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How Much of Aging Is in Your Head?

In 1979 a young Harvard psychology professor named Ellen Langer (soon to be played by Jennifer Aniston in Counter Clockwise) realized something astonishing — and true. “Without knowing someone’s chronological age, science cannot pinpoint how old someone is.” Langer had also built a basic theory of mindfulness that has guided her entire career: “It occurred to me that wherever we put the mind, the body should follow.” And so she came up with an experiment on aging worthy of a Hollywood feature.Dr. Langer recruited elderly men — men who were not ill but “extremely dependent” — and brought them to a beautiful monastery for a week. The men didn’t come to pray or to meditate; they came to turn the clock back 20 years. For that week, all the magazines, music, art, clothing, and personal photographs were from 1959. Conversations had to be in the present tense and not be about events or experiences after that year. The entire week was carefully choreographed, says Langer; nevertheless, there were surprises: like arriving at the monastery and having no one to carry luggage. So she decided on the spot that each m …

Stephen Kiesling is editor in chief of S&H. A 35th anniversary edition of The Shell Game: Reflections on Rowing and the Pursuit of Excellence has just been published.

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