Counterclockwise Study: The Science Behind Mindset and Ageing

Every year, the Happiness and Its Causes conference in Sydney brings together some of the world’s best scientists, educators, psychologists and artists to explore happiness and fulfilment from all possible angles. 

Psychology Professor Ellen Langer's counterclockwise study explored the relationship between mindset and ageing.

In 2012, psychology professor Ellen Langer appeared on the event’s stage to discuss her book Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility and some of its most illuminating revelations. 

‘The study of possibility is the study of what might be rather than a mere description of what is’, she said during her presentation. ‘Possibility opens up when we recognise the difference between uncontrollable and indeterminate…trying is the key’.

Langer is a pioneering researcher in ageing. In 1981, she became the first woman ever to be tenured in psychology at Harvard University in the U.S., where she continues as a professor of psychology today. A social scientist with little regard for convention, Langer earned the moniker ‘The Mother of Mindfulness’ for her work exploring the human mind and all of its untapped potential. 

‘When we’re mindless, we’re not there to notice we’re not there’, she said during her appearance. Langer has built her entire 50-plus-year career on that premise, time and again claiming—and proving through original scientific experiments—that mindset matters. A lot! 

Our beliefs and expectations about ageing, specifically, can have a monumental impact on our health as we get older. 

In 1979, Langer conducted an experiment to demonstrate just that. 

Ellen Langer's counterclockwise study asked the question: If we turn the clock back psychologically, can we also do it physically?

The Counterclockwise Study

For her experiment, Langer accompanied a group of eight elderly men in their 70s to a residential retreat that was set up to recreate the social-physical environment of 1959. 

Her question was: If we turn the clock back psychologically, can we also do it physically? 

As Langer explained in her Happiness and Its Causes presentation, the experiment started somewhat inadvertently the moment the group arrived at the retreat. The elderly men had brought heavy suitcases for the week-long stay, and with only Langer there to assist them, they had no choice but to carry their bulky luggage on their own. 

What seemed like an oversight at first—not having younger, stronger people present to help unload things—actually set a precedent for the entire retreat. The elderly men couldn’t take a defeatist attitude, or else their suitcases would have been left in the van. 

Despite their advanced age, the group successfully hauled the luggage into a residence that was actually more like a time machine. They spent the week sequestered there, in 1959, speaking in the present tense about the past while truly living, believing and behaving as though the clock had turned back two decades. They didn’t simply remember what life was like in 1959—they lived it. 

They listened to Perry Como and Jack Benny songs on a 1950s radio. They watched Ed Sullivan on a black-and-white television. They discussed current events, watched movies, flipped through magazines, and even dressed like it was two decades prior. There weren’t any mirrors in the house to disrupt the illusion, either; the only reminders the men had about their appearance were portraits they’d brought of their younger selves. 

Outside that residence, it was still 1979.

But inside it, the eight elderly men involved in Langer’s experiment became young again. And by the end of the week, their physical health reflected that psychological reversal of time: they showed substantial improvements in flexibility, dexterity, memory, hearing, posture, cognitive ability and general wellbeing. They even looked younger to outside observers who were shown photos of them before and after the experiment. 

Counterclockwise study Ellen Langer quote: Health is more than the absence of illness

The Power of Possibility

To this day, more than 50 years after the experiment, Ellen Langer argues  the physical limitations we encounter as we get older are largely determined by how we think about ourselves and our capabilities. 

The moment those eight men arrived at her experimental retreat in 1979, they were no longer elderly and feeble—if they had been, their suitcases would’ve never made it inside.

They spent the rest of the retreat immersed in such a different mindset, that by the end of the week, post-experiment tests showed marked, measurable improvements in a multitude of physical attributes. It wasn’t just psychological anymore: the men quite literally shifted their states of mind and altered their wellbeing.

‘Health is more than the absence of illness’, Langer told the audience at Happiness and Its Causes in 2012. ‘Our mindsets may be the cause of unnecessary limits’.

She goes into greater detail about all of this in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility, which was published in 2009 and provides a detailed analysis of the counterclockwise study. But many of Langer’s other experiments have made waves over the years and speak to the power of the mind.

Her famed chambermaid study, for instance, saw a group of hotel maids drastically change their health via the placebo effect. With a simple tweak in perception, the maids began viewing their laborious jobs as exercise, which led to weight loss, blood pressure improvements and increased wellbeing throughout the group. 

In another study Langer cites, participants read a list of negative words associated with ageing—and within 15 minutes, they were walking more slowly than they had before.

That’s what happens when we mindlessly accept possibilities and probabilities as absolutes without asking, ‘Is that really the case?’ The counterclockwise experiment presented an alternative possibility to the group of elderly men—a possibility that they were actually younger, stronger, and more capable than they’d come to believe—and their bodies responded physically to that new frame of mind. 

