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Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility

Ellen Langer

ARJ2 Chapter: Evolution of Consciousness
Published by Ballatine-Random House in 2009
A Book Review by Bobby Matherne ©2009

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For too long we have separated the mind and the body and then wondered about whether some linkage exists between them. This kind of abstract logical reasoning is the hallmark of our current scientific paradigm and curiously, it goes back to the Scholastics around the twelfth century who argued about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Such reasoning is useful in dealing with inanimate objects, but of questionable use when dealing with human beings. Why separate mind and body in the first place, when we have no examples of living human beings without minds? Those who are thought to be without minds, such as those in comas or brain damaged, we have no mechanism whatsoever for probing whether their mind is working or not. Their mind may be fine, but they are helpless to demonstrate that fact to others, because all their mechanisms of communication are malfunctioning. If we assume the mind is gone if the brain doesn't work, then we are admitting there is no distinction between brain and mind at all.

Doctors and experts in medical science are loath to admit that they know little about the mind, and, by adopting the hypothesis that the mind (or consciousness) is an emerging property of the brain, they are spared that painful admission. But if mind is only an emerging property of the brain, how can changing the way people think about something as important as health cause an improvement in their health? Yet, that is precisely what the abundance of evidence shows in Langer's book.

Her Author's Note at the beginning of the book is revealing:

This book could be read as anti-established medicine. It is therefore important to state that if I personally were to experience extreme health symptoms, I would go to my doctor, but there is little else I would do that is traditional.

This book could also be read as providing many hints on how to think and act in the world to keep you healthy. It contains many examples of studies and experiments to test out hypotheses of the author and others about how the way we think impacts our health, and either they are all very lucky at choosing hypotheses or there is some basic principle at work which affects everyone or, rather, allows every one to affect one's own health. You want proof that the author is right? You're not going to find it in this book. But, by following the approaches suggested in the many studies, you might find proof in your own life as you enjoy a long and healthy life. I always think of the guy who said, "I have discovered the secret of immortality, but it will take me forever to prove it." If you live a very long time, rest assured that all the people you would like to prove this to will likely not be living at the time you would consider yourself as having satisfactory proof.

In her first book, Mindfulness, Langer was already in the 1980s studying the effects of mindfulness by allowing residents of nursing homes to make decisions about such simple things as their choice of house plants to take care of. Study by study showed dramatic improvement in attitudes and mortality rate. These results greatly surprised her and clearly led to the work which followed that is described in the current book.

[page 4, 5] Even we had been surprised: it seemed odd that simply asking people to make choice would result in the powerful consequences that our study showed. Subsequently, I realized that making choices results in mindfulness, and perhaps our surprise was because of the mindlessness we shared with most of the culture. I began to realize that ideas about mind/body dualism were just that, ideas, and a different, nondualist view of the mind and the body could be more useful. If we put the mind and the body back together so that we are just one person again, then wherever we put the mind, we would also put the body. If the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body would be as well — and so we could change our physical health by changing our minds.

The work from which this book got its title comes from a study suggested by work by Langer and her colleagues back as early as 1979. It took these thirty years for the results of this work to come to light in book form because of the radical nature of mind-body unity which it suggests, among other reasons.

[page 5] In 1979, several years after that initial investigation with plants and nursing home residents, it seemed natural to continue testing the question of limits with an elderly population. My students and I devised a study — which we would later come to call the "counterclockwise study" — to look at what effects turning back the clock psychologically would have on people's physiological state. We would re-create the world of 1959 and ask subjects to live as though it were twenty years earlier. If we put the mind back twenty years, would the body reflect this change?

In short, the answer came back a resounding, "Yes!" There was something about the way people thought about their life when they were twenty years younger that made them actually feel better and stay healthier. When we are young, there may be parental figures around us admonishing us to "Act your age!", but as we get older, into our fifties and sixties, we rarely hear that from older people anymore. We don't have to. That injunction lives inside of us and fires off without anyone outside around to remind us, unless we mindfully challenge the presuppositions behind the injunction each and every time we hear it or act as if we had heard it. Act your age can be fine if you interpret it to mean, "Act as the healthiest possible person at whatever age you are." But, injunctions and their presuppositions can be introjected at an early age, swallowed whole, and taken to mean, "Act like all the people you know who are your age." Given the state of mindlessness in our society today, that would be a ticket into ill health and discomfort over the long run. How long does it take you to recover when hit by a presupposition?(1) Presuppositions blind-side us. We don't see them coming. We may miss that they ever hit us. We may notice their effects, like the "Act your age!" one, but we may never consciously connect those effects with the presupposition until someone like Langer points them out to us.

One of the men in the counterclockwise study gave Langer a lugubrious description of his life. "This was as dismal a picture of his life as I could imagine," she commented afterwards, but something happened which made it even worse.

[page 7] Then Arnold's daughter — whom I had been silently praising for her willingness to let her father speak for himself — spoke up and condescendingly said that Arnold was "prone to exaggeration."

And Arnold did not even object to the presupposition-filled statement by his daughter. Somehow he excepted his sad life which included his being unable to describe it accurately. Arnold was acting his age, no doubt, in the mind of his daughter, who had no idea of what it would be like to be twenty or more years older, never having been there herself.

After the study, all members of the group showed improvements in independent action, joint flexibility, finger length, manual dexterity, and score on intelligence tests. Every one of the group looked noticeably younger at the end of the study according to judges unaware of the purpose of the study. (Page 10) What are we to make of the results of this study? Perhaps we need to question all the presuppositions about aging that we have swallowed whole from those around us all of our lifetime.

[page 11] If a group of elderly adults could produce such dramatic changes in their lives, so too can the rest of us. To begin, we must ask if any of the limits we perceive as real do exist. For example, we largely presume that as we age our vision gets worse, that chronic diseases can't be reversed, and that there is something wrong with us when the external world no longer "fits" as it did when we were young.

