We Are What We Think We Are … or How to Avoid Aging

March 15, 2015 - A famous experiment in 1981 had a group of frail, elderly men step out of their surroundings and back into past with a time warp designed to conjure up 1959; it made the point that environment matters. This experiment was “re-reported” this past fall in the New York Times with great fanfare.

The old reflection, “What we see is behind our eyes, not in front,” is a thought validated as the eight men in the experiment had objective evidence of being functionally younger in body and mind when placed in a situation which rekindled their mid-life years. We are what we think. The fact that most of what we see in the external world is merely a reflection of our own inner self, are thoughts validated by this unusual experiment.

Assessments of strength, dexterity, hearing and vision, memory and cognition were made on these eight elderly fellows before they had their total immersion into a 1959 environment, and the process was repeated and compared afterwards. This was an elaborate experiment, as old black and white TVs showing Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety programs, magazines of the era, sports figures and conversations, and all else that could make it seem as time passed them by, comprised the converted monastery they inhabited for five days.

Being involved, self-sufficient, active, and responsible along with having an interest, has been shown repeatedly to lower mortality and improve the overall quality of life for everyone—particularly the elderly. These eight subjects were tested again after only five days of active involvement and had improvement in many metrics, including of all things, eyesight. They also were more active and a few changed to a cane from a walker. They even tossed around a football, which would have been unthinkable before the experiment.

What we think will happen usually does, as we have pre-set our minds to confirm our prejudices. In another notable psychology experiment, two groups were successively placed in a small movie theatre and shown the same video clip of a drama. They were then asked to discuss the movie, quality of the acting, content, etc. The moderator for the discussion was the same and behaved the same. What was different was that the first person to open the discussion started out either positively or negatively. What inevitably followed was either a positive or negative discussion depending on the opening comment.

Be it peer pressure, confirmatory bias, or just human nature, the desire to be part of the majority always takes over. This is “group think,” which even if it is a bad idea, people will persist. We can bring our own weather—either positive or negative—and set the tone for a meeting, a group of people or even our entire lives. What we think will happen, usually does. There is no bad news or bad fact that can’t be made worse by a pessimistic attitude.

Your mind does control many physiological functions. In another famous experiment, chambermaids where told that when they were doing their normal housekeeping chores they were burning calories. Another similar group of hotel workers were left alone. The “burning calories” group lost weight, felt fitter, and had most of their other parameters improve.

Our minds are much more powerful than we can imagine. What we think will happen, in many cases can happen. Make no mistake: there are certain biological forces which are immutable. Something goes wrong inside us which we cannot change. But many factors which are physiological are—and can be moderated or changed by—what we think and how we perceive ourselves; imagining ourselves as being younger and more active can and will peel away decades. Staying active, avoiding loneliness, having purpose—all make a difference.

Creating your own success starts with YOU! Some things are uncontrollable, but most can be moderated by your mind. Take advantage of your own attitude … and keep positive.


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Dr. Allen Weiss is CEO & President of the NCH Healthcare System. He is board certified in Internal Medicine, Rheumatology and Geriatrics, and was in private practice in Naples, Florida from 1977 - 2000. Dr. Weiss is active in a variety of professional organizations and boards, and has been published in numerous medical journals, including the American Journal of Medicine and the Journal of Clinical Investigation.