Beat the Clock

Photograph by Tim Jordan

"Old age is no place for sissies," quipped Bette Davis. Intrepid journalist Lauren Kessler, who heads the UO's graduate program in multimedia narrative journalism, bravely attacks the aging process head on in her latest book, Counterclockwise: My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones, Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in the World of Anti-Aging (Rodale, 2013), an account of her yearlong process of researching—and experiencing—what makes us feel "old" and what we can do about it. From attending a Utah bootcamp in 118-degree heat to taking a cold, hard look at a digitally aged image of her future self, Kessler confronts both the science and the stereotypes of growing older, particularly as they relate to women "of a certain age." In this excerpt, Kessler describes her visit to a hypnotist in an effort to "think young."

Old Oldie was what everyone called her. She was my mother's great grandmother. Her bedroom was up in the attic of the big house, and every morning for as long as anyone would remember, she would wake before dawn, braid her long white hair, coil the braids around her head, and walk down three flights of stairs to the kitchen where she would bake biscuits or rolls or quick bread for breakfast. That's how the rest of the family awakened, to that sweet, yeasty smell. Then one morning, there was no sweet, yeasty smell. Someone climbed the three flights of stairs to her room to see what was going on. She was there, in bed, hair fanned out on the pillow, eyes closed. She had died in her sleep. She was 97. Or 102. It depended on who was telling the story.

This afternoon I am telling the story, sprawled on an oversized, pillowy recliner in Rosemarie Eisenberg's cozy office. Rosemarie is a certified hypnotist and Guided Interactive Imagery practitioner who uses deep relaxation, creative visualization, and hypnosis to get people to stop smoking or prepare to do battle with an illness or conquer a fear. I am here to have Rosemarie hypnotize me to "think young."

I'd been doing a lot of reading in the "you are what you think you are" literature, and I wanted to explore the idea that mindset—that is, what you think you are—might exert a discernible influence on who you are, or become, biologically. What, if anything, would happen if Rosemarie planted the suggestion—which is what she says hypnotism really is—of a youthful mindset? Would I feel younger? Would I be younger? This isn't as far-fetched as it may sound.

The idea that we can think ourselves young, that our minds could instigate changes in our bodies, is what Ellen Langer calls "the psychology of the possible" and what others have called the "biology of hope" or the "biology of belief." Langer is my new hero, a brilliant Harvard psychologist who, for the past 35 years, has been designing ingenious social experiments to test the general hypothesis that our beliefs might be one of the most important determinants of health and longevity. Over the long course of that research, she has come to believe what yogis have known for centuries, what holistic and mind-body practitioners have been saying for decades (but without her good data): "If one's mindset is altered, one's body will change accordingly."

Now suppose what you think is Old is Bad. Suppose, after years of hearing jokes about being over the hill at 40 or 50 or 60, after seeing thousands of commercials for Depends and Ensure and cellphones with three-inch-high numerals, after watching hundreds of movies and television shows with cranky, crabby, asexual older people, suppose you begin to conflate "old" with sick, debilitated, and diminished. With forgetful, slow, weak, timid, and stodgy. Those last five adjectives are the most common negative, "unthinkingly accepted" stereotypes of "old" in western cultures, according to one group of researchers.

What's even worse about stereotypes and older people is that, to a much greater extent than many other groups stigmatized by negative stereotypes, older people internalize and accept society's view of them. Researchers have found that older people view their own group every bit as negatively as they are viewed by others. And so older people think of themselves—or we, the not-yet-old, think of our future selves—as unhappier, less likable, less useful, more dependent. This is, researchers like Langer believe, a self-fulfilling prophesy of decline.

