In this case, “it’s all in your head” is the sweetest words we’ll ever read.
Bruce Grierson’s New York Times feature on the work of Dr. Ellen Langer (published a few years ago, still relevant today) is a truly captivating overview of her surreal experiments on the power of the placebo effect—especially when it comes to aging. Dr. Langer is one of Harvard’s most infamous and controversial professors, and the possible implications of her work are incredibly exciting for many fields.
If you’ve ever taken a psychology course, you may remember Dr. Langer from her experiment on nursing home residents, which concluded that entrusting elderly patients with the care of houseplants statistically increased lifespan. Grierson is more concerned, however, with Langer’s lesser-known experiment, deemed the New Hampshire study. In 1981, Langer sent eight men in their 70’s back in time—creating a controlled environment filled with 1950’s era relics and no visible reminders of the present day, including mirrors. The men were encouraged to fully assimilate to the time travel, recreating their past selves in period-appropriate conversation and comparatively vigorous activity.
When the men emerged five days later from the 1950’s, traveling 22 years into the present day, they appeared to exhibit signs of reverse aging. Langer’s team reported that they looked and acted younger, even demonstrating improved eyesight. But Langer, fearful that the results were too far from the norm of current scientific study, never published the experiment’s findings.
What Langer witnessed in the New Hampshire subjects continued to reverberate in her later experiments concerning the power of mind over body. For all of us, the concept that age really is only a number, is a tantalizing one. If only we could surround ourselves in décor of the decade of our youth…
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