Ellen Langer

The Human Potential: From Mindlessness to Mindfulness, Part I

VTR Date: December 4, 1997

Guest: Langer, Ellen


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Dr. Ellen Langer
Title: The Human Potential: From Mindlessness to Mindfulness, Part I
VTR: 12/4/97

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And it’s easier and more seemly for me to say this now, for at the moment, and I hope only for the moment, The New York Times Company Foundation isn’t underwriting The Open Mind as it has for so long, but I can say about today’s guest, as about so many of my guests in the past, that I discovered her in the pages of The New York Times. For it was in September 1997 that I read a wonderfully evocative Times piece by Philip Hilts, entitled “A Scholar of the Absent Mind.” It was about Dr. Ellen J. Langer, professor of psychology at Harvard, whose books on Mindfulness and on The Power of Mindful Learning, both published by Addison Wesley, now occupy the most honored place on my reading shelves.

Of course, as the story noted, it was Dr. Langer’s seminal researches into how large and often debilitating a role mindlessness plays in our everyday lives that led her to focus more helpfully and hopefully on mindfulness instead, on the ways we can indeed come off of automatic pilot in our functioning, with, I’d like to think, open minds, open to what rational beings really can be taught to do and to achieve.

Now, I don’t know if Dr. Langer knew him, but a most valued and very dear old friend, Max Lerner, the late popular historian, politician scientist, journalist, was a frequent guest here on The Open Mind from its very beginnings four decades ago and more. And once, when I had asked Max just how he might identify his personal philosophy or psychology, he thought for a moment, stared hard at me, and then proclaimed, loudly and clearly, “Dick, when all is said and done, I’m a possibleist.” And that, I’d like to think, comes close to Dr. Langer’s insistence in The Power of Mindful Learning that, if I may quote her, “Once we generate possible ways of doing something, even if they are low-probability bets, the perception of a solution’s being possible increases enormously.” And I believe Dr. Langer is saying that then solutions themselves increase enormously as well.

Is that a fair assumption, Dr. Langer?

LANGER: Yes. And I think that I’ll from now on call myself a possibleist.

HEFFNER: It’s a nice phrase. Yeah. It’s a nice word.

LANGER: It’s different. It says more than being an optimist, which captures part of it, of course.

HEFFNER: Well, as a lifelong pessimist, somehow or other I could…

LANGER: Relate to possibleist but not…

HEFFNER: …relate to possibleist.

What do you think the most important part of your message in these books, particularly The Power of Mindful Learning, is? What are you telling me? What are you telling the audience?

LANGER: I think that essentially what people need to realize is that when they’re mindless, they’re mindless; they’re not aware of being mindless. So that much of the day is spent in this state of mind with consequences that we can talk about that are quite debilitating, and they’re oblivious to it. You know, that when you take in information mindlessly, it doesn’t occur to you to think of that information when it could be to your advantage to do so, either to take advantage of opportunities or to avert dangers that are soon to arise.

So I think the most important part is that you can be in this place, having negative consequences, and be oblivious to it. So it’s hard to figure out how to protect yourself from it.

HEFFNER: Well, how do you get along during the day from point to point if you aren’t oblivious to most of the things around you?

LANGER: Oh, you’re saying it’s good to be oblivious?

HEFFNER: Well, I’m asking you whether there isn’t something to be said for doing things on automatic pilot.

LANGER: Yeah. No, I don’t think so. But I think that, I lecture many places, and that’s a question that I always get. You know, “Isn’t it advantageous to, at least sometimes, not spend the effort being mindful?” And to that there are basically two important comments that I have. One is that it’s not effortful to be mindful. We’ll go over that in a little bit perhaps.

The other is that you might want to consider three states of mind. You have being mindful, where you’re actively noticing things, drawing distinctions. You’re there and aware. And being mindless, where you’re responding based on categories and distinctions drawn in the past, so you’re not there. The past is overdetermining your behavior. And the third state is, let’s say, potentially mindful. So that you don’t have to, I don’t have to actively be thinking about what we’re going to be talking about next, but I don’t want to mindlessly think I know what we’re going to talk about next so that I then misunderstand, for instance.