The study that made me wish I could have been one of Ellen Langer's grad students was her famous 1988 experiment where she transported a group of old men to a carefully designed and controlled retreat where they were surrounded by cues to their younger years: magazines, newspapers, TV, radio, music. They were instructed to talk only about "current" events (from the 1950s), speak only in the present tense, to basically play-act that they were living their long-ago lives. They were subjected to a battery of tests before and after. The results blew me away. After their week of Living Young, the men showed marked improvements in: physical strength, manual dexterity, posture, gait, memory, taste sensitivity, hearing, and vision. Yes, you read that right. They got younger.

I'm ready to do the same. That's why I'm sitting here in the oversized pillowy recliner in Rosemarie's office. I had been prepared for her to ask me about my younger self. I thought, under hypnosis, I'd maybe experience this younger self, like those old guys at Langer's Living Young retreat, and awaken from my trance with my clock ticking backward. But Rosemarie, who's been in this business for more than 25 years, has other ideas. She smiles and says let's get started. I lean back to an almost horizontal position, put on a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and give myself over to her soft, lyrical voice and the background music she chooses, that wispy, ethereal stuff massage therapists always play. She asks me to imagine a deeply restful, safe place and asks me to go there. I'm trying, but all I can think of is whether I remembered to set my cell on vibrate and how I am going to write about this experience later if I zone out while actually experiencing it. But the music, her voice, the way she cues my breathing, all . . . do something. My breathing gets slower and deeper, and after a while I am just, well, floating: peaceful, relaxed, not exactly in the room anymore but very much aware of everything.

Rosemarie asks me to call up a strong, wise person, someone I respect and can talk to, someone, she says, "who might have something to say to you." That's when Old Oldie comes into view, a woman I have never met nor even seen a photograph of. And that's when I tell Rosemarie the Old Oldie story. In case you're wondering if you should trust my account of all this, the account of a woman under hypnosis, let me say two things: First, I actually remember, with great clarity, everything that happened during the hourlong session; and second, Rosemarie keeps wonderful notes that she gives me when we finish.

Rosemarie wonders if there's anything I want to ask Old Oldie. Of course there is! Did you really die in bed? What does it feel like to be 97 or 102 or however old you were when you died? And how did you manage to live so long? Were you happy when you were very old? Rosemarie allows me to blather. So, for that matter, does Old Oldie. Finally, Old Oldie says, "I didn't think much about my age. I just got up every morning and lived." When I say, "she says," I don't mean some conjured apparition speaks to me. It's more like the words suddenly pop into my head, but I know they're not my words. Then she says, "There was always something new every day." I tell Rosemarie this, and as soon as I say it, I realize—yes, even in whatever state I'm in, I realize—what Rosemarie is up to. She's not interested in me accessing my younger self. (What does that kid know anyway?) She wants me to learn about aging from someone who's done it with resounding success. She wants me to feel hope about my older self. And she wants me to feel optimism. "There was always something new every day," Old Oldie said. Now that's optimism.

* * *

It's near the end of the session with Rosemarie. Rosemarie has switched gears and asked me to try to imagine my older self, my self at 90. "Tell me what you see," she says gently, her voice soft and muffled through the earphones. After a while, I see a woman up ahead, and I guess that must be me. "What does she look like?" Rosemarie prompts me again. I squint, in my mind, to make out her face. This shouldn't be difficult. I have seen a photograph of my much-older face, courtesy of the folks at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington Face Aging Group and their sophisticated computer program. I've looked at that digitally aged photo dozens of times, scores of times. But this woman I've conjured is ahead of me, and she won't look back. I can't see her face. I am trying to gain on her so I can get a close-up glimpse, but she is moving too quickly. I watch her steady, purposeful strides. I see her squared shoulders, her straight back, the rhythmic swing of her arms. She moves with confidence, with a kind of banked energy, with embodied youth. This is the image I've been looking for without knowing it. This is who I want to be, who I will be: a healthy, vital, active, "longer-living" person. Expectation rules outcome.

—By Lauren Kessler

Web Extra: Read and comment on Kessler's Counterclockwise blog, where the author and readers discuss the hope and hype of antiaging, at www.counterclockwisebook.com.