May 29, 2014
Ellen Langer —
Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness

Social psychologist Ellen Langer's unconventional studies have long suggested what brain science is now revealing: our experiences are formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. Naming something "play" rather than "work" can mean the difference between delight and drudgery. She is one of the early pioneers — along with figures like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Herbert Benson — in drawing a connection between mindlessness and unhappiness, between mindfulness and health. Dr. Langer describes mindfulness as achievable without meditation or yoga — as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Guests

is a social psychologist and a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Her books include Mindfulness and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

About the Image

Dr. Ellen Langer presents at PopTech's annual conference at Camden, Maine, where she discussed the illusion of control, perceived control, successful aging, and decision-making.

Episode Sponsor

Funding provided in part by the John Templeton Foundation.

Share a Reflection

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

Reflections

This merits listening to again and again. The concepts are at once simple and obvious yet complex and profound...like life. I have sent links to many of my clients (I am a therapist), my children, and I put the link to this podcast on my iPad homescreen. Thank you for such a thougtful and thought-provoking interview.

Thanks, Nancy. You said it for me.

I second Nancy's comments - worth listening to time and again. Thank you!

Learning English as SL with this so so delightful and interesting conversation is a true pleasure.
Thank you very much for the transcription, and kind regards from Spain

I think she interpreted your first question from her psychological perspective, but she did not understand it...

If that's the one about 'having a religious experience,' she answered it directly and simply and completely. --If psychology isn't about being 'human' what is, what is more important for you to understand? (But: "Psychology is today where chemistry was when it was alchemy--it's not a basic understanding yet, relative to it's subject.")

Meditation is not just the preparatory work to mindfulness, it is the most mindful state when mantras and objects fade away. Enlightenment, in part, is the state of constant mindfulness/awareness. After years of meditation, mindfulness becomes more and more the natural state of being, similar to compassion( empathy, cognition, action) vs empathy.(see Richie Davidson's work)

One thing meditation does develope, at least in myself and most others I have observed, is a more ethical way of functioning. But, I do agree with most of what Langer has to offer. She is a very REFRESHING voice, not prone to only her point of view and this is how it is etc. Thanks for a great interview!!has

This is an enlightening subject and certainly a way of life for those of us who wish to broaden our perspectives and nullify the negative thoughts that hinder our growth. Please keep writing and enlightening me and I will pass your wisdom onto my students in class. many thanks

joanne summerfield

Another note is that mindfulness without ethics, could also be used in many nefarious ways.

Very good point...

Great show. Langer's work is very very important and deserves to be much more widely known.

Very interesting interview with Ellen Langer. I have not come across her work before but I will be looking out for her work in future. I completely agree regarding the mind / body split. After reading Patrick Wall's book on the science of suffering I began to think in terms of the thinking or conscious body. We talk about the mind in a very ambiguous way, sometimes in the sense of the mind being the brain, other times as that which gives rise to consciousness experience. I now conceptualise the mind as a phenomena that arises from the thinking or conscious body and it's environment (both internal and external), rather than it being an entity in itself. Our whole body thinks, it's not a function confined to (that admittedly amazing organ) the brain; and the body, with it's internal and external senses, is dependant on it's environment as part of that thinking process. Sensory deprivation soon leads to pathology in the thinking body. Could the mind then be the (conscious) experience of that process, not an entity which functions in its self?

I also completely agree with Ellen regarding placebo. This powerful phenomena has been long overlooked. As has it’s darker counterpart, nocebo. I dislike the term placebo because of its negative connotations. I have been playing around with different names. Symbolic healing? Symbiotic healing even!

One of the threads I have come across time and time again in healthcare it that people need their suffering acknowledged and validated. I think that is why diagnosis are frequently sort and so important, especially in our Western culture which has many systems in place which fail to acknowledge your suffering unless you have a diagnosis - preferably with lots of tests to back it up!

I think part of placebo is about acknowledging suffering, validating the individuals experience and giving them ‘permission’ to heal. Louis Gifford frames placebo as primarily a social phenomena – as social creatures we respond biologically the people around us. The thinking body!