Oh, let’s say that when I’m eating cereal that I don’t have to actively notice all of the corn flakes or whatever it is that I’m eating, but I don’t want to have learned to eat cereal mindlessly so that if a thumbtack happens to be in the bowl then I’m not going to see it.


LANGER: Okay, what I’m saying is that, I think there are two conditions under which it’s fine to be mindless, and to my mind only two. One is if you’ve found the very best way of doing things. Just remember, when you’re mindless there’s going to be no deviation in your behavior. So if you’ve found the very best way and things don’t change. And to me those are conditions that are, at the least, hard to meet.

HEFFNER: Now, now, wait a minute. You’re saying if you’ve found the very best way and things don’t change, then you can accept the notion of mindlessness.

LANGER: Yeah. What I’m suggesting, essentially, is that one should always be mindful. And it’s easy to be mindful as long as you don’t mistakenly think of negative thinking as mindfulness. That’s what’s stressful. People say, you know, have said to me often, “How can you do that all the time? I mean, how can you spend so much time actively thinking?” Because they think that thinking is hard.

Let me, you know, sort of break for a moment and talk about play. When you’re at play, or at a play, either case, when you’re at leisure, enjoying yourself, what makes the activity that you’re enjoying enjoyable is the fact that you’re actively noticing new things; you’re being mindful. If you did a crossword puzzle that you just completed, so you know all the answers, there’s nothing fun about it. If you hear a joke that you’ve already heard, there’s nothing fun about it. If you repeat any activity with the intention to make it just the way it was before, it won’t be enjoyable. But when we’re out there playing, having a good time, what we’re doing is noticing subtleties. And that’s not hard. When you say to somebody, “Could you play for hours on end?” they say, “Yes.” Well, then you can be mindful for hours on end and just keep enjoying it.

HEFFNER: Well, of course, you’re not talking, your researches haven’t to do only with enjoyment.

LANGER: Oh, no, on the contrary. In fact, the early work talked about the potential negative consequences of excessive mindlessness, which are severe. I mean, we started a lot of this in nursing homes where I recognized that… we had in the past gone into nursing homes, we gave people simple decisions to make, things to think about, essentially we encouraged them to be mindful. And what happened is that they lived longer. Or, to turn it around, those who were treated in the routine way that they were used to prior to our visits died prematurely. And we replicated that.

HEFFNER: Right, now how do you account for that? What does it mean?

LANGER: Well, I think that essentially that, you know, that when one is actively drawing distinctions, that’s the essence of being alive. You know, we have an expression, a colloquial expression, “The lights on, but nobody’s home.” You know, there are ways that people are aware that you’re there. And when you’re there and alive and looking alive, you’re engaged in the environment, drawing these distinctions, how it translates psychophysiologically I don’t want to get into, but we have done enough experiments now where I feel comfortable saying that in these environments with elderly people, and similar health findings with younger people, when we teach people to deal with novelty, actively draw distinctions — that’s what it means to be mindful — that it has positive ramifications for their physical health, and in some instances results in a longer life. We get an increase in IGE, a decrease in IGE rather, that’s important for allergies.


LANGER: Immunoglobulin E. Measure of immunocompetence.

We get an increase in IGA, immunoglobulin A, another measure of immunocompetence. And you want to increase IGA, decrease IGE. All of that which is happening on that level that we can’t see seems to be improved with these mindful interventions. But I deal on a different level, and I don’t want to, you know, I want to say that whether it’s direct means or indirectly, that when one is operating on the world mindfully that their psychological and physical health seem vastly improved.

HEFFNER: May I just ask why don’t you…


HEFFNER: …want to get into that matter of what the connection is between the physiology and the psychology?

LANGER: Well, basically because I’m not a dualist. I don’t have a sense of mind and the body and then, so that it’s my job to figure out how you get from one to the other. Also, that they’re just different levels of analysis, and it’s not the level at which I’ve done most of the work, so I don’t want to speak without the confidence that I might on this other level.

Let me give you an example of health effects that occur even indirectly because of mindlessness. So, let’s say, oh, when you’re younger you’re told that as you get older you’re basically going to fall apart. Okay.

HEFFNER: I’m proof of that.

LANGER: [Laughter] We all are.

