relaxation response

The art of mindfully talking to yourself

A lot of people find it easier to practice with guided meditations than when they “fly solo.” And that’s not surprising. When we have a guide then we have a voice coming in from the outside, bringing with it skills that aren’t yet our own.

The guide’s voice also performs the useful function of interrupting our distracted trains of thought. Without those interruptions reminding us of what we’re actually meant to be doing in the meditation practice we’d remain in distracted states for much longer. A lot of our distractions involve us talking to ourselves.

Generally, then there’s a big difference between the effects of our distracting inner voices and the helpful outer voice of the teacher.

But what if we could get our inner voices to be more helpful? What if they could help us to stay on track, and to be less distracted?

Meditate Like a Train Conductor

In explaining how we can do this I’d like to share with you the Japanese art of shisa kanko, which literally means “pointing and calling.”

Shisa kanko isn’t a meditation technique. It evolved in noisy and distracting working environments where it was important not to make errors. But it does have the aim of helping people to be less distracted and more mindful — especially when they’re doing repetitive tasks that they’re very familiar with. Shisa Kanko the mindful art of talking to yourself.

Japanese railway workers have been using this tool for more than a hundred years. A train conductor pulling into a station will talk themselves through the procedures involved, pointing at things they need to check and naming them out loud. It’s a mental checklist that they’re reciting to themselves as a mindfulness aid.

It’s a remarkably effective method of performing a task mindfully. A 1994 study showed that “pointing and calling” reduced mistakes by almost 85 percent when doing a simple task. In fact, using this method, there were only 0.38 errors for every 100 times a task was done.

Reducing the “Error Rate” in Our Meditation

Now consider that meditation is a repetitive task. And it’s an internal one, without the kind of external and objective demands that a task like bringing a train into a station imposes. If a conductor were to forget to unlock the doors, the passengers would soon remind them. If you start thinking about work during your meditation, your mind can wander a long way before you remind yourself of your intended task.

We don’t talk in terms of “errors” in meditation, but if we did we’d say there was a very high error rate — maybe in the range of 40 to 80 percent for the average person who’s been meditating for a few years. If only we could get down to 0.38 distractions in meditation for every hundred breaths!

As you know, I’ve led a lot of guided meditations. And one of the things I’ve noticed many times over the years is that my meditation practice tends to be more effective while I’m leading a sit. And that’s maybe not surprising, since I’m doing, in effect, shisa kanko (minus the pointing). While I’m leading others in meditation I’m also leading myself.

How to be Your Own Meditation Guide

So sometimes when I’m meditating on my own I offer myself a few words of self-guidance. Often this is just a few words. As I’m settling in to meditate I might say to myself, “Poise … dignity … softening.” Each of those words acts as a trigger for a cascade of inner changes, both physical and emotional. The words poise and dignity trigger my body straightening, my head coming to an effortless balance on top of the spine, my chest opening as I breathe into the sternum. “Softening” triggers the release of unnecessary tension.

I have a little mantra that I drop into meditation over and over: “Soft eyes … open field of inner attention.” Saying “soft eyes” triggers a deeper relaxation response. It also calms my mind, reducing the amount of thinking that’s going on. “Open field of inner attention” leads me into an awareness of the whole body. As well as saying that phrase at the start of meditaion I’ll drop it into my mind any time I realize that my attention has begun to wander.

So this is an example of inner speech that takes me deeper into my present-moment experience rather than distracting me from it. It’s me guiding myself into (and through) a meditation session. And it has a powerful effect, especially with repetition, because of the way that the words trigger particular responses.

I’ve suggested to other people that they try doing this, and they’ve found it helpful too.

Using This Outside of Meditation

This technique is something I’ve used outside of meditation as well. Like many people right now, I’ve sometimes found myself waking up in the middle of the night with my mind racing. So I’ll keep saying to myself, “Soft eyes, senses wide open.”

This is similar to one of the phrases I use at the beginning of meditation (“Soft eyes … open field of inner attention”), but here I’m triggering openness and acceptance in all my senses, outer as well as inner, so that I’m aware of the space and sounds around me, for example. Usually this leads to me falling asleep quite quickly.

So this is something I recommend to you. Find phrases that can help you as you go into and during meditation. Maybe the phrases I’ve suggested will be helpful. Maybe you can come up with your own. Give it a go and let me know how you get on!

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Meditation may relieve IBS and IBD

wildmind meditation newsSue McGreevey, Harvard Gazette: A pilot study has found that participating in a nine-week training program including elicitation of the relaxation response had a significant impact on clinical symptoms of the gastrointestinal disorders irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and on the expression of genes related to inflammation and the body’s response to stress.

The report from investigators at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), both Harvard affiliates, is the first to study the use …

Read the original article »

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Does meditation have health benefits?

wildmind meditation newsFred Cicetti, Meditation definitely reduces stress. And too much stress is bad for your health.

There is some research that indicates meditation may help with: Allergies, anxiety, asthma, binge eating, cancer, depression, fatigue, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain, sleep difficulties and substance abuse.

I started meditating in 1976, when Dr. Herbert Benson published his book, “The Relaxation Response.”

The techniques he advocated work. In the years since, I’ve found that, when I forget to meditate, I get a stress buildup. As soon as I meditate, I feel better. And the effects of the meditation carry through the day.

