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What would you think if I told you that your physical environment could change your biology? By way of something as seemingly as innocent as your thoughts?

Harvard-psychologist Ellen Langer presents convincing evidence for this in her book Counter Clockwise. Based on research, she demonstrates the massive effect your frame of mind — influenced by physical context — can have on one's health and overall well-being.


In Langer's famous 'Counter Clockwise' study, she recruited a group of elderly men to go on a week-long retreat that simulated the 1950s: in the living room, magazines from 1959 were stacked and old radio programs played. All participants were also asked to bring 'old clothing' and the staff at the retreat all wore timeless attire so that they posed no difference in status. In Langer's words, the individuals 'spent the week in an environment that by all accounts seemed timeless.' 

Unlike any other kind of retreat for the elderly, this one was also different in that the staff did not go out of their way to assist the participants with tasks like carrying their baggage, climbing the stairs, or picking up dropped items. By setting expectations that they would have to figure it out themselves, the participants were able to achieve a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy in their competency. The implicit belief that they needed help because of their old age was therefore not implied and vice versa.

The results of the study were impressive: after just one week participants had improved in physical strength, manual dexterity, gait, posture, perception, memory, cognition, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision. In addition, a group people who didn't know about the study rated the age of participants based on photographs from before and after the retreat. They rated the participants in the photos who had 'turned the clock back' as being two years younger compared to photos of men taken pre-retreat. Ultimately, the men did measure up to be more healthful and youthful. 

In Langer's book, she asks the question: how much of the debilitating aspects of old age are a result of our mindset — in other words, is any of it simply self-fulfilling prophecies at work and if so, can we change our mindset to then change the course of our own aging process?

If changing one's thoughts for just a single week can have enormous biological improvements, think about what a shift in your mindset could have on your body, thoughts, and thereby entire life.

Key Concepts

Mindfulness, Mind + Body Relationship