If the world no longer fits, then perhaps it is because we have grown rigid and inflexible due to the hidden presuppositions which feed our expectations and shape our lives, up until now. Instead of fixing our lives, we should flex and stretch our expectations, our mindsets — these are only maps of the territory(2) of aging, not the unique territory which you and I move about within. Someone told me that the key to successful engineering is to get the customer to relax the specifications. In the case of aging, you are both the customer and the engineer. The engineer holds the specifications of your mindsets and tells you what you can do, given the mindset you have chosen. Change your mindset and you can open up the territory of your life. You will be able to do much more than you ever dreamed possible — all the while living inside the reality of the territory of your specific maturation as you age.

With these prefatory comments, we arrive at what I think is this book's theme. What Langer calls "taking back what is yours", I call removing your unthinking limitations. If you want a tool which allows you to do this on a daily basis, try my limitation eraser. Simply adding the words "up until now" to the end of any sentence or thought you have which might contain a limitation will open your mind to new possibilities for health and even more.

[page 11] Mindful health is not about how we should eat right, exercise, or follow medical recommendations, nor is it about abandoning these things. It is not about New Age medicine nor traditional understandings of illness. It is about the need to free ourselves from constricting mind sets and the limits they place on our health and well-being, and to appreciate the importance of becoming the guardians of our own health. Learning how to change requires understanding how we go astray. The goal of this book is to convince you to open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours.

A hypothesis can be a theory to account for something not understood, and therefore may not be provable. But like Langer's studies, a good hypothesis can be tested and open up possibilities. My basic hypothesis(3) about life is that if there is a process any living human was ever able to do, we can all do it, and are doing it all the time, often out of our awareness. A process can be used to create a limitation (a mindset) or free us up for new possibilities like Langer's studies. I like her way of expressing my basic hypothesis using the metaphor of a dog yodeling.

[page 12, 13] A perceptive reader might ask, "Why are your studies any different?" Much of my own research is designed to test possibilities, not to find what is descriptively true. If I can make one dog yodel, then we can say that yodeling is possible in dogs. The results of the counterclockwise study do not show us that everyone who talks about the past will show the same results. It does tell us, however, that it is possible to achieve these kinds of improvements, but only if we try.

A baby boy was born without eyes, without functional legs, and with shortened arms that can only be raised as high as his shoulders. What hope could that boy ever have to be the star trumpet player in the University of Louisville Marching Band? The mindset of limitation to his son's activities never occurred to the boy's parents and they had cosmetic eyes surgically implanted, taught him music, and his dad pushes him across the field during half-time performances. Patrick is the star of the band! And a great vocalist as well, accompanying himself on the piano(4). Can such a baby ever be a star member of a marching band?

[page 13] Many of us who otherwise agree that anything is possible will respond no almost without thinking. Why don't we allow in practice what we profess to believe? One answer is that the mindsets we form from everyday experience close us off to possibility. It doesn't occur to us to rethink much of what we learn about the world because we tend to learn mindlessly; it's not that we aren't paying attention to whatever it is we are learning, it's that we aren't paying attention to the context in which we learn it. We don't consider that what's true here need not be true over there. If we don't think to think about our ideas, we can't update or improve them. It won't occur to us to question how we know what we know, what facts we base it on, and whether the science that produced those facts is suspect. The hefty price for accepting information uncritically is that we go through life unaware that what we've accepted as impossible may in fact be quite possible.

Once we have accepted that something was impossible, we may spend our lifetime convincing others that it would be impossible for them and thereby instilling in them our own mindset. Mindsets are like viruses and we live within a pandemic of such thought-viruses in our time, up until now. Mindfulness is the enemy of mindsets — one can kill a mindset by the simple act of challenging whether a given mindset need be true for you, as Patrick's parents did for their son.

Cynics, like a Greek chorus, are no doubt singing their laments as they read these words, and warning the actors on the stage, "It can't be that easy or everyone would do it." And yet what everyone knows or everyone does rarely proves to be a healthy guide for one's own life.

[page 18, 19] There are many cynics out there who are entrenched in their beliefs and hold dear their view of the world as fixed and predictable. There are also people who, while not cynical, are still mindlessly accepting of these views. A new approach to psychology and to our lives is needed because the naysayers — those who demand empirical evidence — are winning. It is they who have determined what's possible and what's achievable, to our collective detriment. If we suggest a possibility that seems far afield from what is currently known, the burden of proof is on us. Yet rather than ask "How could that be?" it makes just as much sense to ask "Why couldn't it be so?" What the naysayers know is only based on probabilities, which were deduced from a fixed view of what was studied. Just as we can't prove that something is so in advance of finding out, the naysayers can't prove that it is not possible. If I had never wondered about what is possible, I never would have conducted the counterclockwise study and never have witnessed the transformative power of our minds.

The naysayer is like the Dragon called "Paradigm" which determines what is possible and what is achievable. Langer is fighting this Dragon(5) and like all paradigm-fighters throughout history, the Dragon is fighting back. But she is not alone in this fight. Each one who reads her work and understands it becomes a fighter in this battle, and each personal victory against the Dragon makes it weaker and the victor stronger. The Dragon operates out of certainty and a true human being operates out of possibility. Certainty makes the Dragon stronger and Possibility makes the human being stronger. There is no doubt that possibility is stronger than certainty because, rightly understood, certainty is merely a map, a mindset, and it can be a cruel mindset.

[page 24] In more than thirty years of research, I've discovered a very important truth about human psychology: certainty is a cruel mindset. It hardens our minds against possibility and closes them to the world we actually live in. When all is certain, there are no choices for us. If there is no doubt, there is no choice. When we are certain, we are blind to the uncertainties of the world whether we recognize it or not. It is uncertainty that we need to embrace, particularly about our health. if we do so, the payoff is that we create choices and the opportunity to exercise control over our lives.

Langer details three mindsets which limit our possibilities if we accept them mindlessly. The option: review them mindfully along with Langer.

Mindset 1) We are either ill or healthy.
What a lovely certainty the either-or choice gives us, but it is better to consider the more complex uncertainty: that we are either tending towards illness or healthiness and our attitude can tilt us towards healthiness.

