How our minds can make us young again

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

This remarkable article, “What if Age is Just a Mindset?”, about the work of psychologist Ellen Langer, ran this week in the New York Times. Its basic idea – that our minds have more power over the youth and health of our bodies than we’ve dared to imagine – is one that is near and dear to me and my work in ways that any readers of this blog already know.

[Langer]’s one of the people at Harvard who really gets it…That health and illness are much more rooted in our minds and in our hearts and how we experience ourselves in the world than our models even begin to understand.

Langer – a plainly dynamic and driven woman from the Bronx who reminds me not a little of Ilana Rubenfeld in this profile – has done experiments throughout her career that show the ways that our mindset can profoundly affect our physical health. Over time, “she came to think that what people needed to heal themselves was a psychological ‘prime’ — something that triggered the body to take curative measures all by itself.”

Perhaps the most famous of these experiments occurred in 1981, when Langer took a group of people in their 70s, and put them in a temporary time-warp: for five days, they lived, behaved, and were immersed in an environment that mirrored 1959. They were asked not just to reminisce, but to speak and behave as if they were 22 years younger. At the end of the five days, by several biological metrics, “they were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller — just as Langer had guessed. Perhaps most improbable, their sight improved. Independent judges said they looked younger. The experimental subjects, Langer told me, had ‘put their mind in an earlier time,’ and their bodies went along for the ride.”

They had been pulled out of mothballs and made to feel important again, and perhaps, Langer later mused, that rekindling of their egos was central to the reclamation of their bodies.

In the course of many years of work, Langer has continued to find that “mind-set manipulation can counteract presumed physiological limits,” with the ultimate goal being to “return the control of our health back to ourselves.”

Like Rubenfeld Synergists, Langer also places a strong importance on mindfulness, “on noticing moment-to-moment changes around you, from the differences in the face of your spouse across the breakfast table to the variability of your asthma symptoms. When we are ‘actively making new distinctions, rather than relying on habitual‘ categorizations, we’re alive; and when we’re alive, we can improve.”

The implications of her work are profound for those of us who work in the knowledge that when we help shift people’s relationship to their bodies, we can help them change how their bodies move in the world – and therefore, how rich and engaged their lives are.

Read the whole article and marvel at the implications here.


Peace like a river

From Maureena Bivins’ blog, today I learn of a study showing that emotions are primarily social occurrences: rather than being more internal, cognitive, individual responses, argues Brian Parkinson, they are “social phenomena” that are “interpersonally, institutionally, or culturally defined.”

This may seem like a “well, duh” kind of finding, but I think it has important implications for the ways in which we deal with emotion. Firstly, with the assertion that emotions are social and therefore have consequences for others, it’s more difficult to decide that how another person feels is “their problem.” Recognizing emotion as a thing essentially shared between people, as opposed to a thing that happens in isolation inside one person, seems like a step toward a more compassionate society.

Second, it sheds some light on the incredible bombardment of emotional material that assaults us daily in the modern world. I for one have lost entire days sometimes to mountains of depressing news stories, or to arguing angrily on the Internet about racial injustice or feminism. I don’t think that the rise of Facebook and the rise of incidence of depression correlate in time due to some accident: I think that it’s an example of how our capacity to deal with emotion is only so great, and our monkey-spheres – the number of people we can reasonably care about with any depth – are in conflict with our participation in and awareness of an ever-expanding world.

This reminder of the social nature of emotions is helpful as I look at my own life, at the people in it, and at what I spend most of my time doing. How many of my emotional resources are being taken up by Syria, how many by Trayvon Martin, how many by my husband and how many by my household? And how callous does it make us feel when we have to cut off our responses to world events – or even neighborhood events – just in order to function within our smaller worlds, communities, families?

This strikes me as one of the ways in which we become un-integrated beings: we feel, sometimes deeply, about everything around us. And as modernity brings us all closer and closer together, and as everything seems to be happening at once, we need to make rational decisions about what we’re going to allow ourselves to feel.

One of the things I love about Rubenfeld Synergy Method is how it tends to make space for emotions to occur in the moment, be felt, and to move through. One concept of emotion in our training was “energy in motion: the idea that emotion is not a thing that lives in us but a thing that moves through us. Emotion can change us, certainly – the same way a river moving through a valley changes its shape. But as this study shows, they are not necessary a part of us; they are a force that works on us.