I studied Zen Buddhist …

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Grow inner strengths

Hanson_thI’ve hiked a lot and have often had to depend on what was in my pack. Inner strengths are the supplies you’ve got in your pack as you make your way down the twisting and often hard road of life. They include a positive mood, common sense, integrity, inner peace, determination, and a warm heart. Researchers have identified other strengths as well, such as self-compassion, secure attachment, emotional intelligence, learned optimism, the relaxation response, self-esteem, distress tolerance, self-regulation, resilience, and executive functions.

I’m using the word strength broadly to include positive feelings such as calm, contentment, and caring, as well as skills, useful perspectives and inclinations, and embodied qualities such as vitality or relaxation. Unlike fleeting mental states, inner strengths are stable traits, an enduring source of well-being, wise and effective action, and contributions to others.

The idea of inner strengths might seem abstract at first. Let’s bring it down to earth with some concrete examples. The alarm goes off and you’d rather snooze-so you find the will to get up. Let’s say you have kids and they’re squabbling and it’s frustrating-so instead of yelling, you get in touch with that place inside that’s firm but not angry. You’re embarrassed about making a mistake at work-so you call up a sense of worth from past accomplishments. You get stressed racing around-so you find some welcome calm in several long exhalations. You feel sad about not having a partner-so you find some comfort in thinking about the friends you do have. Throughout your day, other inner strengths are operating automatically in the back of your mind, such as a sense of perspective, faith, or self-awareness.

A well-known idea in medicine and psychology is that how you feel and act-both over the course of your life and in specific relationships and situations-is determined by three factors: the challenges you face, the vulnerabilities these challenges grind on, and the strengths you have for meeting your challenges and protecting your vulnerabilities. For example, the challenge of a critical boss would be intensified by a person’s vulnerability to anxiety, but he or she could cope by calling on inner strengths of self-soothing and feeling respected by others.

We all have vulnerabilities. Personally, I wish it were not so easy for me to become worried and self-critical. And life has no end of challenges, from minor hassles like dropped cell phone calls to old age, disease, and death. You need strengths to deal with challenges and vulnerabilities, and as either or both of these grow, so must your strengths to match them. If you want to feel less stressed, anxious, frustrated, irritable, depressed, disappointed, lonely, guilty, hurt, or inadequate, having more inner strengths will help you.

Inner strengths are fundamental to a happy, productive, and loving life. For example, research on just one strength, positive emotions, shows that these reduce reactivity and stress, help heal psychological wounds, and improve resilience, well-being, and life satisfaction. Positive emotions encourage the pursuit of opportunities, create positive cycles, and promote success. They also strengthen your immune system, protect your heart, and foster a healthier and longer life.

On average, about a third of a person’s strengths are innate, built into his or her genetically based temperament, talents, mood, and personality. The other two-thirds are developed over time. You get them by growing them. To me this is wonderful news, since it means that we can develop the happiness and other inner strengths that foster fulfillment, love, effectiveness, wisdom, and inner peace. Finding out how to grow these strengths inside you could be the most important thing you ever learn.


Your experiences matter. Not just for how they feel in the moment but for the lasting traces they leave in your brain. Your experiences of happiness, worry, love, and anxiety can make real changes in your neural networks. The structure-building processes of the nervous system are turbocharged by conscious experience, and especially by what’s in the foreground of your awareness. Your attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: It highlights what it lands on and then sucks it into your brain-for better or worse.

There’s a traditional saying that the mind takes its shape from what it rests upon. Based on what we’ve learned about experience-dependent neuroplasticity, a modern version would be to say that the brain takes its shape from what the mind rests upon.

If you keep resting your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness, and guilt. On the other hand, if you keep resting your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.

Looking back over the past week or so, where has your mind been mainly resting?

In effect, what you pay attention to-what you rest your mind on-is the primary shaper of your brain. While some things naturally grab a person’s attention-such as a problem at work, a physical pain, or a serious worry-on the whole you have a lot of influence over where your mind rests. This means that you can deliberately prolong and even create the experiences that will shape your brain for the better.
This practice of growing inner strengths is both simple and authentic. First, look for opportunities to have an experience of the strength. For example, if you are trying to feel more cared about, keep your eyes open for those little moments in a day when someone else is friendly, attentive, including, appreciative, warm, caring, or loving toward you – and let your recognition of these good facts become an experience of feeling cared about, even in small ways. Second, help this experience actually sink into your brain – the good that lasts – by staying with it a dozen seconds or more in a row, helping it fill your body, and getting a sense of it sinking into you as you sink into it. (Hardwiring Happiness gets into the details of this process.)

In essence, growing inner strengths boils down to just four words, applied to a positive experience: have it, enjoy it. And see for yourself what happens when you do.

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How meditation helps beat stress

Scientists have achieved a breakthrough in understanding how relaxation techniques like yoga, meditation, and prayer improve health.

Research collaborators from the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and the Genomics Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center say that such relaxation techniques work by changing patterns of gene activity that affect how the body responds to stress.

“It’s not all in your head. What we’ve found is that when you evoke the relaxation response, the very genes that are turned on or off by stress are turned the other way. The mind can actively turn on and turn off genes,” says Dr Herbert Benson of the institute.

During the study, Benson and his colleagues compared gene-expression patterns in 19 long-term practitioners,19 healthy controls, and 20 newcomers who underwent eight weeks of relaxation-response training.

The researchers observed that over 2,200 genes were activated differently in the long-time practitioners relative to the controls, and 1,561 genes in the short-timers compared to the long-time practitioners. The researchers also saw changes in cellular metabolism, response to oxidative stress and other processes in both short and long-term practitioners.