Now, what happens is that, when people are given information that initially feels irrelevant to them, they’re not going to spend time actively thinking about it, dealing with it mindfully. Instead, what we tend to do is we just accept it. If you accept information without thinking about it at all, what happens is you lock yourself in to an understanding of that information so that alternatives don’t occur to you later when it might be to your advantage. So, I’m 20 years old and my wrist hurts. Well, 20-year-old’s wrists aren’t supposed to hurt, so I go to the doctor and I take care of it. I am 50 years old and my wrists hurt. Well, now, you know, I’m getting old, and my body starts to fall apart. The expectation, based on this mindset that as you get older your body falls apart, now I don’t do anything to take care of it, and in fact my wrist doesn’t have to get bad. Most of the ills that the elderly experience, in fact, aren’t necessary parts of aging. But we don’t take care of them often because of our assumption that that’s what it means to be old.

HEFFNER: Do you mean I’m going to find the fountain of youth in the power of mindful learning?

LANGER: That would be nice. You’re certainly…

HEFFNER: I’m hoping.

LANGER: Yeah, you’re going to get closer to it. You’ll sip from the fountain. And beyond that, you know, then we talk about the fountain of youth, the implication is that we have no limits, and the naysayers say we can’t get past them, there’s a certain point…

HEFFNER: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. You’re saying the naysayers say that?


HEFFNER: You don’t think in terms of those limitations?

LANGER: No, I don’t think in terms of limits. I don’t know whether or not there are limits, but I don’t know the means by which we’d find them. And that I think we have to be careful to distinguish between an outcome being uncontrollable versus an outcome being indeterminate. So, if you say, “Can somebody live to be 200?” well, nobody’s lived to be 200, we don’t know how to extend life so that somebody can be 200, so all we can say to the answer to that question, “Can it be?” the answer is indeterminate. Although many people would like to think that because we don’t have extant data, we don’t have proof that it can be, they take that as evidence that it can’t be. And as a possibleist, as we said initially, no, you know, that what I think would happen is that people now not uncommonly, although not typically, live to 100. Let’s say we extend that to 110, and then to 111, and so on. And going up by a year, a day, that at some point perhaps we can live to 200.

HEFFNER: There’s no question in my mind that Max Lerner’s possibleism enabled him to live through an awful lot of harsh, physical problems and live to a very, very ripe, old age. But now I don’t have to subscribe to that level of possibleism to be very much impressed by the actual researches, the results of the researches that you report on here.

LANGER: Yeah. No, that the effects that we found deal with most of your daily living, and you don’t have to go to extremes and think about living to some excessive age. No, we have, in The Power of Mindful Learning, the research that we’ve done essentially deals with mindsets that we have about learning that I think actually lead us to behave in a mediocre way. Whenever you bring learning to mind, whether it’s learn how to get a divorce, learn how to be a better person, learn how to do your job better, or some academic subject, or how to play tennis, doesn’t matter. As soon as you say to yourself that you’re going to learn something, then what “learning” means to you starts to operate. And we have some, I think, very mistaken notions.

For example, people think that practice makes perfect. I argue that, at least the way most people practice, practice tends to make imperfect. What people try to do, when you’re first learning a task, is you just keep doing it over and over again until it becomes second-nature. With the implication that you want to learn it so that you don’t have to think about it. Oop, when I say that, a bell goes off in my head. Why would you want to do anything and not be able to think about it? Because it’s in thinking about it that you’re able to change it. Slightly this way, move it that way, to improve your performance.

So there’s this irony that when you first learn a task, when you know the least about it, that’s when you’re going to freeze your understanding of it, never to return to it when you know more about. We don’t want to do that.

HEFFNER: Now, wait a minute. Couldn’t you be accused of hyperbole here?

LANGER: I think that it would be hard to get a researcher or an academic, or a human being in this culture, and not accuse them of hyperbole. Yes. But no more so than anyone else.

HEFFNER: Okay. No more so than anyone else. But I was thinking, exactly when you wrote about that in your book, I was thinking of the tasks in which you are helped to become mindful by initially or by in some ways being mindless. Now, is that too much of a contradiction, that if you master by rote…


HEFFNER: …by repeating certain steps…

LANGER: Yeah, no, I really…

HEFFNER: …that won’t lead to anything good?