Mindset 2) The medical world knows best.
Doctors know a lot about a lot of things, but they know very little about you, no matter how many tests they run. The tests give them a static image of a dynamic human being which you know from the inside-out, intimately, with all of its dynamic changes that no test can reveal.

Mindset 3) Health is a medical phenomenon.
Once that mindset gets inside, one has given over control of oneself to some medical practitioner. I recall my internist from 1964, Dr. Peter Everett, whose office was on the 18th floor of the Pere Marquette Building in downtown New Orleans. I was a bit of a hypochondriac at the time. I was 24 and he was about 75 or older. Two things he said stick out in my mind. I had a bout of amoebic dysentery which necessitated my taking a stool sample to his office for analysis repeatedly. I would also describe in detail what my stools looked like, and one day he said something very wise to me, "Bob, there is no Silver Standard for Stool Specimens in Paris." The other thing was that he always made a comment about my low blood pressure as he unstrapped the gadget from my arm. I finally asked him why he kept saying that, was it good or bad. He replied, "It just means you'll probably be cursed with a long life." Dr. Everett was a very wise man and taught me a lot about taking control of my own health during those appointments I had with him. I also remember a joke that went around about that time about a hypochondriac who had chiseled on her headstone, "See! I told you I was sick!" Dr. Everett, the joke, and several other writers, Norman Vincent Peale, Don Curtis, and Robert H. Schuller, among others, helped me to transcend this excessive concern about my health, which was clearly based on my accepting the three mindsets that Langer details for us on page 25 and I have summarized here.

There are always skeptics. These are people who can be skeptical about anything except their own skepticism. When Langer worked with a paralyzed woman in an ingenious way, one baby step at a time, and got her to have considerable movement in her arms again, she probably heard from the skeptics.

[page 37, 38] Skeptics will cry out, "Her paralysis was probably misdiagnosed, and so there isn't any proof that there's always a step one can take." To the first, my response is that yes, there may have been an error in her diagnosis, which meant that trying to get her to move her arm was exactly the right thing to do. Moreover, how many of us are similarly misdiagnosed? To the second I would reply that even if our efforts had not worked, it would not mean that for anyone else the attempt would not work. Negative results only mean we have no evidence for a hypothesis, which is a very different thing from saying we have evidence against it. By assuming misdiagnosis whenever the "impossible" happens, we rob ourselves of the chance to question the original presumption.

In other words, by assuming misdiagnosis, we and medical people can achieve a feeling of certainty, but we thereby feed the Dragon Paradigm with a repast of certainty and it grows stronger.

Why should we call such well-meaning folks in the medical establishment Dragons? They don't kill people, do they? No doctor was ever executed for discovering a cure for an uncontrollable illness or epidemic, right? None that I know of, but consider the case of Dr. Ignatz Semmelweis who stopped the needless deaths of over 100,000 women a year in Austria in his time.(6)

The doctors who ridiculed his findings, can we not lay some of those thousands of deaths at their feet? How about the doctor who had Semmelweis committed to a mental hospital to keep him shut up literally? What was it that Semmelweis wanted doctors to do? Simply wash their hands after taking them out of a cadaver and before putting them into a live woman's vagina while delivering a baby. He had proven that doing so would stop the epidemic of puerperal fever or childbed fever which had slain so many young, new mothers in Vienna. It only happened in the city hospitals, not in the country where doctors did not teach interns how to give birth using cadavers.

Around 1978, a series of five-minute speeches appeared in the Co-Evolution Quarterly and one speech by a Dr. Ellerbrock caught my attention. The thrust of his talk was that we maintain our illness states by turning a process into a content, i. e., we reify a living process. When we do so, we turn something we do into something we have. Then naturally we search around for someone to help us get rid of it. He tried an experiment to test his hypothesis. When teenagers came to him saying, "I have acne." He would say to them, "I hear you say that you are acne-ing. Is that so?" Note how he changed the thing acne into the process acne-ing. After his patients learned to talk that way, their acne-ing began to alleviate or disappear entirely. None of them had to disclose why they were acne-ing, but once they acknowledged that they were acne-ing aloud, they clearly began to search internally for why they might be acne-ing and soon they stopped acne-ing.

Langer discusses a similar issue in the process of experiencing back pain versus the content of having arthritis. The applications possible for Ellerbrock's idea are enormous — it is definitely a tool in the kit of mindfulness. The lesson is this: turn a process into a content and it will turn into something you have instead of something you do. Something you have is hard to get rid of; something you do only requires that you do something else. For example, something as simple as changing your mattress could eliminate the bursitis you thought you had in your shoulder.

[page 48] There are unintended results of ignoring what is happening in the moments when symptoms of any disease disappear or lessen. If we mindlessly expect them to reappear undifferentiated, we are likely to group experiences as similar even though they may be better understood differently. For example, if I have arthritis and experience some back pain, I may overlook the fact that my mattress needs to be changed. Instead I presume all my pains are the result of the arthritis. If I can see some details close up without glasses, what does it mean to say I have poor vision? Am I dyslexic when I'm reading a short passage without problem? We are not our disorders, and we shouldn't be defined or constrained by them.

Memory loss as we grow older is one of those mindsets that most everyone seems to accept and even blow up out of proportion. My father is 92 and he still plays cards with us two or three times a week. The game we play requires him to hold from 3 to 13 cards in his hand at various times during the game and to sort them into groups of three, four, five by like numbers or by runs in the same suit. He manages to pull this off flawlessly, only occasionally asking how many cards we are dealing with for the current hand, or having to be reminded it's his turn to play. Often as not he wins the game.

[page 48] I was playing cards with my eighty-eight-year-old father last week. He remembered every card I picked up and skillfully used that information to win the game. We later went to a pool, where he did his exercises, remembering how many laps he had done and how many more he needed to do. Later that evening he told me that he was having memory problems. When I asked him what sorts of things he was forgetting, he wasn't specific. He knew he had forgotten a few things here and there, and he just accepted that memory problems must be memory problems. Why did he not differentiate between his problems?