[via The Times of India]
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Battle-stressed warriors try meditation to ease anxiety

At the Warrior Relaxation Response Center, the road to recovery is paved with creature comforts.

Plush couches, soothing green walls and dimmed lights create a welcoming environment. Fountains and top-of-the-line massage chairs further set the conditions for solitary reflection.

In an unconventional approach to the demons of war, the newly established center at 2535 Airport Road encourages combat veterans to confront their battle stress with self-guided meditation and prayer.

“You cannot be relaxed and anxious at the same time,” said Antoine Johnson, summarizing the center’s benefits.

Read the rest of this article…

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Meditation for a stronger brain

Researchers say a type of meditation called integrative mind-body training can strengthen connections in certain areas of the brain, even when practiced for as little as 11 hours. Psychologist Michael Posner describes the study, and explains the brain changes he documented.

IRA FLATOW, host: For the rest of the hour, take a deep, cleansing breath for a look at the science of meditation, because this week, researchers say a certain form of meditation can actually change the wiring in your brain. Students who practice the meditation for just 11 hours over a period of a few weeks had changes in brain connectivity that could be seen on a brain scan. The work was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Joining me now to talk more about those changes and what they mean is my guest, Michael Posner. He is a psychologist and adjunct professor at the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York. He’s also a professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He joins us from Eugene today. Thanks for being with us today.

Dr. MICHAEL POSNER (Psychologist, Weill Cornell Medical College): Thank you very much.

FLATOW: What kind of meditation are we talking about? You said in your paper that it’s not the kind that we practice here in the West.

Dr. POSNER: Well, it is to some extent. It’s a form of mindfulness meditation that was developed from traditional Chinese medicine by my colleague, Yi-Yuan Tang. And we don’t know how unique this form of meditation is, but it does have changes that occur within just a few days. So it’s possible to do a random assignment of subjects both to the meditation group and to a plausible control group, which in our case is relaxation training. And relaxation training is a common part of cognitive behavioral therapy as practiced in the West. So we have a pretty plausible control group. And we can ask, what are the differences between practicing a form of mindfulness meditation, IBMT, or integrated body-mind training, compared to the relaxation training?

And we’ve published a series of papers showing that there are strong behavioral changes that take place within just five days. And in this most recent paper, we found changes in the white matter, or the physical connectivity between a portion of the brain, which is important for self-regulation, and other parts of the frontal cortex and parts of the striatum and other parts of the brain.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Could you see behavioral changes in the actions of the people at all?

Dr. POSNER: Yes. We found, in this previous report, after only five days of training, about half hour a day – and this was done with Chinese students, but we’ve replicated it here in the U.S. – we found changes in their ability to attend. We found changes in mood. And we found changes in their reaction to stress. You know, we secrete a stress hormone, cortisol, under stressful conditions, perhaps like being on this program.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah.

Dr. POSNER: And the cortisol secretions were lessened, following five days of training by IBMT, more than they were by the relaxation training.

FLATOW: So this is different from that famous relaxation response we’ve talked about decades ago?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, it is different because the control group in this case is relaxation. And the experimental group, presumably, produces a brain state that does something over and above relaxation. It may be that the relaxation training requires a lot of attention, preparing to relax one muscle group versus another. And that leads to some additional struggle which interferes with getting into a brain state conducive to the kinds of behavioral results we found.

FLATOW: And I think the most fascinating part of this work is that you actually see structural changes in the brain from this.

Dr. POSNER: We used diffusion tensor imaging, which is a way of looking at the white matter of the brain. And we found with 11 hours of practice over about a month, IBMT changed the white matter connectivity as measured by fractional anisotropy, the diffusion of water along the pathway…

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. POSNER: …so as to produce a more efficient connection between the anterior cingulate and these other areas.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We have a tweet coming in. It says, are these changes all good? Are there any drawbacks? Do they make anyone less alert or less productive or less attentive after these were done?

Dr. POSNER: We haven’t found any reduced performance. Everything really has been either no change – some of the attentional networks do not change, but the most important attentional network, the one that is involved in self-regulation and control, does change. So we’ve either found favorable changes or, in some cases, there are no differences from relaxation.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking with Michael Posner on SCIENCE FRIDAY, from NPR. I’m Ira Flatow. Can I do this myself? And where do I go to find out how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t have any commercially available practitioners trained in this particular method, and we don’t know how unique this method is. We have been able to get changes very quickly, but IBMT is like other mindfulness meditation, and there have been many favorable reports – perhaps not quite as well controlled because they take longer – about mindfulness meditation in general.

So people can try that, and we hope to make available more material on our particular method over the coming months as we get more experimental evidence.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. If you do anything over and over again, wouldn’t that also create some changes in the brain wiring?

Dr. POSNER: It does. We have also done training, what I call attention training, which is actually practicing particular attentional networks over and over again. That’s the most frequent way of getting change, and it does produce changes. But it doesn’t produce as widespread a kind of change as this IBMT does, which is actually not practicing a particular network. But we believe relaxing into a brain state, which, when repeated over and over again, allows you to carry that brain state around even when you’re not practicing the meditation.

And for example, after 30 days of training, the subjects show a lowered stress level as measured by cortisol secretion even at baseline, even without practicing more meditation or being in the meditative state.

FLATOW: So this doesn’t extinguish itself after a while. It hung around?