My essential sense is that the more easily we allow emotions to arise and move through us, the more easily we can manage more when it comes – as it invariably will. Make a wider channel, and everything moves more easily. Don’t allow your rational mind to shut off too many possibilities, and while life may become more poignant and painful, it might become more joyful and rich as well. It’s when we try to control the flow that it either dries up or becomes an unmanageable flood. “Stuck” emotions, or grooves that have been riven deep by repeated negative experiences, are what create patterns that are fiendishly difficult to change.  This is where “triggering” happens, or where automatic responses to certain actions become habituated.  As even more research shows, habits are generally very hard to change, and moving from habit to choice may be even more difficult than it sounds.

Yet thinking of emotion this way may be a first step toward recognizing, not just that we are all connected, but that what we feel and what we do about it can be teased apart in a way that doesn’t shut us off from experience.

Toward a new theory of depression

Yesterdays’ New York Times Magazine contains a long article by Siddhartha Mukherjee detailing the history of the serotonin theory of depression, and a newly emerging theory about neuron generation. The whole thing is very much worth the read, and opens a number of fascinating questions and possibilities about what it is that causes what writer Andrew Sullvian called the “flaw in love” that is clinical depression.

Rubenfeld Synergy seeks to approach disturbances in people’s lives – physical ailments, mental distress, emotional pain, spiritual deadness – through an integrative approach, addressing all of a person’s parts, but starting especially with the body. The brain, though, is no less a part of the body than all the other parts, and in many ways, one of the most important. (I say “one of” only because of the enormous over-valuing of the brain that has occurred in recent memory, to the detriment of the heart and the spirit.) While it can be argued that antidepressants have been overprescribed, there is no denying that for some people, they have a profound effect. A combination of drugs and talk therapy is consistently shown as the most effective treatment, and I would never dream of telling a Synergy client that they should stop taking their medications in favor of Synergy alone. There are effects that these drugs can have deep inside the brain that are integral to changing some patients’ outlooks dramatically.

But the mechanism for these drugs, it turns out, might be much different from what we thought, and their effectiveness may depend on the type of depression you have.

One patient Mukherjee mentions fell into a deep depression after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. She knew that it was normal for such a thing to make her grieve, but her symptoms were more disturbing than that, and she asked for help. Prozac improved her more out-of-control symptoms – harming herself, not tending to her appearance – but her emotional state did not improve. Mukherjee notes, “Any sane reader of this case would argue that a serotonin imbalance was not the initiating cause of Dorothy’s depression; it was, quite evidently, the diagnosis of a fatal disease. Should we be searching for a chemical cause and cure when the provocation of grief is so apparent?”

It’s a complicated question, and one that has to do with how we tend to look at mood and affect. “We ‘grow sorrowful,’ says the author, “but we rarely describe ourselves as ‘growing joyful.’ Imprinted in our language is an instinct that suggests that happiness is a state, while grief is a process.” Further studies of the mechanisms of antidepressant drugs suggest that they are involved in a process as well: the process building new neurons in the parts of the brain that control memory and emotion.

This is fascinating news to me, as small parts of our training focused on neuroplasticity, or the brain’s capacity to build new neurons and new synaptic connections – to grow and adapt to circumstances. One study showed that vividly imagining practicing scales on a piano, complete with imagining the movements of your hands, was just as effective practice for a musician as actually performing the scales. If this is the case, what techniques might we have available to us that can strengthen the parts of our brains that can help us feel more vital, more alive, less “flawed in love”? If drugs and therapy together are the best solution, what can we learn about helping people with behavior and patterns of thought from studying the mechanisms of these drugs?

Mukherjee finishes the article with some interesting ruminations on all of this: “How much of mood is behavior anyway? Maybe your brain makes you ‘act’ depressed, and then you ‘feel’ depressed. Or you feel depressed in part because your brain is making you act depressed. Thoughts like these quickly transcend psychiatry and move into more unexpected and unsettling realms.” For me, these thoughts are less unsettling than they are encouraging: if behavior and feeling are interlinked in a way that doesn’t have a definitive direction, then we can begin with one and lead to the other. Remember the smile research? What other possibilities might there be for altering our very brains by altering what we do? Rubenfeld Synergists have known this for a long time, but we haven’t known a lot about the brain’s mechanisms for making the new connections we see our clients make. Knowing that antidepressant drugs may be working on creating new connections in the brain and not just on altering levels of serotonin makes this work I do seem more relevant than ever.

Read the full NYT article here.