When Langer asked her father to write down the things he forgot, he noted that he often forgot those things he didn't care about. Younger people who don't have as many things to remember pride themselves on being able to remember everything. One, they have fewer things to remember, and Two, no one is testing them about whether they remember things they don't care about.

Here is a poem about memory and growing old from my 1995 book of poetry, "Rainbows & Shadows". In it I deal with the increasing number of memories as the number of balls a juggler can keep in the air at one time. Jugglers who try to push the envelope by adding more balls or plates or bowling pins will be seen to drop one occasionally. Memory is like that the longer one lives. If my wife leaves the house and tells me all the places she's going to: hairdresser, massage, club meeting, doctor's trip for her mom, etc., I only bother to remember the time she says she will come back, not every detail of her daily appointments. Memory, rightly understood, is a juggling act and the more balls you have in the air at one time, the more difficult it is to keep them all in the air.

Juggling Act

When you grow old
      as the story's told,
      "two things happen:
      one, you lose your memory
      and two, ...
      and two...
      how forgetful of me!" >

I wonder about this story's verity —
It doesn't seem that way at all to me.

At seventeen I could recall
      just about any memory at all
And handle each one with dexterity
      like a juggler does each ball.
But now at one and fifty
      my memory seems not so nifty —
When a ball falls from its apogee
      it occasionally gets away from me.

But I worry less why one falls
      than marvel at the amount of balls —
For seven plus or minus two
      represents the best that we can do —
Whether seventeen or fifty two.

Let us trust that when they fall
It was ones we didn't need at all.

Why is this important anyway, this business of how we remember and how much? For one thing, it is a measure of our mindfulness, and Langer shows in many of her experimental groups an increased longevity attends increased mindfulness.

[page 49] We are more likely to remember information that is meaningful to us than facts that are irrelevant to our daily lives. In one of our early studies, my colleagues and I provided incentives to nursing home residents to increase their mindfulness. We gave the experimental group chips that could be exchanged for gifts every time they found out and remembered information we had requested, such as when certain activities would take place and nurses' names. Because they wanted the gifts, the information we asked them to track now mattered to them. We ran the experiment for three weeks before we took our measures to see if the intervention had been effective. We found improvements in memory and concluded that when remembering mattered, memory improved. On the last day, we administered several tests of cognitive ability, including one that asked them to describe their roommates and another that asked them to find novel uses for a familiar object. We found the group that was more mindful outperformed the other groups in the "new use" portion of the program, and when asked they were able to give more detailed descriptions of their roommates and their rooms although we didn't ask them to take note of either. Remarkably, this memory intervention also resulted in an increase in longevity. In our follow-up study, we found that only 7 percent of the mindful group had died compared to more than four times that in the comparison groups.

Another thing is that the world itself grows more forgettable as we age. Things we used to care about when we were younger become less interesting as we get involved with activities which we didn't care about when we were younger. For me, my studies, my research in doyletics, my reading, the college lectures I attend, my photography, my writing, and my web publishing — all these are things I did but little up until fifteen years ago when I began working at this full-time. Any part of the world which does not contact or impact one of my interests today no longer interests me and has become forgettable. Thus the world has become more forgettable to me than it was a mere twenty years ago.

[page 49, 50] The common view is that long-term memory remains intact as we age but short-term memory diminishes: older adults often have trouble remembering the name of someone they just met but have no trouble telling detailed stories about their past. But the view that what is remembered is that which is meaningful (regardless of age) is consistent with recent work in the field of neuroscience. In studying memory, University of Michigan psychologists Derek Nee, Marc Berman, Katherine Sledge Moore, and John Jonides found support for the view that memory is unitary and little or no support for the long-held distinction between long-term and short-term memory. A new view of memory derived from such evidence may lead us to believe that memory as we age may be less diminished than previously believed. If it's the case that we are more likely to remember things that are meaningful, it may well be that the old just happen to live in a world created for younger adults and therefore one less personally relevant.

One last note from Chapter 3 in which Langer reminds us about the activity of mindfulness, an important point for those of us who already feel rundown from all the activities our month fills up with.

[page 52] Noticing differences is the essence of mindfulness. Don't imagine, however, that all this noticing need be exhausting and leave little time for anything else. Mindfulness is actually energizing, not enervating.

If we are usually energized, the world will seem an energizing place for us. As the quote by Anaïs Nin says, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." Projection is the root of all perception. The more I focus on my range of interests in the world, the more the majority of the world is forgettable to me since so few people in the world have my set of interests.

In some countries in Europe, people over the age of 62 are not allowed to rent automobiles. Given that the pupils do not open as wide after 62 as they did before, an effect which at 68 I am aware of, this is a prudent, if rather an extreme measure. A more prudent approach would be to caution over-62 renters about driving at night. A better approach would be to hire over-62 people as consultants to highway departments of the various states to help them improve the lighting and striping of highway and street edges so that older drivers might drive safely and more comfortably at night on highways currently designed by 27- to 45-year-old engineers. To those youthful engineers, for what good it might do, let me say that the edges of roads and streets are the great priority because as the paint fades, it becomes very difficult to tell the road from the shoulder, and one lane from another. Of course, you have no idea about this until you are already retired from the business and have to navigate roads and streets in the dark that looked just fine to you when you designed them earlier.

I also like Langer's section heading from page 55: None of us is "Us" To those of you who might not have studied General Semantics or read Korzybski's books, you may benefit from a bit of translation. "None of us" means "No one of us" naturally, but what does the second "Us" mean? It refers to the collective set of all of us, and that "Us" is a map, a mindset, a generalization of all of us distilled into an abstract logical form which may not resemble some one of us. Kenneth Keyes wrote a fine book inspired by Korzybski's work called How to Develop Your Thinking Ability which will be useful to those who have trouble understanding this distinction in its practical applications. Person1 is not Person2 (the Who Index) and Thing1 is not Thing2 (the What Index) are the important principles to assimilate in connection with Langer's None of us is "Us" phrase.