Dr. POSNER: We don’t know that. This was tested immediately after the 30 days of training. We don’t know how long it lasts. That’s part of our current protocols to try to see how long it lasts. It may not matter as much because this kind of training is not difficult to continue.

FLATOW: Can you give us an idea since we don’t know anything or where to find it commercially? Can you describe the training a bit for us?

Dr. POSNER: Yes, this is done by a trained practitioner using a standardized CD, which tries to get the person to relax and keep his mind in the present state.

To do that, we use imagery. We use control of breath – all pretty standard meditation components. And they’re combined together to produce the kind of results that we have.

FLATOW: So there’s no chanting of a mantra or anything like that?

Dr. POSNER: No, there’s no particular focus on any kind of verbal process, just keeping the mind in the present state but preventing it from wandering around. And that seems to relax the person into a favorable brain state for processing information.

FLATOW: So do you sit there and close your mind and concentrate on one thing or whatever comes into your mind? Or how do you direct that?

Dr. POSNER: Well, you try to not get your mind wandering from the present state…

FLATOW: Uh-huh.

Dr. POSNER: …do have to do – produce some control of breath and some control in that way. But otherwise, you keep your mind focused but not on a particular thing, just in the present.

FLATOW: And what do you call this kind of…

Dr. POSNER: Integrated body-mind training…

FLATOW: So if I…

Dr. POSNER: …because it affects both the body and the mind.

FLATOW: Yeah. So if I Google this, could I find a description in how to do this?

Dr. POSNER: You could, yes. Yuan Tang, who’s the creator of this, has a website, and you could get that through Google. Some of it will be available in English. Other would be available in Chinese.

FLATOW: Well, I’m going to go take a look at it myself. Thank you, Dr. Posner.

Dr. POSNER: Okay. Thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for coming on. Michael Posner is a psychologist and adjunct professor at Weill Cornell Medical College here in New York, also professor emeritus at the University of Oregon in Eugene.


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Stress is contagious

Sanchita Sharma, Hindustan Times: More than news headlines, what gives me stress is reading about stress. It makes me hostile, sleepless, restless, overeat and break into spots, all worries — except the spots — that add to existing stress and push me closer to disease and death. Stress does not cause any single disease, not even ulcers, as previously believed. Australian researchers Barry J Marshall and Robin Warren won the 2005 Nobel Prize in medicine for showing that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) caused ulcers, not stress.

Stress makes several diseases much worse, largely because it suppresses the immune system, increasing risk of infections. From headaches and colds to the more debilitating diabetes, heart attacks, depression and impotence, stress has been linked to almost everything that can mess up our lives.

Studies in the west are now showing that as much as genes and smoking, it’s stress that determines the quality of your life and how long you live. And more than long working hours, night-shifts or threats of downsizing, it’s personal conflicts at the workplace that add to stress.

What’s more, stress is contagious and can affect those around you. Parents carry on-job stress home and pass on their worries to their children, causing them to burn out at school.

Burnout symptoms in children included tiredness, a sense of inadequacy as a student and cynicism about the value of schooling.

Walking away from stress, or at least brooding about worries, is not easy, but the payoffs are worth it. One way to fight stress is by using the relaxation response technique, developed in the 1970s at Harvard Medical School by cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson. To counter the stress response, he proposes achieving a state of profound rest through progressive muscle relaxation, meditation and yoga.

Meditation shows heartbeat and respiration, forcing the body’s oxygen consumption to drop along with levels of blood lactate — lactic acid that appears in the blood when oxygen delivery to the tissues is not enough to support normal metabolism — linked to panic attacks.

A recent study at the University of Chicago showed that a 10-minute meditation session improved the averages of people taking high-stake math exam. It pushed up their scores by five points, because, explained study author Sian Beilock, it helped them focus on the math by freeing their brains from stressful thoughts.

Sleep helps, but alcohol doesn’t. One sleepless night — whether spent online, reading or working shifts — can spike stress hormones and make it harder for you to sleep when you actually want to. Alcohol makes your mind feel relaxed but plays havoc with your biological response: blood alcohol levels over 0.1 per cent (one large whisky or vodka) makes your stress hormones work overtime, making you feel tired and listless.

Hanging out with friends and family — over a cup of herbal tea, not alcohol works best. Several studies in the US and Europe have shown that people with fewer family and close friends have shorter life expectancies, with loners experiencing the stress of loneliness equivalent to a lifetime of smoking.

And, corny as this may sound, it helps to confront your fears. The Tamil Nadu government used crayons and yoga to help young tsunami-survivors overcome the terror of the killer wave that wiped their families and homes in 2004. All the images the children drew initially were dark — gloomy skies, flooded villages, uprooted trees, dead people and animals — but at the end of three weeks, the sun started shining. And the children were back to playing cricket on the beach.

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What do you think about while DIYing?

Repetitive motions like housework, crafting, building, and fixing are a great way to focus the mind — or clear it into a meditative state. Maybe you think up your best ideas while you work, or a solution to a problem that’s been irking you. We asked a few DIYers what they think about while they work.

When tackling a project like upholstering a headboard, Grace Bonney’s mind always wanders to the same two topics: her dream home and her family. The curator of the popular home décor and DIY site Design*Sponge says, “I’ll pick up some fabric and start to daydream about how I’d use it as a dramatic curtain to separate the living room and the screened-in porch of my imaginary house.” (Grace actually lives in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York). As her tasks near completion, Grace often thinks of her mother, an avid home decorator. “She inspired me to pursue a career in design. When I’m working on a project, I sometimes feel like I’m channeling her abilities.”