Modern science plays an important role in ageing and our understanding of it

The Role of Modern Science

Getting older is a part of life. 

The argument here isn’t that having a certain mindset will prevent ageing; rather, it’s that we don’t need to accept, believe and surrender to the concepts that we’ve been conditioned to hold as absolute truths. 

As Ellen Langer said, we have the choice to reorient our attitudes, challenge ingrained beliefs about our health and ageing, and take control of our own wellbeing even as we get older. Her counterclockwise study has been connected to and even credited for the emergence of some of today’s most effective mindfulness practices, including types of reminiscence therapy, which itself borrows from different branches of modern science. 

And science is often the great equaliser.

It can shed light where there was none previously, and it can flip our doubt or scepticism by helping us consider things from different perspectives. The fact is, when it comes to ageing and health in general, emerging sciences—much like the counterclockwise experiment in 1979—point a decisive finger to potential while revealing that we are far more powerful than we’re often led to believe. 

Ellen Langer's counterclockwise study was also an example of neuroplasticity, one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in modern history


Data shows that we think 60,000–70,000 thoughts per day, and up to 90% of those thoughts are the same as the day before. 

Ellen Langer’s message—in her experiments, books and presentations—is that we need to become mindful of those thoughts to affect change in our lives. In other words, we need to start thinking about what we’ve been thinking about. That’s mindfulness!

On the topic of ageing, many of us have been conditioned to associate ‘getting older’ with frailty, rigidity, and incompetence. It’s probably not a leap to say those associations have become hardwired attitudes, beliefs and perceptions in the public consciousness—and in our own minds. 

Fortunately, that doesn’t have to be permanent. 

Neuroplasticity is one of the most important scientific breakthroughs in modern history. It proves that the brain is a ‘plastic,’ living organ capable of changing its own structure and function even into old age. This completely overturns the centuries-old concept that brains are fixed and unchanging; put another way, it makes the well-known adage ‘You can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ totally obsolete. 

Psychiatrist and researcher Norman Doidge, M.D. wrote a groundbreaking book on neuroplasticity called The Brain that Changes Itself. This collection of case histories explores the astonishing progress of people who leveraged neuroplasticity to regain wellness, including stroke patients who recovered all of their faculties and older people who rejuvenated their ageing brains. 

Ellen Langer's counterclockwise study opened the doors for other mindfulness practices such as reminiscence therapy and mental rehearsal

Reminiscence Therapy & Mental Rehearsal

The human body is so unbiased, it can’t tell the difference between real-life experiences and ones being created by thought alone. 

In a famous experiment, scientists took two groups of people and asked them to learn to play piano: one group practised finger exercises on actual keys, and the other group simply rehearsed the exercises in their minds without ever touching a piano. After five days, brain scans revealed people from both groups had developed the necessary fine motor skills at almost the same rate. 

Mental rehearsal is a form of mindfulness that can quite literally alter our neurology and even our biology; it’s proof that we can change our states of being by thought alone, similar to how the elderly men in the counterclockwise study improved their health by thinking and behaving like their younger selves. 

Reminiscence therapy works in similar fashion.

Frequently practised by people living with dementia and memory impairment, reminiscence therapy utilises photographs, music and other everyday objects to help someone remember past events and experiences—and, most importantly, feel the warm and fuzzy emotions associated with those positive recollections. Research shows that reminiscence therapy can help with mood, self-esteem, communication skills and interpersonal relationships.

Ellen Langer's counterclockwise study and epigentics,


In Greek, ‘epi’ means ‘on’ or ‘above’—epigenetics literally translates to ‘above the gene.’ 

This branch of science studies how our behaviours and environment influence the function of our genes. Epigenetic changes in the body affect gene expression, causing genes to switch ‘on’ and ‘off’ like little lights. That suggests we aren’t captives of our genetics; on the contrary, we’re actually capable of altering our gene expression given the proper conditions. 

The activating and deactivating nature of genes stems from signals in the environment, which can mean the environment outside the cell but inside the body or the environment outside the body altogether. Either way, such genetic changes aren’t coming from DNA but rather from messages outside of our cells. 

In the counterclockwise study, the bodies of the elderly men began receiving new messages: the men adopted elevated mindsets while thinking, speaking and behaving much differently than their ‘normal,’ elderly selves, and their bodies physically changed as a result.

After just one week in that environment, they experienced meaningful improvements in everything from flexibility and memory to hearing and cognitive function. They didn’t age in reverse like Benjamin Button, but they opened the door to possibility while exhibiting just how much mindset affects our health and wellbeing. 

Now, can you imagine if they’d stayed in that mindset for longer than a few days? 

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