Prof Langer recruited a group of elderly men all in their late 70s or 80s for what she described as a “week of reminiscence”. They were not told they were taking part in a study into ageing, an experiment that would transport them 20 years back in time.
The psychologist wanted to know if she could put the mind back 20 years would the body show any changes.
The men were split into two groups. They would both be spending a week at a retreat outside of Boston.
But while the first group, the control, really would be reminiscing about life in the 50s, the other half would be in a timewarp. Surrounded by props from the 50s the experimental group would be asked to act as if it was actually 1959.
They watched films, listened to music from the time and had discussions about Castro marching on Havana and the latest Nasa satellite launch – all in the present tense.
Dr Langer believed she could reconnect their minds with their younger and more vigorous selves by placing them in an environment connected with their own past lives.
And she was determined to remove any prompt for them to behave as anything but healthy individuals. The retreat was not equipped with rails or any gadgets that would help older people. Right from the off she was determined to ensure they looked after themselves.
One man discarded his walking stick
When they got off the bus at the retreat, Prof Langer did not help the men carry their suitcases in. “I told them they could move them an inch at a time, they could unpack them right at the bus and take up a shirt at a time.”
The men were entirely immersed in an era when they were 20 years younger.
Understandably, Prof Langer herself had doubts. “You have to understand, when these people came to see if they could be in the study and they were walking down the hall to get to my office, they looked like they were on their last legs, so much so that I said to my students ‘why are we doing this? It’s too risky’.”
But soon the men were making their own meals. They were making their own choices. They weren’t being treated as incompetent or sick.
Pretty soon she could see a difference. Over the days, Prof Langer began to notice that they were walking faster and their confidence had improved. By the final morning one man had even decided he could do without his walking stick.
As they waited for the bus to return them to Boston, Prof Langer asked one of the men if he would like to play a game of catch, within a few minutes it had turned into an impromptu game of “touch” American football.
Obviously this kind of anecdotal evidence does not count for much in a study.
But Prof Langer took physiological measurements both before and after the week and found the men improved across the board. Their gait, dexterity, arthritis, speed of movement, cognitive abilities and their memory was all measurably improved.
Their blood pressure dropped and, even more surprisingly, their eyesight and hearing got better. Both groups showed improvements, but the experimental group improved the most.
Prof Langer believes that by encouraging the men’s minds to think younger their bodies followed and actually became “younger”.
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Turns out merely being nostalgic has notable affects on making you feel less lonely:
Four studies tested whether nostalgia can counteract reductions in perceived social support caused by loneliness. Loneliness reduced perceptions of social support but increased nostalgia. Nostalgia, in turn, increased perceptions of social support. Thus, loneliness affected perceived social support in two distinct ways. Whereas the direct effect of loneliness was to reduce perceived social support, the indirect effect of loneliness was to increase perceived social support via nostalgia. This restorative function of nostalgia was particularly apparent among resilient persons. Nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health.
Source: “Counteracting Loneliness: On the Restorative Function of Nostalgia” in the journal “Psychological Science”
More on the power of nostalgia (and how it can make you happier) here.
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The Atlantic Monthly reports that Facebook is keeping tabs on the national mood via its Gross National Happiness Index. It “counts the number of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ words used in each status update, converts them to percentages, finds average percents based on all users that day, then subtracts the ‘negative percent’ from the ‘positive percent’ to get a value for the y axis—but the results are clear: Weekends and holidays are better than midweek, and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day ’09 recorded more happiness than ’08 (probably because more celebrating moms and dads had Facebook pages in ’09.) And the bottom line: Despite a deepening recession and prolonged wars, Americans seemed to be happier in 2009 than 2008.”
Raw data here.
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Researchers used the placebo effect to successfully treat psoriasis patients with one quarter to one half of their usual dose of a widely used steroid medication, according to an early study published online today in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine. Early results in human patients suggest that the new technique could improve treatment for several chronic diseases that involve mental state or the immune system, including asthma, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.
By designing treatment regimens that mix active drug and placebo, researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center hope to maximize drug benefits, reduce side effects, increase the number of patients who take their medicine and extend the use of drugs otherwise limited by addiction risk or toxicity. Using a fraction of the usual drug dose to get the same effect could also make possible a dramatic and timely reduction in healthcare costs, according to the authors.
The publication is a product of decades of research in the emerging field of “psychoneuro-immunology,” which holds that the ability of the human immune system to fight disease is closely linked with a person’s mind. Thoughts and moods are captured in neurochemicals that cause the release of hormones which interact with disease-fighting cells.
The current research team chose psoriasis for their first human experiments because it is chronic, gets worse when patients feel stress and involves the immune system. The condition causes pain and disability in four million Americans as inherited traits and irritants cause the immune system to trigger the too fast production of skin cells, resulting in red, scaly patches of dead skin.
“Our study provides evidence that the placebo effect can make possible the treatment of psoriasis with an amount of drug that should be too small to work,” said Robert Ader, Ph.D., M.D.(hc), distinguished university professor in the University of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry. “While these results are preliminary, we believe the medical establishment needs to recognize the mind’s reaction to medication as a powerful part of many drug effects, and start taking advantage of it,” said Ader, principal investigator of the study. The placebo effect, obviously, cannot help unconscious patients, or replace substances that the body itself is unable to produce, he added. In the absence of functioning islet cells, for example, placebos cannot stimulate the release of insulin in a Type l diabetic.
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