We live in a time where loss of memory diseases are an ever present fear. Most of us have experienced alarm at forgetting something we thought was important. Does how we handle this forgetfulness make a difference? What I see is that the under 30 group is also forgetting keys, names of movies, etc. but don't think much about it, whereas the older group quickly decides that one is heading toward Alzheimer's disease.
Ellen Langer, a social psychologist at Harvard, says that this way of thinking can have an influence on whether or not we get a disease– and if we do, on our healing ability. She has done experiments with how much our intention, our way of entering into a situation, is an influence on our health and our ability to be creative. In a well known study from 1981, she took eight men in their seventies ("this was before 75 was the new 55”) to a converted monastery in New Hampshire. Everything was designed to evoke images of 1959: the books, magazines, the black and white TV with Ed Sullivan, Perry Como, etc. The retreat lasted five days, after which time the subjects were tested again on their sight, hearing, memory etc. and showed marked improvement, as if they were 22 years younger! *
When Ellen decided to take up painting, she found her studies as a psychologist on the effects of engagement (as opposed to distraction), on shaping positive internal images, on noticing new things, to be essential. The ability to let go of "doing it right" and the decision to just pay attention is how I need to begin each piece of work. For this reason, the most difficult day for me in teaching a workshop is the first day. I have to enter fully in, forget the rules, throw us all over a cliff, before I can manage to get students (and myself) to "arrive", to be present to possibility, to let go of a plan, to "dream with our hands". As Mary Oliver said:
justpay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try to make them elaborate, this isn’t a contest but the doorway
At the point at which we are willing not to know what we are doing or how something will turn out, wonderful things begin to happen. The students come alive and do things they did not know they could do.
Ellen Langer is doing studies that confirm an intuition that psychology, how we think about ourselves, is some component of every disease, including Alzheimer's. That "mind" and "body" are essentially ideas, and they are not fundamentally separate. When I forget something I remind myself to pause, which gets a different result than scrambling ahead in a desperate attempt to remember. The willingness to wait, to pause, to breathe is so simple and often forgotten! It brings us back to the moment. Being fully engaged has other benefits besides pleasure– as we cannot be fully present with the color going down on the paper, and be concerned about what anyone else thinks at the same time. Our fears are often about the future, so being engaged in the moment leaves no room for fear.
*(Ellen Langer has done several studies of interest: http://www.ellenlanger.com)