Turning Older and Bolder


By Michele Bacigalupo

Photo courtesy of Pedro Ribeiro Simoes.

In 1981, psychologist Ellen Langer conducted an experiment to see whether a group of men in their 70s could alter the mental perception of their age. Langer asked the study’s participants to mentally conjure an image of themselves from 1959–22 years earlier–and to try and behave in the present as if they were the age they were back then.

Throughout the experiment, the individuals lived in a converted monastery for a duration of five days, set to mimic the scenery of that exact year. The place was filled with late-‘50s props and memorabilia–including books, vintage radio, and black-and-white television screens displaying The Ed Sullivan Show.

Every day, discussions were led to correlate with the time warp illusion. News stories–such as the first American satellite launch–sports games, and movies relevant to 1959 were hot topics in the monastery. As the conversations took place, each individual spoke in the present tense, as if the events had recently occurred.

By the end of the study, Langer found that the men showed remarkable improvements in dexterity and posture. As unbelievable as it sounds, the results showed that the participants’ sight improved as well. Langer concluded that once the men’s minds converted to an image of their younger selves, their bodies adapted to do the same.

While Langer never attempted to duplicate the study, she’s been showered with praise in recent years for her research, due in part to a BBC reality show that aired in 2010. The television program documented a group of aging celebrities, instructed to mimic the personas of their former 1970s selves. The broadcast displayed strikingly similar results to Langer’s original study.

Langer’s findings in the field of mind-body medicine exemplify that sickness and symptoms of poor health may be entirely altered by a person’s psychological thinking. The perceptions we carry of ourselves may affect our physiological well-being so significantly as to improve eyesight capability–a much larger impact than conventional medicine has led us to believe possible.

Isabel Allende, author of The House of Spirits and Eva Luna, leads her own extraordinary example of thriving in older age. Allende has written more than 20 works to date and sold more than 65 million copies of her pieces worldwide. She refers to her writing as “realistic literature,” focusing on topics of social justice, feminism, and politics, as well as her own experience and upbringing.

Isabel Allende giving a TED Talk. Photo courtesy of Class V.

BTR recently had the opportunity to speak with Allende about her writing, and how her practice has shaped her ability to live passionately.

“I exercise most of my demons, sorrows, and losses through writing,” she tells BTR. “It’s been a wonderful thing for me.”

When asked to explain the various freedoms and losses that accompany old age, Allende maintains a sense of both optimism and realism.

“I’ve lost some energy–physical energy, not mental energy,” she admits. “I’m always willing to tackle a new book, a new adventure. But physically, I don’t feel as strong as I did before.”

Allende mentions that she’s lost many people in her life. She copes with these realities as best she can. Through it all, though, she’s gained both self-confidence and freedom.

“I don’t care what people say about me anymore,” she says. “I’m not trying to please everybody. I feel really liberated.”

Writing remains an irreplaceable tool of expression for Allende to this day. Additionally, she’s careful about how she spends her time, reserving it for the activities that make her happiest. In regards to her social life, Allende is adamant about not compromising and choosing the people with whom she spends her time.

Despite her positive attitude towards aging, Allende acknowledges that we live in a culture of youth where everyone tries to look as young as possible.

“There’s no respect for old age–not even acceptance of old age,” she says. “Older people are marginalized, so they form their own communities or retirement homes where they’re isolated from the rest of the world. There’s very little space, time, and affection for the old people.”

Allende stresses that the most important endeavors for any person, regardless of age, are to maintain good health, and have a sense of community–to be a part of something larger than oneself.

“I’ve been a foreigner all my life,” she states. “I’ve always been uprooted. Everywhere I go, I build a community–a feeling of belonging. I build my little tribe. I gather people around me, knowing that it is temporary, that everybody has their own lives. But at least for the time being, I want to belong to a community of friends and family.”

A community unites people toward a shared sense of purpose. Research shows that belonging to a community is largely beneficial for mental and physical health.

We can all benefit by implementing Allende’s sage advice into our own lives.

Be sure to listen to this week’s Third Eye Weekly on BTR to hear the rest of the interview.