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The ‘theory-ladenness’ of perception

October 8, 2012

In his duscissuion of mindfulness, and the tendency of the mind to reinforce its perception of reality with what we already believe to be (the ‘theory-ladenness’ of perception (p.180), Guy Claxton writes about some work being done on old age. He writes:

“A less stylised example [of “tinkering with reality… at levels of mind that are way below conscious intention or control”] is provided by the concept of ‘old age’. Being ‘old’ is not just a biological phenomenon; how one goes about ‘being old’ depends on one’s (largely unconscious) image of what it is like, what it means, to be old, and this in turn reflects a whole raft of both cultural assumptions and individual experiences. Ellen Langer and colleagues at Harvard University have examined the effect on elderly people of their own vicarious experiences, as children, of ways of being old. They reasoned that children may unconsciusly pick up images of old age from their own grandparets – which they might then recapitulate as they themselves get older. Specifically, they surmised that the younger their grandparents were when children first got to know them, the more ‘youthful’ would be the image of old age that the children would unconsciously absorb, and the more positively they would therefore approach their own aging.

In order to test this idea, they interviewed elderly residents of nursing homes in the vicinity of Boston to find out if they had lived with a grandparent as they were growing up and, if so, how old they were when the grandparent first moved in. When they were independently evaluated by nurses who knew nothing about the research, it was found that those elderly people who had lived with a grandparent when they themselves were toddlers were rated as more alert, more active and more independent than those whose [-p.182] first experience of living with a grandparent had not occurred till they were teenagers. While further research is needed to clarify the interpretation of these results, it does look as if the ways in which different people age depends quite directly on the assumptions and beliefs they have picked up in their childhoods about what it is to be old.” (181-182)

Ref: Guy Claxton (1998) Hare Brain Tortoise Mind: Why intelligence increases when you think less. Fourth Estate: London

Referring to Langer, Ellen Mindfulness: Choice and control in everyday life (London: Harvill, 1991)

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