It’s well-known that working with your hands is, for many, a way to unwind and help your mind focus, work through problems and hone ideas. It doesn’t matter whether you’re cleaning, crafting, building, fixing — any rhythmic, repetitive motions can act as a form of meditation. And while you’re in that trance-like state, which Harvard doctor Herbert Benson, M.D. coined “the relaxation response,” you tap into the parts of your brain responsible for learning, creativity, and insight. In fact, recent research from the Mayo Clinic found that people who engage in DIY activities like knitting are 30 to 50 percent less likely to experience memory loss.

For Jenny Hart, owner of the hip embroidery pattern company Sublime Stitching in Austin, Texas, DIYing is a form of stress relief. “I first tried embroidery during a very difficult time in my life: my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, my mother-in-law passed away unexpectedly, and my father was hospitalized,” Jenny recalls. “I thought I wouldn’t have the patience for embroidery, but when I finally gave it a try, I felt my entire world slow down. My body relaxed and my mind became calm and focused.” Jenny found stitching so soothing that she began doing it for 3-4 hours every day.

DIY Life contributor and home improvement professional Brian Kelsey works on building and repair projects in the evening hours while his young children are sleeping, “which allows my my mind to wander, and settle,” he says. To Brian, the act of working with his hands — focusing on creating crisp paint lines or perfectly mitered joints — is in itself meditative. “You simply aren’t able to think about the mortgage [that’s] due, your cranky boss, or whatever other stress you have in your life.”

[via DIY Life]
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The art of living mindfully

Nothing is ever certain, says the psychologist Ellen Langer. We should make the most of that.

Last summer Ellen J. Langer posted an entry on her Psychology Today blog that caused a minor uproar. A friend had just described a group trip taken to India, many years earlier. “They met a guru and asked a bystander to take a picture of them with him,” wrote Langer, a prominent social psychologist and a professor at Harvard University. “Two pictures were taken, using two different cameras.” Yet when the film was developed, the guru—who had been standing in the middle—was missing from both photographs.

Langer didn’t speculate why—she didn’t propose, say, that the guru had reached a state of such spiritual purity that light passed through him. Her point was this: No amount of evidence would be enough to persuade most scientists of paranormal phenomena, because too many of them were “stuck in soon-to-be-outdated theories.” Rather than ignore data that don’t fit those theories, she said, “we need to open our minds to possibility.”

Commenters scoffed. A fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stanton Peele, was moved to write a long post of his own, headlined, “Ellen, we don’t need more irrationality (you must be a sought-after guest at seances!).” While acknowledging Langer’s “brilliant” career, he urged psychologists to protect their discipline as “a beacon for a commitment to empiricism and reasoning.”

Langer’s response, the next day, was mild: “My last post seems to have upset people,” she wrote. “My intention was to suggest that we keep our minds open to the possibility of new phenomena, but perhaps the example I gave was too far from current beliefs to do the trick.” She sounded a lot like a teacher realizing that she was going too fast for the class.

That’s not unusual. In the course of her 35-year career, Langer has repeatedly flouted convention, confident that (or indifferent to whether) other researchers will eventually catch up with her. A petite, kinetic woman with a turned-up nose and a voice like Lauren Bacall’s, Langer does not tend to ruminate, and her immediate response when told “No,” about anything, is to ask, “Why not?”

Early on she took psychology’s prevailing wisdom about decision-making and turned it on its head, setting the stage for later work by researchers in cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics. She is best known for her concept of “mindfulness”—a term that most researchers use in the context of meditation, but by which Langer means paying attention: consciously looking for what is new and different, and questioning preconceived ideas.

Doing that is more difficult, and more significant, than it sounds. Most of our actions, Langer has shown, are mindless. Mindfulness requires reconsidering everything we think we know. If we did that, she says, all of us could be more effective, more creative, and healthier.

Her research on the effects of mindfulness on physical health, in particular, has had such surprising results that, she acknowledges herself, it “teeters on the edge of believability for some.”

This year the actress Jennifer Aniston will produce and star as Langer in a movie about what is perhaps the most startling of those experiments. It is known as the “counterclockwise study” and lends its name to Langer’s most recent book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books).

In 1979, Langer and her students invited two groups of eight men in their late 70s and early 80s to go on a retreat for a week and spend time reminiscing about life 20 years earlier. “When they first showed up at the office, their daughters usually brought them,” remembers Langer, who was in her early 30s at the time. “They were walking down the hall to my office, and they looked like they were just about to keel over. I remember thinking, What am I getting myself into?”

The researchers took each group of eight for a week at a time to an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., which they had filled with props to make it look as it might have two decades before. The men watched Sgt. Bilko and The Ed Sullivan Show on a black-and-white television and listened to Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole on the radio. All the men (who were used to being taken care of) were encouraged to be active—for example, to help serve meals and clean up.

The first group was instructed to behave as if it really were 1959. Ahead of time, they had written autobiographical statements that stopped in that year. During the week, they spoke in the present tense as they discussed the threat of communism, the Baltimore Colts’ 31-16 defeat of the New York Giants in the NFL championship game, and recently published books.

Men in the control group, which went on a separate retreat, followed a similar program but were permitted to speak of the past as the past. They spent time reflecting on their younger days, while the first group in effect tried to take themselves back in time.