All the shows are wonderful and this one was especially amazing. It is surprising how many of the guests are people I've never heard of.

The only aspect I have a very different sense of is that there is an explosion or even growth in consciousness awareness and that everyone knows about mindfulness and meditation. Sometimes I think people who are in this world for a "living" think everyone else is too. I hear very very very few people reference these subjects in everyday life - really, it's hard to find anyone who even cares enough to wonder about it. Look at the number of comments on this page relative to say any article on Huffington Post or some celebrity or sports page.

As i was listening to this lovely program on Mindfulness, and Ellen was talking about ‘pretending”it occurred to me that the process of pretending, as an actress, has often had a profound effect on my state of being. And the next thing she said was that it would be interesting to study actors!! I had an amazing experience last year playing the part of Violet in August Osage County here in Michigan. I think actors are trained to pay attention. We need to be mindful in order to recreate the experience of being someone else, and then to turn it off. I would love to take a course with Ellen.

I was distracted enough during the Langer interview by her repeated interruptions of Krista to recommend viewing a transcript instead. At one point, she even asked Krista, "Do you have a question?" -- this after Krista apparently sighed. Did the guest have a lapse in mindfulness as to decorum during an interview?

While listening this morning I had an opposing feeling. ..that Krista was doing the interrupting. I believed she was not following the flow of the thoughts being presented. I did find the hour to be one of the most enlightening I've heard in a long time. Thanks.
db

This woman (Langer) was full of herself. I was waiting for Krista to stop the interview.

I had the same take.  The exchange where Krista was taken to task for not marveling at the good Dr. Langer's originality was awkward.  A bit oversensitive for a tenured Harvard prof are we?   Kind of curious now about what was removed from the unedited interview.   Any hints guys? :)

Although the Tolle association was right on target, and with a great deal of institutional supporting research I'll assume.  As such I do plan to read one or more of Dr. Langer's books so mission accomplished.  A few red flags however.. 

I agree. I thought her description of her great composure at having her house burn down and the gifts she received from the man who parked her car, her chambermaid, et al., was very odd. I understand she was making a point, but that was clearly not a tragedy, it was an inconvenience that some might consider a tragedy, but it was not a tragedy on the scale many of us face, and whose stories are partly told everyday in local newspapers and international news shows.

Fantastic show... fantastic show today with Dr. Langer. Thank you so much.

Ms Tippett,

Well, Sundays with OnBeing reminds me of growing up watching the morning news show with my parents and the discussion around events and what make us part of this wonderful, wacky and worldly experience...called life. Dr. Langers' research appears so important that I will share with colleagues and friends. Have you thought of interviewing Drs. Steven Hayes or Kevin Polk [ ACBS] as to the impact of verbal behavior run amok that disposes us humans [verbal] beings to greater qualitative grief and even what we call as...dysfunction.

Sincerely,

john

Krista, please, there's a show/theme here begging to be. The word "mindfulness" has become a plastic word. To some it means being more aware of yourself, to others more aware of other things. O.K. But spiritual development used to be about waking up. Waking up can't just be a nicer, longer list of things to be "aware" of. Like, now I've got all this other stuff to think about.
Waking up is about finding the original balance between our two brains. (Jill Taylor)
Waking up is about learning to be instead of always being a doer.
Waking up is about coming into the full consciousness of your own presence and realizing
that whereas your thinking mind is quiet, the rest of your mind is very bright and brilliant. (see Tara Brach Wed. nite talks) I'm reacting, Krista, because the term "mindfulness" needs to be rescued from the narciscisstic idea that we can just get more comfortable. The left brain ego mind always wants to get more comfortable. And our ego mind doesn't want to believe that it's only a tool. But truely being here now involves opening the heart and seeing/understanding our connections to all of the web of nature, especially since we're the dominant species. We need to know where we are and what we're doing. The right brain has been performing those functions for 600K yr. Opening up and coming into your total presence and full consciousness means allowing your energy to go into the consciousness of right brain, body and heart, and because there's no need for "thinking" to go on, no need for analyses, the thinking (chattering) brain is quiet. called meditation.
True mindfulness, said Stephen Levine, doesn't seek to change anything, just be aware.
So I would submit, Krista, I would offer this theory, that hard working folks who are doing difficult challenges in their lives, many of whom wake up in the morning with to-do lists, and many of whom have become addicted to left brain dominance, would have a different kind of meaning for the term "mindfulness" than someone who was not locked into the necessity of left brain dominance, which, I believe, is necessary in order to get complicated stuff done. The problem is the ego brain wants to think that it's doing everything. It thinks it sees. Wrong. (that's just thinking) It thinks it holds the energy of life that is present. Wrong. The "life that is here" in any presence might include the ego mind, but the magic of aliveness, the humming in the cells, is a phenomenon that exists and is perceived quite outside the thinking mind. Meditators learn this.
namaste