When I read Dr. Axel Munthe's book, The Story of San Michele, I was tickled by his story about appendicitis turning into colitis right before his eyes as he was working in Paris as a young doctor treating rich matrons. If one came to see him and he told her there was nothing wrong with her, she would leave upset and angry. But if he said she had a mild case of appendicitis, he could prescribe some medicine for her to take, and she would leave very happy. As a beginning doctor, he almost went broke before he learned from his older colleagues this way of treating his women patients. But later, an unexpected thing happened: in America, doctors had found a cure for appendicitis! They simply removed the appendix. This surgery was not something his matrons wanted to be done to them, so he decided to use the label colitis to describe the sensations they felt. New name, new medicine, and everyone, both doctors and patients were happy. Today, from talking to some doctor friends of mine, I am led to believe that the latest phrase is "irritable bowel syndrome" which means the same thing as nineteenth century appendicitis and twentieth century colitis. According to Langer (See Page 130) the latest term seems to be "gastroenteritis." And the treatment is very much the same as in previous centuries.

[page 75, 76] Labels lead us to draw distinctions between what fits and what doesn't. For instance, the medical world has given us two labels for our symptoms: "real" and "psychosomatic." The distinction itself promotes reliance of the expertise of others, once we accept it, even though to us, we feel the same in both cases. The distinction, while perhaps useful in some ways to some people, is still potentially harmful. In one sense, all disorders are psychosomatic; all pain is psychological.

This next advice or prediction by Langer may sound a little far-fetched to those with the standard mindsets about health and medicine, but I can say from my own experience, that this works for me. Rightly understood this is the goal of mindfulness. And notice it does not involve getting advice from a medical practitioner about what to do about colitis.

[page 80] Eventually — and only eventually — we may get to a place where we don't need the continua; we may one day be in a place where we spontaneously notice subtle signals our bodies give and make the necessary corrections as part of our ongoing lived experience.

What if the plants, the fruit and vegetables that we sow, harvest, cook, and eat with our own hands absorbed the sweat from our heads, hands, and feet, etc., and transposed their genetic structure to produce specific proteins our body needs to remain healthy? Can plants actually do that? No one thought it possible for over 30 years after Barbara McClintock's research showed that transposable genes were happening in her maize plants. No one much believed her right up until she received the Nobel Prize for her genetic work in transposing genes in maize. But it is not McClintock who talks about the possibility that plants can transpose their genes to create specific beneficial proteins for one person and other beneficial proteins for another person, no, it is a young woman in Russia named Anastasia. (Anna-stass-see'-ya) One need only read a couple of the books of the Ringing Cedars Series to understand how important her revelations are to the world, to you and to me. Her work led me to begin planting a vegetable garden to go along with the citrus, figs, and other fruit trees on our property.

By absorbing the toxins from one's body, the plants are able to diagnose what the body is lacking and manufacture the proteins it needs. Thus the plant becomes the doctor, the pharmacist, and the prescribed drug all in one. All one has to do is consume the vegetables and fruit planted, tilled, and harvested by one's own hands. This is truly the most individual approach to health available, very much in line with the goal Langer expresses throughout this book. There is no better way for "you to open your mind and take back what is rightfully, sensibly, and importantly yours" than for you to plant, grow, harvest and eat plants grown with your own hands. Once you do, you will have also taken control of maintaining your own health, your body will remain healthy, and your use of the medical profession can be relegated to its proper role of helping with "extreme health symptoms".

I love the quote by George Bernard Shaw which heads Chapter 5: "The only man I know who behaves sensibly is my tailor; he takes my measurements anew each time he sees me. The rest go on with their old measurements and expect me to fit them." Old measurements are mindsets or maps. We all make them as a shorthand way of finding our way through the world. But, as my supervisor in the Research Dept. of the Foxboro Co. told me once, "In the Norwegian Boy Scout Handbook in the section on map reading, it said, 'When the terrain differs from the map, believe the terrain.'" In a land punctuated by steep cliffs falling away into icy fiords, this is exceptionally good advice. But it equally applies to tailors, to cross-country drivers, to jet pilots, and to you and me whatever our occupation or endeavors in life may be.

Moms — perhaps the largest percentage of daily workers in the country — need to know that 98.6 degrees was calculated and set as the normal temperature of the human only once in history. In 1856 in Nancy, France, 1000 people had their temperatures taken and the average came out as 98.6 degrees. That became the Silver Standard for human temperature ever since. That map, that mindset, that measurement is over 150 years old. Yet today, moms, who must deal with a huge variety of temperatures in their children, even when they are healthy, treat it as a magic marker of healthy versus sick.

Don Robinson, as part of his memory course, I took in Los Angeles around 1970, had us take our body temperature every 15 minutes over the course of a week and plot it as a scatter plot of time of day versus temperature. My temperature, as did all the other two dozen adult members of our class, wandered from 95 degrees to 103 degrees over the course of a week. That's eight degrees without any of us being sick! Moms should know this, but what doctor is going to tell them that information? Not any, likely. Why, because most moms today will call their pediatrician for an appointment if their child has a temperature of 99.1 degrees. A temperature swing without any other symptoms may be just a normal variation of bodily temperature. Sometimes taking too many measurements is not useful, but even counter-productive. Using a measurement that is 150 years-old as a magic level just because it's given with a decimal place, 98.6, is not very useful, wouldn't you agree?

One child's 99.6 may be a fever and another's 99.6 may be normal. Same words, different outcomes.

[page 97, 98] When we all use the same words, we can easily get lulled into thinking we are having the same experience, when in fact our experiences may be very different. One way to look at it is that Our experience is in motion, but our language holds that experience still. Our description of last night's Red Sox game — "It was a close game, but in the bottom of the ninth inning the batter hit a walk-off home run" — while informative, doesn't capture our felt experience.