What happened? After just one week, both groups tested better on hearing and memory. The men gained an average of three pounds each, and their grips were stronger. “At the end of all this, I was playing touch football with some of them,” says Langer.

But the changes were especially striking in the first group: Their joints became more flexible and their hands more nimble. Sixty-three percent of them improved on intelligence tests, compared with 44 percent of the control group. And people unaware of the purpose of the study rated every member of the first group younger in photos taken after the retreat than in photos taken before.

“When I first described the study, I was hesitant to spell out just how big the changes were,” says Langer, who wrote about it in her 1989 book, Mindfulness (Addison-Wesley), but did not publish the study in a psychology journal. In a field experiment like this one, lacking the controls of the lab, many factors might have explained the results.

“The most important part of the study,” she says, “was that people who are only supposed to get more debilitated over time showed great improvement—regardless of the reason.”

Langer has come to question whether any medical knowledge—about aging, about diagnosis, about the natural course of diseases—is necessarily true. Medical science is imperfect. Probabilities—that cells are cancerous, for example, or that a person with those cells will survive—are abstract mathematical constructs, she points out: They do not account for outliers, and they are based on a limited number of cases, which are analyzed by fallible human beings, who are making judgment calls.

“I am not arguing against medical tests,” she writes in Counterclockwise. “I am arguing against mindless reliance on them and the mindless state they lead to.”

She is now emboldened to offer an explanation for the results of the counterclockwise study: that the subjects’ mental states had direct, physical effects, an explanation that has been borne out in her subsequent, peer-reviewed research.

Take eye tests. In a group of studies soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Langer and her colleagues showed that people’s vision improved when they expected to see better. In one strikingly simple experiment, the researchers reversed the standard eye chart so that the letters became progressively larger rather than smaller. “Now, rather than expecting as they went down the chart that pretty soon they were not going to be able to read the letters,” Langer says, “people expected that pretty soon they were going to be able to read the letters.” The result: They could read letters that had been too small for them on the standard chart.

Take another scientific given: that to lose weight you must exercise more or eat less. In a recent study, Langer and Alia J. Crum, now a doctoral student at Yale University, got hotel housekeepers who reported doing little or no exercise to recognize the physical nature of their jobs: telling half of a group of 84 that their days spent bending, stretching, and lifting were similar to workouts at a gym. Four weeks later, those 42 chambermaids had lost an average of two pounds each, reduced their percentage of body fat, and lowered their blood pressure—all while reporting no changes in eating habits, even less physical activity during their off hours, and (according to their bosses) the same level of work.

As in the men’s retreat and the eyesight study, it seemed that people’s states of mind were changing their bodies. “The main idea for all these studies is very simple,” Langer says. “We take the mind and the body and we put them back together, so that wherever we’re putting the mind, we’re necessarily putting the body.”

When she started to explore the mind-body connection, most psychologists had long accepted the Cartesian split between the two. (So had doctors, although a cardiologist named Herbert Benson had published research just a few years before on what he called “the relaxation response,” showing that meditation could lower metabolism and slow heart rate and brainwaves.) Today Langer is not alone in her field. The discovery, in the 1990s, of “mirror neurons” in primates, which fire when animals perform an action and when they see someone performing it, has led neuroscientists to postulate the same structure in human brains. The idea has influenced psychological research on, for example, empathy and social cognition. Others have written about the spirit and consciousness as products of the body—notably Antonio Damasio in his 1994 book, Descartes’ Error. And, of course, the placebo effect in medicine is well established.

But while a placebo causes your mind to act on your body without your knowing about it, Langer is interested in how people might consciously create physical effects—including some that they never would have expected.

Langer grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., the younger of two daughters in what she describes as a loving middle-class family. As a teenager, she says, she made friends with the popular kids and with the “brains.” Because kids from both groups came to her with their problems, she saw how differently two people might see the same situation. “It showed me how context-dependent evaluation is,” she says. “There’s nothing that I can’t reinterpret.”

She married while still an undergraduate at New York University, where she majored in chemistry with plans to become a doctor. Neither the marriage, which didn’t last, nor the major was a good match. “Every day I’d emerge from lab a different color,” she jokes. “I was doing Jewish chemistry: A little is good, a little more may be better.” She switched to psychology.

While in graduate school at Yale in the early 1970s, she got licensed as a clinician. “But when I was doing clinical work, I’d see that the client could do what needed to be done,” she remembers. “I’d find myself tempted to say, ‘Just do it.’ That’s not good advice.” She decided to pursue research instead.

The work she did for her dissertation is still cited by scholars today. Langer looked at what factors led people to expect success in games of chance. She found that people were less likely to recognize chance for what it was if they were prompted to do things they usually did in games of skill, such as assessing an opponent’s competence or making decisions—like which lottery ticket to choose. In fact, when they had chosen a “lottery ticket” created by Langer’s research team—based on whatever personal associations they had made with the letters on the ticket—they clung to it even when invited to trade it for a ticket in a different lottery, with better odds. Langer dubbed their illogical confidence in winning with the first ticket the “illusion of control.”

Most psychologists at the time worked on the premise that people’s cognitions led them to act in certain ways; Langer flipped that around, showing that people’s cognitions were often based on their behaviors.

