, the medical world is essentially steeped in static views of mind/body dualism. As long as you subscribe to this perspective, the full control of the mind over the body is overlooked. Within this dualistic model, the perplexing question is how do you get from something immaterial (the mind) to something material (the body)? It is important to note, however, that mind/body dualism is simply a theory. If instead of mind/body dualism, we consider mind/body unity, the problem goes away.
These thoughts began many decades ago. We tested increasing control for nursing home residents by giving them simple choices to make: a plant to take care of, whether or not to see a movie, and if so on which night. The comparison group was given tender love and care. They were given a plant but told the nurses would take care of it, and they were told when the movie night was. When we returned to the nursing home 18 months later, we found that this small intervention resulted in an increase in longevity for those provided with choices. Half as many people had died as in the tender loving care group. This work helped usher in mind/body medicine.
How does choice work? If you’re given a choice between two things and you much prefer one of them, it hardly feels like a choice at all. For choice to be effective, it has to lead the person to notice things about the alternatives. This act of noticing has become the hallmark of forty years of my work on mindfulness without meditation. When you notice new things, neurons are firing and it turns out to be literally and figuratively enlivening.
If we presume mind/body unity, we reap enormous health benefits. Everybody accepts the efficacy of placebos, at least with regard to some disorders. But how do you explain the placebo? How is it that you take a pill that’s inert and medical symptoms are ameliorated?
The first study explicitly testing mind/body unity was conducted in 1979. It’s referred to now as the counterclockwise study. We retrofitted a retreat to twenty years earlier and had elderly men live there for a week as if they were their younger selves. They spoke about the past in the present tense. As a result of putting the mind back in time, we found improvements in vision, hearing, strength, and memory. Moreover, they looked noticeably younger at the end of the week. Can you imagine such improvements in any adults without medical interventions, let alone elderly adults?
A few decades later, we conducted a study about exercise with chambermaids. We asked chambermaids how much exercise they get and surprisingly they saw themselves as not getting any exercise. This is because everyone up to and including the surgeon general sees exercise as something you mainly do before or after work. The study was very straightforward. We simply taught half of the chambermaids to recognize that their work was indeed exercise. With only this simple change in mindset, the group that now saw their work as exercise experienced decreases in weight, waist-hip ratio, body-mass index, and blood pressure.
Another mind/body test concerned vision. When we go to the doctor and are shown the Snelling eye chart, we quickly notice that the letters get progressively smaller as we look down the chart. This creates the expectation that soon you will not be able to see. We reversed the eye chart so that now the letters got progressively larger, and people were able to see what they couldn’t see before.
A more recent test of the mind/body unity idea was conducted with people who had Type 2 diabetes. Participants would arrive at the lab, be given several blood tests, and then randomly divided into three groups. All of them were asked to play computer games and to change the game they were playing about every fifteen minutes or so to ensure they would look at the clock next to the computer. For one group of participants, the clock was going twice as fast as real time. For the second group, the clock was going half as fast. For the third group, the clock was real time. The question we were asking was would blood sugar level follow real or perceived time? The answer was perceived time.
In a second diabetes study, people consumed a beverage where the label indicated it contained sugar or it was sugar free. When they erroneously thought the drink contained sugar, their blood sugar level spiked. When they erroneously though the drink was sugar free, their blood sugar level remained flat.
In yet another recent mind/body unity study, people who came to the lab were given all sorts of health tests and were then divided into groups. Those in the experimental group came into another room and viewed on a large video screen people coughing and sneezing, clearly ill. The room was surrounded with props to prime a cold: chicken soup, vaseline, and tissues. The comparison group saw a neutral video in the same room but without the cold-priming props. The question we were asking was, would people get a cold without the introduction of a cold virus? The answer was again, yes.
A question people are often concerned with is how much sleep do we actually need to perform mundate tasks. We had subjects in a sleep lab wake up to see a clock that told them they got two hours more sleep than they actually got, two hours fewer, or the actual amount. Biological and cognitive functioning again followed perceived time, not real time.
Thus there seems to be a good deal of evidence mounting to suggest the enormous control our minds have over the illnesses we experience. But how can people harness this control on their own without the introduction of clocks, videos, etc.? The answer is illustrated by another series of studies we have recently conducted on attention to symptom variability.
Most people, when sick, notice when they have the symptoms endemic to their disorder. But nothing stays the same. There are always changes, increases and decreases, and even times when there are no symptoms, regardless of the disorder. It turns out that the key to health may be to notice when we don’t have the symptoms. When people don’t have symptoms, they just get on with their lives. If all you notice is when you have symptoms, it’s easy to think that you have the symptoms all the time.
In these studies, we are going to teach people to attend to symptom variability. We call people at random times throughout the day and ask them three questions: do they have a symptom now? If so, is it more or less than the last time we spoke? And, why? This does three things. First, it makes people aware that they don’t have the symptoms all the time to equal measure. Second, by asking why now, why is it greater or lesser than before, they begin a mindful search, which over forty years of our research shows is good for our health. And finally, you’re more likely to find a solution if you are looking for one.
We’ve done these studies with people who have multiple sclerosis, ALS, depression, stress, chronic pain, and arthritis, with success in each case. Ongoing studies include Parkinson’s, stroke, infertility, endometriosis, and migraines.
This procedure can easily be self-adminstered rather than needing another person to act as a prompt. If one simply sets their watch or smartphone to ring in an hour, they ask themselves these three questions. After that, they set their phone to ring two hours later, and so on. To make things easier, we’re currently creating an app to facilitate this process.
When we treat the mind and body as a single unit, enormous control over our health results. For too long, the standard and mindless practice in health and medical research of ignoring results that do not fit neatly into the prevailing concept of mind/body duality has reduced the amount and the quality of life that people can have. It is time to stop sacrificing human health on the altar of an outdated theory.
Langer, E. & Rodin, J. (1976). The effects of enhanced personal responsibility for the aged: A field experiment in and institutional setting. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 34, 191-198.
Levy, B. & Langer, E. (1995). Shifting the balance of power from nursing home staff to residents. Nursing Home Economics.
Levy, B., Jennings, P. & Langer, E. (2001). Improving attention in older adults. Journal of Adult Development, 8, 189-192.
Langer, E. Counterclockwise: The Psychology of Possibility, NY: Ballentine, (translated into nine languages), 2009.
Langer, E., Madenci, A., Djikic, M., Pirson, M. and Donahue, R., (2010). Believing Is Seeing: Using Mindlessness (Mindfully) to Improve Visual Acuity. Psychological Science, 21(5), 662-666.
Langer, E., (2011). A Mindful Alternative to the Mind/Body Problem. Journal of Cosmology.
Langer E. (2012). The Mindless Use of Medical Data. Journal of Business Research, 65(11), 1651-1653.
Langer, E. Mindfulness. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley (translated into eighteen languages), 1989/2014.
Park, C., Pagnini, F., Reece, A., Phillips, D., & Langer, E. (2016). Blood sugar level follows time perception rather than actual time in people with type II diabetes. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 113 (29), 8168-170.
Shadab A. Rahmana, Dharmishta Roodc, Natalie Trent, Jo Soletb, Ellen J. Langer, Steven W. Lockley “Manipulating sleep duration perception changes cognitive performance – An T exploratory analysis” Journal of Psychosomatic Research 132 (2020) 109992 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychores.2020.109992