Fantastic--I've believed many of these ideas for years--how wonderful to have someone speak about this with such clarity. Can't wait to get some of her books!

Thank you Ellen and On Bieng Team. So well done.

When I awoke this Sunday morning, much earlier than I intended to, and felt refreshed and awake, strangely, I decided to turn on the radio (more to hear how the Red Sox had done the night before, than anything else, but anyway . . . ) and just in time to hear the beginning of this show, which I do not regularly listen to. I was so interested in what Dr. Langer had to say, I just lay there for an hour listening. I found myself agreeing with so many points, and thinking how astute many of her quotes were, and hoping I could remember some of them. Then during the day, kept thinking about that hour, as my recollection of her name, the show's title, and many of the specifics faded from my memory. So decided to find this and so glad I did. I look forward to listening again, perhaps buying her books, and bringing her ideas to the attention of family and friends. Thank you, NPR. (and AFN for broadcasting overseas)

I have labeled my work as "play" ever since I started with SWBT 40+ years ago. I transitioned to SBC and now AT&T. It's easy to embrace change in telecommunications - I started there when I was young and was taught that change is the 'norm'. I loved it and loved learning anything new. Still do. I read Quantum Physics books at lunch because I like reading over my head. I have two offices: my work office and my play office. The kids in the family have to ask which is which. i think my mindset was the key just as Langer suggests.

As a fan of Roman Stoic philosophy, a lot of this interview rang true for me. Ellen then confirmed I was on the right page by quoting Epictetus.

There's a large and often unexplored overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism, particularly around mindfulness and attachment to the transient. Perhaps because of its, and my, western heritage, I found Stoicism much easier to connect with than Buddhism. And like Ellen, Stoicism is unerringly practical in the advice it provides.

One of the things I enjoy most about On Being is being exposed to different views on similar concepts. It was a nice change to have something more directly in my wheelhouse, so to speak.

I was thrilled with this program! i've listened three times now, and have it queued up again for later today. more here than meets the ear.

Listening to the interview with Dr. Langer was shocking to me. All she was discussing, in fact, was simply the concepts of mental discipline and maturity. Her condescending, sanctimonious, and insulting perspective about individuals who feel stress is so ridiculous that I felt embarrassed that Ms. Tippett would conduct such an interview. Certainly, I was considered there were no real challenging questions regarding the simpleton nature of Dr. Langer's theories.

I felt like I was listening to a snake oil salesperson trying to claim that their approach was the solution for all problems.

If I heard correctly that the APA views Langer's approach as significant, then it sets back the reputation of psychological studies.

While I enjoyed hearing Ms. Langer and appreciate much of what she said, I was flabbergasted and insulted by her example of chambermaids "getting exercise" instead of her recognition of how blue collar workers earn their living. Labor, toil and sometimes excruciating pain in legs, feet and back from so much exercise! Not to speak of insensitive bosses breathing down their necks to do more, go faster, work harder. Maybe she needs to get out in the real world, away from Haaavad Yaaaad, and spend a few hours working out with chambermaids. She can start with an upscale hotel, but then she needs to shadow these fit and fabulous women at a Red Roof Inn. What a spoiled, self-absorbed woman. If she has a spiritual or compassionate component, she covers it well.

I think you missed her point. The work is the same, the feeling about it is different when we give it a different label. How you see your relationship to your "work" does make a difference even though the work may not change. Ms. Langer did not even address the difficulty of the work, because it was not the point she was making.