She followed that up with a study in which she and two colleagues showed that framing a silly request in a familiar way led people to comply with it. In one of a set of experiments, the researchers sent an interdepartmental memo around the Graduate Center at the City University of New York that contained nothing but the request that it be returned to a designated room. When the memo was designed differently from the typical interdepartmental memo, 60 percent of the recipients returned it; when it looked like a typical memo, 90 percent returned it, in spite of how absurd the request was. In other words, they acted mindlessly, responding to the structure of the memo rather than its content.

“The dominant view of social cognition now is that people behave unthinkingly,” says Anthony G. Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who studies unconscious cognition. “The tide has rather dramatically reversed.”

“Ellen was the harbinger of a later, full-scale effort to understand the unconscious mind,” writes a fellow Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin R. Banaji, in an e-mail message. Banaji says Langer’s work influenced her own well-known research on people’s implicit bias—stereotypes that they are unaware of—and has made waves beyond the field: The mindless clinging of Langer’s subjects to their lottery tickets is an early example of the “endowment effect” posited by behavioral economists, notably Richard H. Thaler, who in the early 1980s challenged standard economics with findings that people place a higher value on an object they own than on one they do not.

Langer’s interest in mindlessness soon led her to ask what its opposite might look like. In the mid-1970s she published two important studies with Judith Rodin, then a professor at Yale and now president of the Rockefeller Foundation. They showed that nursing-home residents who were encouraged to make more choices—such as whether to eat in their rooms or in the dining hall—and were given responsibility for watering a plant became more active, reported being happier, and even lived longer: 18 months later the death rate among the subjects was significantly lower than that of the residents over all.

Langer began to look at how people in all kinds of circumstances, including young, healthy people, could benefit by being more mindful. She has done studies showing that students prompted to question categories think more creatively: Those presented with an object in conditional language (“This could be a dog’s chew toy”) instead of imperative language (“This is a dog’s chew toy”) were likelier to find new uses for it to solve a problem (the chew toy makes a handy eraser). Her research in business has shown that managers who express confidence but admit uncertainty are evaluated more highly by employees. Recently she found that orchestral musicians who played mindfully, focusing on making subtle variations in their performance, were rated more highly than when they tried to recreate their best performance ever.

“Mindful attending, noticing, is enlivening,” says Langer. “People who say they’re bored—with their relationships, for example, or their jobs—that’s because they’re holding it still. They’re confusing the stability of their mind-set with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing.”

The research, much of it gathered in Mindfulness, is considered a precedent for what is now known as positive psychology, a turn in the discipline toward helping already healthy people flourish.

“Her initial work on mindfulness made it possible for scientifically minded researchers to take on that question,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the leaders of positive psychology. “She was bold enough to take it on.”

“The applicability of the counterclockwise study is mind-boggling,” says Jack Demick, a developmental psychologist who teaches at Brown University. He has written about Langer’s concept of mindfulness as a “grand theory” with implications for all branches of psychology.

In the same vein, the psychologist Jerome Bruner compared the boldness of Mindfulness to that of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

But a reviewer for The Independent, of London, found it less impressive. “If the brain’s function is to filter out a mass of impressions rather than to think them up, perhaps we avoid going mad by sometime being bored and boring,” she wrote.

Wouldn’t following Langer’s instructions to notice everything, and question everything, lead to paralysis? Research by Sian L. Beilock at the University of Chicago, for example, has shown that talented athletes perform worse when they start analyzing every part of their particular skills.

“That’s not mindfulness, that’s evaluating,” Langer says. She is very much against overthinking and has written widely about the ways an “evaluative mind-set” can impede creativity and happiness, particularly in her book On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (Ballantine, 2005). Langer took up painting when she was already in her 50s—she describes hearing herself tell an acquaintance that she was going to paint, before she had really given it any thought—and her artworks now command thousands of dollars.

When she began, she had no interest in taking art classes or trying to learn the proper techniques. Instead she focused on doing what interested her, and found that she got great pleasure from the act of painting itself. She says she paints where the strokes lead her, mindfully attentive to the experience rather than worried about how her work will turn out, and is often surprised by the pictures that result. (Many of her paintings depict friends or her beloved dogs in humorous poses.)

The first time one of her artworks was accepted by a juried show, she writes, “I was thrilled.” But she decided later that she would have been better off realizing that the achievement was not a mark of the painting’s inherent value: That way she wouldn’t have worried so much about repeating her success. (Yes, in spite of herself, she does sometimes care what people think.)

“Studies show that people form evaluations based on their own needs,” Langer writes, “but we tend to accept other people’s evaluations as though they were objective.”

That they are not gives her no little grief when it comes to the end of the semester. “When I have to grade students, it’s torture,” she says. “Grading doesn’t make sense.”

When talking with her Harvard students and lab assistants, Langer comes off as both supremely confident and playful. One day last semester, dressed in dark jeans, sandals, a red shirt, and a fleece vest, she strode into her first lab meeting with a stack of notes, some of them scribbled on Post-its, about the experiments she wanted to start that fall. She had at least a half-dozen, and more occurred to her during the meeting.

“The first one is a study we need to do right away,” she said, taking a chocolate cookie from the package that was being passed around the table. The idea was to photograph people entering and leaving an exhibit that Langer’s partner, Nancy Hemenway, had helped produce of early-1970s style—Marimekko maxidresses, boldly patterned dishes. Langer’s hypothesis: Observers would perceive the exhibitgoers in the “after” photos as younger, because the blast from the past would have literally turned back the clock for them. “Who wants to do it? Come on, it’ll be fun,” she exhorted.