LANGER: Well, sure, that if you, if I’m taught by the master…


LANGER: …how to do something, and I do it mindlessly, the way the master does it, I’m probably going to do it better than lots of people who are mediocre, because the script they’re not following was not designed by, quote, “the master.” But I’m not going to do it as well as I can do it, which might surpass the master. What I want is to be taught by the master, and take those initial steps, and be able to vary them ever so slightly to meet my own mind, my own body, my own resources.

So, for instance, let’s say I’m taught, oh, how to play basketball by Michael Jordan. Now, Michael Jordan’s hand is probably twice the size of mine. He is much taller than I am. There is very little about the two of us physically to engage in this physical activity that’s the same. It seems to me somewhat absurd to think that I should do it exactly the way that he does it. The implication being: the more different I am from the master, the person who’s teaching me, the more important it is that I don’t mindlessly perform the steps as outlined, that I want to be guided by them. I want to know basically, this is how you hold a tennis racket. And I want to be take that in and use it in that way, but knowing that if the racket’s a little heavier, the next time, when I’m using a heavier racket, I want to hold it a little differently. If I didn’t sleep well, so my shoulder hurts, I want to hold the racket and play the whole game slightly differently. And those subtle changes that take advantages of changes in context are the things that don’t happen when you’re mindless.

HEFFNER: You know, I guess what I was talking about was what you said just in a second, you said, “Holding the racket.” Well, I’m talking about holding the racket, and there may be a little more, and a little more. I’m talking about numbers even.

LANGER: No, but when you… No, no. Even holding the racket, Dick, that when you’re holding that racket there is nothing in holding it that should be absolutely certain that this is the way you hold it. And what you do when you learn something mindlessly is you freeze it so that you don’t vary it after that.

HEFFNER: Well, I’m a little embarrassed to talk about this, but at my age, I decided I wanted to learn how to dance.


HEFFNER: Sexy business. And went with my wife to a dancing class. Wonderful, wonderful people, who insist upon my understanding what I was doing, very much along your lines. And I said, for me, I’ve got to master a couple of things automatically, then I can apply the mind.

LANGER: Yeah, well, I think that’s what you need to do, and I don’t think that’s what you need to do. But you have many people… I don’t know, do people do the cha-cha anymore?

HEFFNER: What’re you asking me?

LANGER: [Laughter] Years ago, you know, you’d go to a function and you’d see people doing dance like this, and you see a lot of the men in particular, but also women, going, “One, two, cha-cha-cha,” that they didn’t know how to do their few steps with their feet without repeating “One, two, cha-cha-cha,” whatever the instruction was. I think that you want to be guided by rules, routines, ways of doing things; you don’t want to be governed by it. You want to be there so that you can change your behavior based on changes in circumstances.

HEFFNER: Okay, okay.

LANGER: That’s all that I’m saying.

HEFFNER: Let me just offer the notion that you do need, in some instances, guides, and that some people…

LANGER: Oh, for sure. No, no. But that’s not mindless at all. No, you want, I want someone to show me how basically one holds the racket. But what I want to do is, when I’m learning that, not think I have to hold it exactly that way in all circumstances. What happens is: certainty leads to mindlessness. Once you think you know, which is what that practice does to you, if you do it the exact same way each time, you come to think you know. Once you think you know, you don’t attend. When you don’t attend, and the subtleties that could be exploited don’t get used to your advantage.

HEFFNER: Well, two things. One, we’ll have to go dancing.

LANGER: Oh, surely. The cha-cha. [Laughter]

HEFFNER: [Laughter] Never mind the cha-cha.

Two, I’m fascinated that later today, as we tape this show, I know I’m going to be taping a couple of shows with George Soros, the multi-billionaire. Soros has made his billions, he says, by a belief in what he calls his foundation out of the open society, belief in an open mind, a belief in our sense of fallibility, because, just as you say…

LANGER: That’s what I’m saying.

HEFFNER: …when we get too involved in something, we can’t see a better way of doing it, we can’t see a more profitable way of doing it. And it’s fascinating that the two of you think so much alike.

LANGER: Yeah, and what’s interesting though is that if you said to anybody, “Do you have an open or a closed mind?” everybody is going to think they have an open mind. If you said to people, “Do you want to be situated in the present or not?” everybody wants to be situated in the present. Nobody knows how to do these things. And it’s very simple that the way to be situated in the present is to actively draw distinctions to be mindful. That keeps you in the present, and that’s what keeps your mind open.