Well, it should be the point of what any thinker on mindfulness should be. The idea of asking low paid exploited workers to just change their attitude to their activity is actually appalling. it is not neutral, but a legitimization of appalling conditions. Why don't you become a chamber maid and think of it as exercise--and do it for decades--If you can't put yourself in that place, I would suggest re-thinking. same advice I'd give to Dr. Langer.

Mary Baker Eddy discovered this in 1866 and spent the rest of her life increasing in understanding of it.

During a group reflection and dialog on the importance of relationships in healing, I had a moment of clarity which resulted in this poem which I offer to anyone who finds it useful. I use it when teaching coaching skills as a way to capture what we mean by presence. The group was sponsored at that time by the John E. Fetzer Institute as part of its exploration of Relationship Centered (health) Care.
The sound of my own silence

I listen for the sound of my own silence
and cannot find it.
Clanging thoughts and images shroud
every crevice of my heart.
My mind is full of distractions:
the voices in the hall,
the pretty feet of the woman next to me,
a distant bird, a plane, the tea kettle,
the sound of pens and paper stirring,
a bell some where else
calling someone else
to their work.

I listen to the sound of others’ breathing.
(Near me there is a doctor
who knows the sound of her patients’
more than the sound of her own heart.)
but here is also my own silence.

Just now there was a moment
of peace between two thoughts,
a second or two when
I connected without thought -
with the food
left on the table
the fragrance of a flower
and scent of some soft perfume.
My own silence
From which my senses
Touch the world.

Copyright 2006 Samuel P. Magill

I have been listening to this show for years. It is the FIRST time that I stopped listening after about 10 minutes. I found Ellen Langer so arrogant... It could just be an impression. She mentioned that she studied transcendental meditation, I wonder what other modalities she studied. Her tone turned me off completely.

I agree. Although I never felt like turning the show off, her arrogance and narcissistic nature pervaded throughout the interview, and had I been Krista, I would have had a hard time being polite with her, since she was so blatantly egotistical and yes, even rude. [As someone mentioned earlier, the chiding of Krista for her "slightly original" remark was totally annoying, not to mention inappropriate]. However, the woman did have a lot to say of merit. I guess sometimes we don't have to like the messenger, we just have to hear the message.

thank you for sharing this topic and speaker with us!

Hello,
I was at first intrigued by the interview with Dr. Langer and slowly became horrified-- I am listening to her ideas about making work "playful." The level of insensitivity to the actual conditions in which the vast majority of people in this culture, let alone the world labor dreary hours. Factory work, sweat shop, service sector jobs, cleaning jobs. People in this economy working double jobs. conditions that mostly affect women and racial minorities. I am aghast that the show would uncritically present a view of mindfulness which puts the problem or solution on the individual's attitude. This exemplifes what David Loy calls McMindfulness.
sincerely
Kathy Miriam

Nice interview and good summary of Ellen Langer work!
Thanks,
Bassam

In my work as a coach and well beyond (motherhood, being a wife, daughter, manager, business owner, committee chair, board member, etc.) ~ my experience (and therefor what the people around me experience) always seems to come back to perception. This piece offers such a beautiful and powerful affirmation as well as expanding the ideas I already practice and have learned to incorporate into daily living. Absolutely sharing with my "sphere of influence". Thank you for making this available and for the commitment to supporting her (and the likes of her) work.

new to your show addicted and loving until I met up with this woman she struck me as so arrogant and so narrow in that her explorations were of folks that were for those that had the luxury of being in situations that were relatively benign meaning that they had a roof over there heads or enough to eat that day or were not getting the shit beat out of them by someone and had no means of escape privilege$$$$$educationand the list goes on so while I have been moved by so many of your shows I really wanted to give this woman a good tongue lashing or perhaps even though not very evolved notion a good slap That being said I have no idea what the body of her work has entailed only know I had to say something because I found her distasteful I do not have that experience of you and will continue my new addiction but you know sometimes we have to speak up when so moved thank you for your show and all it has opened up for me just get rid of this chick Thank you
and no means