‘Stay Tuned In To What You Don’t Know,’ Says Ellen Langer

May 12, 2010 9 Min Video

The Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates attributed his wisdom to being aware that he knew nothing, and believed that the unexamined life isn’t worth living.
He was constantly in search of getting to the truth of all matters that interested him, and would question everything often to the point of exasperation.
What Socrates understood was that we tend to live our lives in a way that suggests that we’re always in control, and certain about what we think we know when, in fact, the opposite is true.
Although he wouldn’t have used the term, Socrates lived a life of mindfulness and it would appear, through the writings of Plato, that he was all the happier for it, taking even his unjust death sentence in his stride.
The philosopher valued doubt and he rarely, if ever, thought himself to be absolutely certain about anything.

The mindless game of mindlessness

Defining what it means to be mindless, Harvard professor of psychology Ellen Langer believes it to be a state of mind in which we are “rarely in doubt, but frequently in error”. Speaking to host Roshan Thiran on The Leaderonomics Show, Langer outlined the relevance of mindfulness and how it can benefit people in their personal and professional lives.
Explaining mindlessness, she says, “Mindlessness comes about in one or two ways. The first is when you take in information and believe it to be necessarily true; and the other way, which is most familiar to people, is when you do things over and over again.
“For example, most people who drive have had the experience of suddenly getting to a place without knowing how they got there.
“If we didn’t have that experience, I think we would be even more oblivious to how often we’re mindless. I’ve been studying this for over 30 years and I can say that virtually all of us are not there (in the present).
“No matter what you’re doing, you’re doing it either mindfully or mindlessly. When you’re mindless, you’re at risk from all sorts of indirect effects such as accidents, and you don’t get a chance to avert the danger before it happens.”

Turning back time

Langer was the first female professor to gain tenure in the psychology department at Harvard University, and has authored 11 books as well as hundreds of research articles for general and academic audiences during her career, spanning over 35 years of studying mindfulness.
In her book Counterclockwise: A Proven Way to Think Yourself Younger and Healthier, Langer looks at turning the clock back psychologically, and asks whether we can turn the clock back physically as a result. The hypothesis was born from the idea that medicine doesn’t know everything there is to know about our health, and that by opening our minds to potential possibilities, we actively shun the natural inclination towards focusing on the impossible.
On The Leaderonomics Show, the award-winning psychologist expounds on a fascinating study she led. A group of male octogenarians were invited to spend seven days at a retreat that was “retro-fitted” to resemble life as it was 20 years earlier, in which they were encouraged to live as though they were 20 years younger.
In the meantime, a comparative group lived in the same retreat, but with the difference of living in the present era, with discussions about their time 20 years ago being referred to in the past tense, whereas the first group referred to their lives 20 years ago in the present tense.
What Langer and her team found was that, while both groups showed signs of improvement in relation to their health, the experiment group experienced higher rates of improvement.
Explaining the results, she attributed the improvements to the fact that the men were living outside the normal social construct, whereby general consensus largely dictates that, as you get older, you fall apart and become less useful to society.
By being in an environment that contextualised the gentlemen’s existence within a frame that encouraged them to “be all they could be” without pre-supposed judgements of frailty or expectations of failure, they were able to realise a significant increase in their wellbeing.
Langer recorded improvements in vision and in hearing among all the participants, while the experiment group experienced further positive developments in their gait and posture, as well as a decrease in symptoms arising from arthritis.

It’s all in our mind

For Langer, attitude is key in how we develop – and maintain – our physical and mental health. She described one study where participants were asked to read off an optician’s chart to measure vision. Usually, the letter in the top row is much larger than the rest, which become progressively smaller.
To our minds, we expect the visuals to become increasingly difficult to see, and so we empower that difficulty. This was confirmed when the chart was modified to have the letters become progressively larger as readers went down the lines: participants were able to read more of the smaller letters when the chart was rearranged, than when the chart was presented in its standard form.
It’s when our minds are, effectively, become aware of something new that we are brought into mindfulness. Otherwise, as Langer puts it, we tune out, since much of life is habitual and so requires little effort from us in terms of being mindful.
On the surface, this might seem beneficial with regard to saving mental energy. The truth is: being mindful – which is often confused with concentration – conserves energy, as our mind becomes increasingly centred on whatever we’re doing. In other words, the mind no longer has to deal with so many distractions that encourage it to wander and, as a result, process more information.

Concluding thoughts

Providing advice on how we can be mindful, Langer says, “What you want to do is become aware of what you don’t know. When you don’t know, you stay naturally tuned in to find out. When you’re learning new material, learn it conditionally rather than absolute. Look at it in terms of ‘it seems that…’ or ‘from one perspective…’, rather than seeing what you’re being taught as being ‘what is’.”

Sandy has been a keen student of mindfulness for over 10 years. He has enjoyed a number of benefits from the limited progression he has made, and believes that even being aware that we’re mindless, more often than not, is a great place to start. To connect with Sandy, you can follow him on Twitter @RealSClarke. To watch more The Leaderonomics Show videos, click here. For more such video articles, click here.

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