HEFFNER: But let me ask you this question: Reading your book, can you believe it, I began to think about Gilbert and Sullivan. And you’ll wonder why. But I went to my Bartlett’s Quotations because I couldn’t remember where “all of us ‘conservatives’ or ‘liberals’” was. And it’s in Ialanthy, of course, “I often think it’s comical how nature always does contrive that every boy and every gal that’s born into the world alive is either a little liberal or else a conservative.” And I know that I was thinking about that, I was making that association, because I wondered whether it’s possible that there are people who are, by nature, not liberals or conservatives, but open-minded or mindful, and those who are, who lean more toward mindlessness.

LANGER: I think that, I don’t think that it’s genetically determined.


LANGER: But I certainly do think that there are likely to be differences, that one’s experiences that lead you to think that there are absolutes, that there’s one way of doing things, and you’re in an environment where these similarities are pointed out all the time rather than the differences, so you look for similarities, so it’s a higher level of abstraction, so things can — you know, we’re people — that if we look lower than we’re a man and a woman, that makes us different, then there’s more to think about, then we’re a particular man, a particular woman, and so on. So if you’re in an environment that stresses similarity, an environment that stresses absolute reality, there are truths out there that exist independent of human presence. Certainly people who grow up in that kind of a world are likely to end up more mindless. Because mindlessness is based on accepting information without question. So that if you’re brought up, an alternative to that, in an environment where, oh, your parents come from different cultures, so that there’s no single right way of doing things, you might end up more mindful. There…

HEFFNER: Go ahead. I’m sorry.

LANGER: That there’s an overwhelming tendency, I think, to confuse the stability of one’s mindset with the stability of the underlying phenomenon. So what happens is that, when what people do is freeze their understanding and act as if that’s what’s going on, when it’s their mindset that’s still, things are moving. Now, when you pay attention to the things that are moving, that are changing, you get an opportunity to make changes in yourself, in the world, to succeed in ways that otherwise you might not.

What I was talking about when I said learning, the mindsets we bring up when we’re learning, usually, anything, when you’re learning facts, if you take these facts as absolute truths, then you don’t question them. So people who are brought up in authoritarian families, where the facts given are absolute, they’re likely to do less questioning than people who were brought up to know that facts are situated. And they’re true, but not always. So I was with a friend in Singapore, and I asked the taxi driver about how large the Chinese population was, and he said, “Seventy-six percent.” And I laughed. And he was very smart. And I said to him, “Not 77 or 75?” In which case it was clear that we were both talking about the same thing by implication. And that I asked him, you know, where this 76 percent came from. Well, the government had proposed that, and it was published in the newspaper a few days before. And so that’s taken as absolute fact, not paying any attention to the number of people who might leave that day, the number of births that might occur, surprising deaths and so on that would change that number. But the point is, we take in information, we freeze our understanding of it, we don’t have to pay attention to it again, it’s less fun to live that way, but that’s the way many people do live.

HEFFNER: Do you think that there are those of us who perhaps choose not to be that rational?

LANGER: I don’t think… No, actually I’m not sure that being rational isn’t more mindless. But that’s going to take us into a whole different place. [Laughter] Because, no, there’s just not…

HEFFNER: In a half a minute.

LANGER: Yeah. [Laughter] I can’t. You’ll have to read the book and then call me and we’ll… Well, you have read the book.

HEFFNER: I have read the book, and I’m asking you the…

LANGER: So you and I can talk afterwards.

Well, to talk about something as rational means you have a set of rules, and the following of the rules can be, in some sense, mindless. So when you take two plus two and decide two plus two is four, that’s a rational way of dealing with those numbers, but it’s only within a particular number system. Two plus two isn’t always four. The point is that if we all follow a certain set of rules, that behavior is seen as rational. Often deviating from those rules is seen as irrational when instead it might be following some other rule.

HEFFNER: You know, I wasn’t really talking about rational or irrational; I was talking about rational or emotional.

LANGER: Oh, okay.

HEFFNER: But maybe we ought to get into that the next program. So stay where you are, and we’ll do another program.

LANGER: Oh, all right. That would be fine.

HEFFNER: Thank you so much for joining me today, Ellen Langer.

LANGER: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time too. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.