Can We “Think” Ourselves Young?
The adage “you are as old as you think you are” has particular meaning in discussing how the brain and the body interpret your thoughts. Dr. Ellen Langer, Harvard professor of psychology and the designer of the Counterclockwise Study, studied this concept.
Dr. Langer designed the Counterclockwise Study to put older people in an environment to recall their lives 20 years in the past.
In the 1970s, researchers chose eight men in their late 70s and early 80s to take part in a research study. First, the researchers administered a series of tests of physical ability (e.g., grip strength) and mental ability (e.g., memory).
The participants then lived for five days in a house decorated to look as if it was set up in the 1950s. For the sake of the study, all media in the house was consistent with 50s media offerings. The men were asked to only discuss things relevant to the 1950s.
At the end of the five days, researchers administered the same tests. The physical tests showed improvement in strength and mobility and the mental tests showed improvements in memory and other cognitive areas.
Dr. Ellen Langer observed that the men looked younger, moved with more agility and seemed happier. Interesting enough, a UK television series duplicated the study and produced similar outcomes.
This study is really fascinating because it may be one of the first studies conducted in the West to probe the mind-body connection.
The mind-body connection is defined as the way thoughts and emotions can affect the body. This concept, accepted in the East, was not well known in the West in the 1970s.
Nowadays, there are many research projects testing the mind-body connection. As an early researcher in this area, Dr. Ellen Langer noticed that as we convince the mind, the body follows. The brain’s reality is in its inputs, so if you are feeling old, acting old, believe you are old – your body will follow and be old.
Feeling old physically and mentally could very well hasten the afflictions of old age. It then becomes a vicious feedback loop. The older the body feels, the older the brain thinks we are, which in turn makes the body feel even older.
How Do We “Think Young”?
You can break the patterns of old thoughts and replace them with more positive thoughts via meditation and building new thinking habits.
Meditation trains the mind to be in the present, not regretting the past nor planning the future. Learning meditation takes time, but here is a simple way to start.
First, find a quiet place and take a few deep breaths. This trains the body to relax and signals that meditation is starting. Create an affirmation, a song or a visualisation confirming that you are young in your thoughts, attitudes and relationships.
For example, an affirmation may be “I am resilient.” This is an excellent way to tell the brain, and then the body, that you do not believe that you are old. Repeat this activity daily for the duration that feels right for you.
Building New Pathways in the Brain
The brain builds pathways (ways of thinking) at each event we experience. When something occurs in a pattern similar to a previous event, the brain will send us down those same ways of thinking we had developed in the past.
We have to encourage our brain to build new pathways if we want to think in a new way. This requires new messages to ourselves.
Every time you think “I am too old to do X,” change the message to either “I am young enough to do X,” or “I don’t want to do X.”
Those are different messages. The brain will perceive them as different from previous thinking and build new pathways. And, it won’t send a message to the body it is too old to do X.
The adage “you are as old as you think you are” is now even more relevant as current brain research confirms its truth. Tell your brain through your actions, feelings and beliefs that you are a vital and contributing member of society.
Changing the messages you tell yourself can positively impact how you feel emotionally and physically. We can ‘think’ ourselves young but we can also ‘think’ ourselves older than we are or want to be.
Have you ever found yourself using your age as an excuse for not doing something? What do you think of the idea of “thinking yourself young?” Have you tried any methods to change your way of thinking? Please share your experiences below.
After taking early retirement as a policy officer, Stephanie Cunningham moved to Australia and earned general and specialized certifications to teach senior yoga. She taught classes for 10 years, then started a podcast about changing the perception of yoga. She is now launching a podcast about planning a fulfilling retirement.