“But it has so many flaws,” said Emily Kroshus, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health who wanted to know what mechanism the study would measure—stress hormones? blood pressure? After a few minutes of back and forth, Langer said it was just a “quick and dirty” study they could attach to her next idea: What if they took people with some condition, say, a rash, and got half of them to reconstruct what life was like the week before the rash. Would it go away? Again, Kroshus was skeptical. “I know you don’t like to think in terms of mechanisms,” she said, “but there are so many factors that could affect this.” She raised the same objection to a third study and suggested something narrower. “Let’s do both,” replied Langer. Repeatedly she urged her team to think big, to be dramatic. Told by another lab member that a contact in the medical school was reluctant to let Langer’s team add some research to a sleep study, she rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to him,” she said. “You make sure I talk to him.”

As with the counterclockwise study, it is more difficult in any field experiment than in the lab to control for the many variables that may affect people’s health. “But there’s a trade-off between rigor and artificiality,” says Greenwald, the psychologist at the University of Washington. “Laboratory experiments have their virtues, and I’m in favor of them. But you don’t compellingly persuade people that you have a phenomenon.”

“If I can make one monkey talk,” says Langer, “then it can be said, ‘Monkeys are capable of speech.'” She calls her approach “the psychology of possibility.”

These days Langer’s lack of interest in the mechanisms underlying behavior is what pushes against the tide of the discipline, which in recent years has been keen to identify the biological activity behind thought processes.

“I see the human being as a seven-layer cake,” she says. “The sixth layer doesn’t cause the fourth layer; they just coexist. That’s not to say neuroscientific approaches are not worthwhile, but even if we know all of Johnny’s neurochemistry and brain circuitry, we don’t know if he’s going to read, rape, or run for office.”

Students say it’s not uncommon for Langer to create experiments out of her everyday life. “She tends to come in with a set of ideas and just throw them out there and see what people think,” says Laura M. Hsu, a lab member and a graduate student in Harvard’s School of Education. “A lot of her work is out of curiosity. She’s so generous—she gives grad students a lot of opportunities to research and publish.”

Hsu is listed as the first author on new research about how cues of age affect people’s health and longevity. In a series of studies, she, Langer, and Jaewoo Chung, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that women who think they look younger after having their hair colored or cut show a decrease in blood pressure and are rated younger in photos, even when the pictures do not show their hair; that people who wear work uniforms (rather than clothes that might indicate their age) are healthier than people in the same income bracket who don’t wear uniforms; that being married to someone younger tends to lengthen life, and being married to someone older tends to shorten it; and that prematurely bald men see themselves as older and therefore age faster. All this adds up to evidence, the researchers assert, that the body may age partly in reaction to “younger” or “older” cues in the environment.

The research will be published this year in Perspectives on Psychological Science but was met with some skepticism by reviewers. Hsu says the journal’s editor, Ed Diener, asked the authors to revise the article to make it more speculative.

“We do recognize that there are probably other explanations,” she says. Bald men, for example, may age faster because of genetic differences that also cause their baldness. “But we’re just trying to germinate this idea.”

Langer is one of the “great social psychologists who do demonstration experiments that ignite a field,” says Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re the hypothesis generators rather than the verificationists.”

Still, Langer’s penchant for sweeping statements, whether about science or life, can sometimes strike a careless note. She can appear to believe that people would never struggle—with learning something new, with making a choice, with finding happiness—if they simply broke free of assumptions and automatic thinking. On the subject of divorce, she has written that if children were taught that families can be composed of a mother, a father, and a child but also of other arrangements, “then there wouldn’t be such a problem were the circumstances to change.”

Pressed, she acknowledges that her own life has had its share of challenges—much greater than trying to grade students. “I was divorced before most people are married,” she says. “I lost my mother [to breast cancer] when I was 29. I had a major fire in ’97 and lost 80 percent of what I owned. I slipped on the ice a few years later and smashed my ankle badly; it’s full of metal pins. The difference is, I don’t like throwing good money after bad.”

And so, she claims, she never experiences regret. “Regret is an illogical emotion. Whatever decisions you made, you made them for a reason, and so you just go from there.” Though she can betray impatience, she very rarely gets angry (her students confirm this). Anger is a tactic of the powerless, Langer believes, and she decided a long time ago that she had the power to do anything she set her mind to. That also takes care of envy: “If you have something, it doesn’t mean I can’t have it, if I learn how.”

She likes to argue that, given enough information and enough practice, she could even learn to control the toss of a coin.

So, does Langer suffer from “the illusion of control” she identified so many years ago? She says she looks at that phenomenon differently today: “When I was at Yale, I was young,” she told a classroom of undergraduates last fall. “I had what is called an observer’s perspective, which is the same perspective psychology had: the assumption that we’re all seeing the same thing. The illusion-of-control study is basically saying that people don’t see that chance is chance.”

“Then I got older and I said, Wait a second, who says that people can’t control things?”

She draws an analogy to Pascal’s wager, substituting “control” for “God”: If you believe you have no control and you truly don’t, “no big deal.” If you believe you have control and it turns out you do, “that’s the big win.” And if you don’t have control but you believe you do, you are actively engaged in something, feeling alive and effective—and you may just be successful someday. “You can’t prove that something is uncontrollable,” Langer says, “All you can show is that things are indeterminate.” The best gamble, then, is to act as if you have control.

She rephrases it with typical bravado: “Nothing is uncontrollable. We just don’t yet know how to control it.”

[Jennifer Ruark, The Chronicle]
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