Langer demonstrates above the dramatic difference between process and content. Process is what is happening live in the moment, and content is some later description of a process. Two moms might ask their son with 99.6 temperature, "How are you feeling?" and both get the same answer, "Fine" back. But the tonality of one is weak and unconvincing and the other is strong and vibrant. Written out, the questions and responses will be identical, but experienced live, the difference is dramatic, and good moms can easily tell the difference. The tonality of each response is the nonverbal portion of the response which is so valuable. The sounds that are emitted from objects, whether animate or inanimate, tell us a lot about the insides of the object, whether they are sick or well, hollow or solid, wood or metallic, relaxed or tense, etc.

[page 98] Language needn't be explicitly verbal; cues are so often paired with language that we are able to understand other people by their nonverbal behavior alone. Take a simple sound, for example, "psst." Using only that sound, try having a conversation with someone where you want to communicate anger. "Psst, psst, psst" — your tone can tell another person how you feel. Now try to communicate appreciation and caring. It works just as well here. Language writ large — verbal and nonverbal together — is a highly social activity that leads us to ignore individual experience and seek to engage that which is common among us, and so we learn to listen to the outside world instead of listening to ourselves. When you ask me how I feel and I tell you I have a stomachache, I presume that your experience of stomachaches enables you to understand that I feel reasonably unwell. But the many possible differences between our experiences get lost, as language creates an illusion of knowing. Language is shorthand; individual experience is the full text.

Individual experience is multi-ordinal, full of "buzzing confusion" as William James called it. But when we describe it, we tend to create flattened views of our experience, focusing on one aspect of our experience and thereby creating a naive realism which removes all multi-ordinal aspects of the experience. In most situations in life, people can deal with such impersonal and absolute language. I note this phenomenon a lot when I explain a complicated multi-ordinal situation which is unique, and the other person immediately tosses off a response like, "That happens to me a lot." or perhaps, "I hate it when that happens." Somehow they have abstracted, squeezed all the life out of, what I told them. They automatically equated what I said to their own experience at a trivial level and then communicated to me that they understood very little of what I had shared with them. To me, that signals a person living inside a world of naive realism. Someone who lives in such a world would naturally expect their doctor to talk to them in absolute terms rather than conditional terms, and would convert anything conditional into an absolute anyway.

[page 99] Imagine an approach that opens us up to uncertainty, which opens us up to possibility. If doctors simply preceded statements with phrases such as "In my view," it would remind us that there are competing views. (Of course, some physicians already do this some of the time.) "Wait!" I can hear someone saying. "We want our doctors to be exact and certain of what they tell us." Yes, we do, but they aren't or shouldn't be nearly as certain as we want to believe, and it does us no good to imagine that they are when they are not. When we communicate with each other using impersonal, absolute language we are led into a naive realism where we come to think there is a single reality that we all share. This naive realism in turn leads us away from realizing that we have choices and enjoy possibility.

People who live in naive realism are less likely to recognize the conditional aspects of the world in which they live. Naive realism acts like a one-way sign which they obey, no matter if it is leading them in a direction they do not want. What Langer found in her research and experimental studies is that people get along better if they use or are presented with conditional language.

[page 100] Using conditional language leads both the speaker and the listener to be more mindful. Of course, we as listeners can and perhaps should hear conditionally regardless of how absolute the speaker is being. Moreover, by recognizing that language is not the same thing as experience and that it speaks to our similarities rather than our differences, we are more inclined to recognize that our health experience, although described similarly to others, may be quite unique. Only we know what our experience is and we cannot afford to give up our control of it. No matter how careful a doctor is, his role as expert, combined with a patient's expectation for certainty, make the language of medicine very powerful.

One of the powerful metaphors used by both doctors and patients is that of "fighting a disease". What few people realize is that the use of that metaphor empowers the disease. It establishes a win-lose scenario in a situation where a win-win scenario would be preferable. If we treat the disease as an enemy, we may fight and lose, but if we choose to treat the disease as a teacher, we may learn from it by changing our behavior in such a way that the disease ceases to operate and disappears. People who understand that God gives us problems to learn from them have no trouble learning from problems which appear in the form of diseases.

About thirty years ago, I had a young man, Tom, who came to several of our weekend groups. He talked almost constantly, scarcely letting anyone else get a word in. His ability to talk incessantly served him well as a telephone recruiter, but not as well socially. He was a lonely man when he was off the phone. One week he was sick and unable to work. When he returned to our group, I asked him the two questions I recommend to people who have been sick, as a way for them to learn about the reason for their illness.

One: what happened during that week that would not have happened if not for the illness?

Two: what did not happen that would otherwise have happened?

The first question explores the aspect of permission; the second the aspect of protection. What did the illness give Tom permission to do? Only I couldn't ask him in that direct way, so I asked him what happened that would not have happened. "Nothing" came the reply. So I probed further, "What did you do?" "Stayed in bed." "Did anyone come visit you?" "Yes." "Did you talk?" "Yes, but I mostly listened." To the second question, nothing came up. Clearly the illness gave him permission to sit quietly and visit with a good friend and allow the friend to do most of the talking. This was an experience he could achieve only by being sick, up until then. Mindful of this process, he could schedule such times of quiet conversation from then now. Sometimes illnesses occur for such a seemingly unimportant reason, but, rightly understood, for the soul and well-being of the person, it is a very important reason.

Let me tell you a story about myself. In 1975 I got a case of red measles at age 35. Rare, but not unheard of, except for one thing: I had red measles as a child and doctors hold absolutely that one can not repeat red measles. My mom had five boys and a girl and that made her an expert on red measles before the time of vaccinations for the disease, so I believed her report that I indeed had red measles. Years later, when I applied the two questions to my red measles bout, I came up with an amazing answer: "Being home that week gave me important information on my wife's behavior that I would not have gotten had I been at work." We divorced about a year later because of that behavior. I learned from a lot from that second case of measles conjured up by my body at just the right time.

