Aging Backwards: The Counterclockwise Study

Did You Know…that age may be no more than a state of mind, and that you can age “counter-clockwise?”

The saying goes, “You’re only as old as you feel,” but the truth may be that you’re only as old as you think.  Ellen Langer, the longest-serving professor of psychology at Harvard, says that the root of good or bad health is within your own brain.

The evidence behind Langer’s ideas comes from a revolutionary experiment she carried out in 1981.  She called it the counterclockwise study.

A (Psychological) Trip Back in Time 

Langer’s 1981 experiment focused on two groups of men in their 70s.  Each group spent 5 days at a converted monastery set up to appear as if the year was 1959.  Everything from books… to magazines… to television programs… to the music playing on the radio was intended to make the men feel that the clocks had turned back 22 years.  For one group, a special component was introduced: a psychological prime.

A mental prime is something that triggers the body to heal itself.  In the counterclockwise study, the prime was twofold:

 First, the men were told that if they made a psychological attempt to be the person they were 22 years ago, they would feel just as young as they had then.

 Second, each man brought a picture of his younger self.  No mirrors were allowed, nor anything else that could disrupt the fantasy.
At the start of the experiment, the men took a comprehensive battery of tests that scored them on metrics including…

  • Dexterity
  • Grip strength
  • Flexibility
  • Hearing
  • Vision
  • Memory
  • Cognition

Langer hypothesized that these measures would improve after the five-day stay at the monastery—and she was right.  At the end, the men outperformed the control group in terms of flexibility and dexterity.  Independent judges noted that they sat taller and looked younger.  Perhaps most impressively, their vision even improved.

Despite the incredible findings, Langer chose not to widely publish the results of the counterclockwise study.  At the time, no one was talking about mind-body medicine.  She worried that her work was too different to be accepted.

Counter-Clockwise Findings Go Public 

In 2010, BBC broadcast a televised recreation of the study, and Langer’s work finally reached a wider audience.  Her study was replicated by the station for a show they called “The Young Ones,” and the new experiment created the same dramatic changes as the original had in 1981.  Similar experiments were subsequently filmed in South Korea and the Netherlands.

Aging is not the only physical process Langer has linked to a person’s self-perception.  Her 200-plus studies often manipulate subjects’ perceptions of time in order to measure effects on health.

For example, Langer conducted a diabetes study using a special clock that could be set at either half-speed or double-speed in order to alter subjects’ understanding of how much time had passed.  She theorized that a subject’s blood-glucose levels would vary based on perceived time passed, not actual time passed.  As with the counterclockwise study, she was right: the patients’ blood sugar spiked when they expected it to rather than in accordance with real time since eating.

Likewise, Tibetan monks can use meditation to lower their blood pressure, and behavioral changes have helped improved symptoms of hypertension.  The more researchers like Langer learn about the way our minds work, the more it seems that the best cures available to us may be psychological.