In an unconventional experiment some 30 years ago, psychologist Ellen Langer (ARTS ’70) brought two groups of elderly men to a weekend retreat in New Hampshire. While there, she asked the first group to reminisce about their lives in 1959, aided by old issues of Life magazine, screenings of Jimmy Stewart films, and conversations about Mickey Mantle and Fidel Castro. She put the second group in the same surroundings, but with one crucial difference: Rather than just talk or read about the good old days, she asked them to pretend they were young men actually experiencing that year as if for the first time.

At the end of the trip, both groups seemed to benefit. But the men asked to live in 1959, rather than recall it, showed greater improvement on posture, strength, and flexibility tests. They also scored better on vision, hearing, and intelligence. Langer appeared to have temporarily reversed the aging process, simply by asking her subjects to believethey were younger.

This experiment—which will soon have a second life as a feature film starring Jennifer Aniston in the role of Dr. Langer—has inspired many studies on the psychological elements of aging. But it also suggests that we have more power than we realize over our own health. Such ideas have become popular among the growing ranks of Americans practicing yoga, meditation, and other mindfulness-based activities. And these practices are gaining credence in mainstream scientific circles now, too. NYU’s Hospital for Joint Diseases provides a mind-body physical therapy program for those with disabilities. Physicians at the NYU Langone Medical Center recently introduced yoga, acupuncture, and hypnosis to aid in infertility treatment. And the center’s MindBody Education and Patient Care Program offers everything from pre-surgery meditation exercises to holistic nursing services to a 24-hour relaxation channel airing on the hospital’s in-house television. The trend might be best evidenced by the National Institutes of Health, which has spent more than $1 billion on research into alternative and complementary treatments in the past decade.

Few doctors deny that a holistic approach to healing must be taken seriously. But the interactions between mind and body are notoriously hard to untangle. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the results produced by fake pills and other interventions, known collectively as the placebo effect. Preliminary research from doctors and biologists investigating the many quirks of placebo are opening new ways to understand and treat the mind and body together. And as the research mounts, more are becoming convinced of the possibility that a new frontier exists in medicine: mind-powered healing.

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Originally published in NYU Alumni Magazine in Spring 2011 by Jascha Hoffman