A puzzle appeared in a Reader's Digest when I was a kid which had three triangles inside of which were the three expressions, "Paris in the Spring", "Bird in the Hand", and "Once in a Lifetime". To solve the puzzle, one had only to count the number of letters in each triangle. What a waste of time, I thought, in my naive realism, but I counted anyway and got 4, 4, 4. The only problem was that the answers were 5, 5, 5. Seems that upon closer inspection, I found that two articles the in the first two triangles, and two articles a in the third triangle. These articles were repeated at the end of the second line and the beginning of the third line to read, e. g., "Paris in the the Spring." This repetition was completely invisible to me, and to many other people apparently. Many years later when another puzzle asked me to count how many of's were in a sentence, I was able to count them because I knew from the above puzzle about how short words disappear as we read them. This is the process of priming as used by Langer and others to describe how our environment builds up expectations in us so that we do things or miss things because we have been primed to do so. Here's one example Langer gives:

[page 102] The way priming works is to trigger ideas we have mindlessly committed ourselves to without our awareness. For example, if we've learned that women are not very good at math, and the concept "woman" is primed, math ability will suffer. Psychologists Margaret Shih, Todd Pittinsky, and Nalini Ambady found just this when they had female Asian students take math tests where for one group their identity of "Asian" was primed and for another group their identity as "woman" was primed. The stereotype of Asians is that they are good in math. The stereotype of women is that they are not good in math. They primed gender by asking questions such as whether they lived in a coed dorm. They primed ethnic identity by asking if there were any languages other than English spoken in their extended family. Their scores plunged when their identities as women were primed, but when their identities as Asians were primed, their scores soared.

Interesting, you may be thinking, but not a life and death issue involving health. But read this next case study and you may change your mind.

[page 106, 107] The psychologist Herbert Lefcourt tells the story of an institutionalized woman who had been in a mute state for nearly ten years when she and others in her unit were moved to a different floor of the building while their own was being renovated. The third-floor unit where she had been living was known among the patients as the "chronic/hopeless" floor. Her new unit, on the first floor, usually held patients who were close to being released and enjoyed special privileges, including the freedom to wander the hospital grounds and the neighboring streets.
      Prior to moving the patients, staff gave medical examinations to the patients, and the woman in question was judged to be in excellent medical health, despite being mute and withdrawn. Much to the surprise of her doctors, shortly after moving to the first floor and enjoying some of the first-floor privileges, the patient began to be responsive to the staff and other patients, and soon she began to speak, in time becoming quite gregarious. Unfortunately, the redecoration of the third floor was soon complete. Within a week after she had been returned to the "hopeless" unit, the woman collapsed and died. Her autopsy revealed no known medical cause, although some suggested that she had died of despair.

There is so much bad press about kids playing video games today, that one scarcely need try to rebut the naive realism upon which such judgments are based. But courageously Langer offers one rebuttal.

[page 108] There may be many ways to improve our vision. Psychologists Daphne Bavelier and C. Shawn Green, in fact, found that the act of playing video games can improve visual skills. Interestingly, they attribute the improvement to the uncertainty regarding what will happen — and when it will happen; when we don't know what to expect, we stay mindful.

For myself, I was working in a company in a planning department where we spent much of the day working on computer terminals. One day a network was installed which linked all our computers together. We soon found out how we could play the video game DOOM together on our lunch breaks. With four of us roaming about the video game's cyberspace fragging each other, this half-hour became the most intense and exciting time of the day. For me, it reminded me of those halcyon, pre-video game, days in the 1940s when my three brothers and I would play cowboys and Indians, or cops and robbers, on dark evenings, running, hiding, and play-shooting each other. For me those noon video games took me back to my 8- to 11-year-old self and my body felt a sense of euphoria and health after every game. It was the most intense "counterclockwise" experiment that I ever participated in. After about three years of this, I retired from the company to become a full-time writer, and from my three fellow Doom players, er, victims, I received a plaque labeling me company DOOM MASTER. At first I attempted to recreate this experience at home over the Internet, but this was the early days and I was only partially successful and gave up on such games. At the company, the video game provided a relief for me from the regimented planning work, but later being a writer, I could choose my own regimen and had no need for such breaks. With a new PS/3 we use for playing Blu-Ray DVD’s, I got a couple of games for Christmas from our grandkids which I can use to do a little counterclockwise conditioning every so often.

Langer discusses the placebo effect in this next passage:

[page 109] The placebo effect extends much further than many of us realize. It comes in many forms: subjects exposed to fake poison ivy have developed real rashes, and people imbibing placebo caffeine have been shown to experience increased motor performance and heart rate (and other effects congruent with the subjects' beliefs about the effects of caffeine and not with its pharmacological effects).

How can folks who are exposed to fake poison ivy develop rashes? By my basic hypothesis, if one person can do this general placebo process we all can and are doing it all the time, out of our awareness. And not just with poison ivy, but all of the rashes, allergies, and many other illnesses. What is a disease? Some toxin or bug gets into us and our body develops healing states to overcome the toxin or bug. What we label the disease is actually the healing states which arise in the presence of the toxin or bug. My red measles case at age 35 was a recapitulation of the healing states which occurred to me at age 4. My body stored those healing states, and when the need arose, was able to generate the healing states of fever, sensitivity to light, and red spots on my chest. My family doctor couldn't figure out what I had after several visits and he sent me to an internal medicine specialist in another city. I was amazed to look down the hall after the doctor had left the examination room to find him consulting with a colleague and both of them looking into a large medical reference book! Naturally I was worried, but when the doctor returned, he said, "Don't worry. It's just not often we get a case of adult red measles."

If my body could produce the healing states of red measles, it seems clear to me that the healing states of poison ivy can also be recapitulated. There is no need for the ivy's poison to enter the body for the healing states to be re-created upon the stimulus of poison ivy and so fake poison ivy may work as readily as real poison ivy. I have never had poison ivy, so far as I know, and I doubt whether the real stuff or the fake stuff would have any effect upon me.

