Are we primed to conk out?
Exposure to certain stimuli can affect our attitudes and behaviour. This is priming. Numerous experiments have demonstrated its power. In one famous experiment participants were asked to describe the taste of wine while listening to music. It was found that their responses depended on the type of music – for example when listening to Carmina Burana by Orff a wine was described as powerful and heavy but when Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from the Nutcracker Suite was played the same wine was ‘subtle and refined’. Priming, when used intelligently, can be life-changing. A therapist treating a depressed patient who feels she is useless and incompetent can prime her by asking her to recall situations in her past in which she has been competent. However, usually priming is unconscious. From subliminal advertising to politically correct – or incorrect – ideas and biased information, our view of the world can be drastically altered.
Kazim is a devout Muslim. A mystic informed him he would live until the age of 73; since then he has lived his life in accordance with this prediction. In his view this is God’s plan for his life. He looks forward to death when he hopes to meet his Maker. If Kazim lives beyond the age of 73, his whole belief system would crumble. His body is therefore likely to begin to deteriorate in time for this prophecy to come true. Another example of self-priming for death is that of Ezekiel Emanuel, director of the Clinical Bioethics Department at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. His blog explains why he does not wish to live beyond 75. He believes by then he will have lived a full life. He does not wish to witness the slow decline of his physical capacities and the vanishing of his creativity. Although he gives an example of a colleague who is still extremely productive in his nineties, he feels this person is an outlier. His father deteriorated suddenly following a heart attack at 73. In fact the way our parents experience life after 70 has a tremendous effect on our expectations. Their attitudes and actual health prime us perhaps more than any other example of older people. We believe that as we share their genes, we will fall ill and die at the same age. This may lead to a collapse in our immune system ‘in time’ for this to happen. It is more : any life after the age of death of a same-sex parent may be seen as living on borrowed time.
There are clear biological differences between young and older people – for example sleep patterns due to melatonin levels and the ability (some scientists are now claiming this is merely willingness) to absorb random but not necessarily useful information. However, Ellen Langer’s classic study of a group of gentlemen in their 70s suggests priming has the greatest effect of all on how we age. The men were surrounded by magazines, movies and music from when they were in their 50s, and were encouraged to speak in the present tense about topics that interested them twenty years earlier. After just five days in this isolated environment the men showed greater concentration, memory skills, posture, eyesight, hearing, strength and flexibility. If just five days of positive priming can have such a remarkable effect, we can only imagine what a lifetime of positive priming about abilities after retirement age might do.
When we hear of a serious illness afflicting someone from our age cohort, or the decline in someone’s proficiency, we immediately wonder about ourselves. If we read an article stating the average composer writes his last significant work at 52, or that the prime of life ends at 60 after which ‘people’ generally experience a feeling of loss of control and dissatisfaction with life, information like this primes us. Our ambitions and expectations shrink. Sometimes priming is so strong reading articles which demonstrate the contrary frighten us. We think : if we internalize a positive stereotype about ageing, will this constitute denial? But there are countless examples of people who remained productive and active well into their eighties and beyond, and this is likely to be even more true for future generations.
If you suddenly discovered your life was going to be 30 years longer than you thought….how would that change your plans and the attitude to the rest of your life?
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