There is another type of rash which adults get called shingles, which I have never had either. Shingles are the healing states of chicken pox which are stored as doylic memories if one had chicken pox before the age of five(7). If you had chicken pox at age six, seven (as I did), or older, no shingles. But if you had chicken pox before the age of five, you may have recurrent bouts of shingles, and you have the possibility of eliminating them by a simple memory trace to convert the doylic memory of the healing states into a cognitive memory(8).

As a writer, I drink coffee several times a day as it helps me think clearer and write better. Contrary to the naive realism view that caffeine keeps one awake, I experience no such effect from drinking coffee. Sometimes in the afternoon, if I got up early to start writing, I will have a cup of coffee and then immediately take a twenty-minute nap. Makes no difference at all if I drank coffee or not, I go to sleep and wake up refreshed 20 minutes later. I doubt the fake caffeine would have any effect on me. My skepticism makes it even more likely that I would be right about the effect of fake caffeine.

[page 109] Herbert Benson and D. P. McCallie Jr. studied the effectiveness of several placebo-like treatments for angina pectoris (a type of severe chest pain) and found that when patients actually believed in the therapies, they were 70 percent to 90 percent effective, while for those people who showed some form of skepticism they were only 30 percent to 40 percent effective.

What is curious to me is that mindsets, rightly understood, are cognitive memories of some information stored and capable of being triggered by various events in our external environment. Mindsets therefore, like any cognitive memory, are capable of triggering doylic memories which may include various healing states stored before five years old. As such our mindsets are capable of triggering various diseases whether the operant toxin or bug is present in our body or not. This will seem ridiculous to those with a naive realism view of the world, but for those can accept a multi-ordinal view of the world, they may wish to hold this as a possibility.

I mention these things and also note that Langer seems to be open to a multi-ordinal view of the world. Note the thrust of the questions she asks in this next paragraph:

[page 119] Do our thoughts about food actually determine the effect it will have on our bodies? For example, do those who do not lose weight from sugar substitutes essentially believe they are consuming sugar? If we imagine eating candy, would our blood sugar increase? Do our thoughts about clean air actually affect our ability to breathe? Do our thoughts about contagion actually affect our getting sick?

The answer, I believe, is Yes, but try proving it and you have to take on Dragon Science in a big way. But you don't need proof to operate on your hypothesis that it works. Some thirty years ago when I returned to New Orleans after living for almost nine years in various spots from California to New England, I decided to begin drinking Mississippi river water, which was easy to do as it comes from our tap. It is water that drains the middle of this great land, and I consider it a blessing to ingest trace elements from this river's watershed. I consider it the healthiest water I could drink, much better for me than water which sat for hundreds and thousands of years underground like that sold in bottles. We keep plastic bottles for convenience, but refill them with our tap water. In an astounding taste-test, New Orleans water won a taste-off against other waters from around the country, including water from high mountain streams in the far northwest. What I have learned is that what tastes good for me is good for my body and my health. Someone said facetiously in a workshop I attended that Mississippi River water in the purest in the country, having been purified by the kidneys of five Midwesterners before it reaches New Orleans. Those whose stomachs turn at that thought have mindsets which may be ruling their lives and should seek more of the mindfulness which Langer urges upon her readers.

[page 120] Placebos are wonderful things, it seems. We accept a pill along with the lie that is effective, and so we adopt a beneficial mindset and heal ourselves (it can't be the pill, after all, because it is a placebo). And then attribute the success to the pill. Wouldn't it be more advantageous to recognize that when placebos work we are the ones controlling our health, to learn how to exercise it directly, and to see ourselves as efficacious when we do?

How can one go about this consciously? Placebos are no use because they only work if we are unconscious of the pill being a placebo. So, what can one do starting from where one is today? One could say this sentence: "I am unable to adopt a beneficial mindset and heal myself, up until now." This is a direct application of the limitation eraser — one of the most powerful tools for self-change I have discovered. It can be applied over and over, every sentence of the day, if necessary, to break up every form of limiting mindset, can it not? You think not? Then say, "I doubt that the limitation eraser can break up my mindsets, up until now." You think it might work for others, but not for you? Then say: "I doubt it will work for me, up until now." And so on, making sure to take a deep breath at the comma break before "up until now". Keep working on every statement of limitation you hear yourself thinking or saying, and eventually your negative mindsets will give up and simply fade away. Then the real challenge will begin as you learn to replace the negative mindsets with positive ones from now on. This is your life — the mindsets you acquired from others may no longer suit you. Thank those mindsets for sticking with you for so long and bid them Adieu, Adios, and let them "Go with God" which, rightly understood, is where they originated from to give you problems from which you would learn the right way to a healthy life eventually.

---------------------------- Footnotes -----------------------------------------

Footnote 1. Read my Matherne's Rule #39: "How quickly do you recover when hit by a presupposition?" for more information on the effects of presuppositions.

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Footnote 2. "The map is not the territory," said Alfred Korzybski in his classic book on General Semantic, Science and Sanity. The word mindset as coined by Ellen Langer in her book, Mindfulness, is a map by Korzybski's definition, and thus any mindset is not the territory, it cannot represent all the territory. There is always even more.

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Footnote 3. This basic hypothesis heads my Matherne's Rules.

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Footnote 4. My wife and I witnessed Patrick sing Amazing Grace in the Crystal Cathedral in 2008.

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Any questions about this review, Contact: Bobby Matherne


Footnote 5. See my 2009 poem The Dragon Paradigm.

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Footnote 6. See my review of The Cry and the Covenant by Morton Thompson for more details. Dr. Semmelweis died in obscurity, a martyr to his own discovery of the immense benefits of prophylaxis in teaching hospitals and elsewhere.

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Footnote 7.

Before the age of five, known in doyletics as the Memory Transition Age, all bodily states are stored, probably in the limbic structure of the brain, after five, no bodily states are stored, only cognitive memories, or just plain memories. Five is the age of transition from doylic memories to cognitive memories.

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Footnote 8. For more details on someone who actually did this, see: http://www.doyletics.com/shingles.htm .

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