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Abstract

Mindfulness, achieved without meditation, is discussed with particular reference to learning. Being mindful is the simple act of drawing novel distinctions. It leads us to greater sensitivity to context and perspective, and ultimately to greater control over our lives. When we engage in mindful learning, we avoid forming mind-sets that unnecessarily limit us. Many of our beliefs about learning are mind-sets that have been mindlessly accepted to be true. Consideration is given to some of the consequences that result from a mindful reconsideration of those myths of learning.
Abstract
Mindfulness, achieved with-
out meditation, is discussed
with particular reference to
learning. Being mindful is the
simple act of drawing novel
distinctions. It leads us to
greater sensitivity to context
and perspective, and ulti-
mately to greater control over
our lives. When we engage in
mindful learning, we avoid
forming mind-sets that unnec-
essarily limit us. Many of our
beliefs about learning are
mind-sets that have been
mindlessly accepted to be true.
Consideration is given to some
of the consequences that result
from a mindful reconsideration
of these myths of learning.
Keywords
mindfulness; mindlessness;
learning
One of the primary issues in
education today concerns the ques-
tion of what should be taught in
our schools. The research my col-
leagues and I have been conduct-
ing over several years now sug-
gests that “what we teach” may be
less important than “how we teach
it.” Moreover, the reconsidered
rules for learning speak as much to
learning outside the classroom as
inside.
Whenever we attempt to learn
something, whether it is a new con-
tent area, a sport, the way to play a
musical instrument, or a new way
to approach our businesses or our
relationships, we rely on ways of
learning that typically work to our
detriment and virtually prevent the
very goals we are trying to accom-
plish. The mind-sets we hold re-
garding learning more often than
not encourage mindlessness, al-
though learning requires mindful
engagement with the material in
question. Before examining some
of these mind-sets, it may be useful
to define mindlessness and mind-
fulness and briefly review the re-
sults of research that reveals some
of the costs of mindlessness, to
make apparent why we might
want to pursue mindful learning.
MINDFULNESS AND
MINDLESSNESS:
DEFINITIONS
Mindfulness is a flexible state of
mind in which we are actively en-
gaged in the present, noticing new
things and sensitive to context.
When we are in a state of mindless-
ness, we act like automatons who
have been programmed to act ac-
cording to the sense our behavior
made in the past, rather than the
present. Instead of actively draw-
ing new distinctions, noticing new
things, as we do when we are
mindful, when we are mindless we
rely on distinctions drawn in the
past. We are stuck in a single, rigid
perspective, and we are oblivious
to alternative ways of knowing.
When we are mindless, our behav-
ior is rule and routine governed;
when we are mindful, rules and
routines may guide our behavior
rather than predetermine it.
We cannot have the felt experi-
ence of being mindless; that would
require mindfulness. Therefore,
most of us think that we are mind-
ful. However, we spend much
more time “not there” than we
know, and the consequences for us
are real and often profound. When
we believe we are encountering
something novel, we approach it
mindfully. When we believe we
know something well, we tend to
view it mindlessly. As will become
clear, there is power in uncertainty,
yet most of us mistakenly seek cer-
tainty.
Experimental research, con-
ducted over 25 years, reveals that
the costs of mindlessness, and the
benefits of mindfulness, are vast
and often profound. Mindfulness
results in an increase in compe-
tence; a decrease in accidents; an
increase in memory, creativity, and
positive affect; a decrease in stress;
and an increase in health and lon-
gevity, to name a few of the ben-
efits.
HOW DOES
MINDLESSNESS COME
ABOUT?
The way we initially learn sets
us up for mindlessness or mindful-
ness. There are two ways mindless-
ness comes about: repetition and
single exposure. The first is the
more familiar way. If we repeat
something over and over, we come
to rely on our mind-set for how to
accomplish the goal. For example,
most of us have had the experience
of driving a familiar route so often
that the car seems to get to the des-
tination by itself, without any ac-
tive intervention by us. The second
way mindlessness occurs is on ini-
tial exposure to information. If
when first given information we
process it without questioning al-
ternative ways the information
could be understood, we take it in
mindlessly. When information is
processed mindlessly, we essen-
tially make a commitment to a
single way of understanding it.
Mindful Learning
Ellen J. Langer
1
Department of Psychology, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
220 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 6, DECEMBER 2000
Published by Blackwell Publishers Inc.
Even if it later would be to our ad-
vantage to view the information
differently, if we learned it mind-
lessly, it will not occur to us to re-
consider it.
MINDLESS VERSUS
MINDFUL LEARNING
Most teaching unintentionally
fosters mindlessness. Facts are
typically presented as closed pack-
ages, without attention to perspec-
tive. Scientists know that research
results in findings that are prob-
ably true given the context in
which the work was tested (e.g.,
most of the time, under the stated
circumstances, horses are herbivo-
rous). When these findings are re-
ported by teachers or in textbooks,
they are translated from probabili-
ties into absolute statements (e.g.,
horses are herbivorous) that hide
the uncertainty. Consider how
much more interesting and engag-
ing statements of probability are;
they tend to lead us to wonder
about when the information may
or may not be true, and even to
consider how to change one fact to
its opposite (e.g., when might
horses eat meat? what are the ad-
vantages and disadvantages?).
Facts, whether derived from sci-
ence or not, are not context-free;
their meaning and usefulness de-
pend on the situation. “What are
the three reasons for the Civil
War?” a high school teacher might
ask. But from whose perspective
should the question be answered?
Surely, for example, a 30-year-old
black woman from Georgia in 1865,
a 60-year-old black male in Europe
in 1953, and a white politician in
1968 would not all feel the same
about the war’s causes. Who de-
cides what perspective is repre-
sented and why? The way informa-
tion is typically given, it does not
even occur to us to ask. Once we
consider how information looks
different from different perspec-
tives, we become aware of the un-
certainty inherent in our “context-
free” facts.
When we ignore perspective, we
tend to confuse the stability of our
mind-sets with the stability of the
underlying phenomenon: All the
while things are changing and at
any one moment they are different
from different perspectives, yet we
hold them still in our minds as if
they were constant. If we get our
cholesterol level checked, for ex-
ample, and we are asked what it is,
we give the same answer whether
it was checked yesterday or a year
ago—as if all the shellfish we had
all summer and the exercise we
failed to have in the winter made
no difference. If our cholesterol
level starts off low, we can keep it
down by never checking it again!
As another example, consider hav-
ing mindlessly learned, as many of
us have, that if the car starts to skid
on a slippery surface, we should
gently pump the brakes to mini-
mize accidents. Many of us still do
this while driving cars with an-
tilock brakes. For these cars, how-
ever, the best way to avoid acci-
dents is to firmly hold down the
brakes. The context has changed,
but mindlessly learned behavior
typically does not.
Virtually all of our facts depend
on context. For example, one plus
one does not equal two in all num-
ber systems. More graphically, one
wad of chewing gum plus one wad
of chewing gum equals one wad of
gum, not two. If we learn mind-
fully, we are more likely to realize
this. In the following section, I de-
scribe how several myths or mind-
sets we have about learning may
actually detract from our ability to
learn. I also discuss research and
examples that suggest how mind-
ful learning can turn these disad-
vantages into advantages (Langer,
1997).
MYTHS ABOUT LEARNING
Myth 1: The Basics Should Be
Learned So Well That They
Become Second Nature
According to this myth, we
should learn “the basics” so well
that they can be enacted mind-
lessly. If we do that, then it will not
occur to us to change them when it
would be advantageous to do so.
(Whose basics are the basics” any-
way? Should a small woman ap-
proach a sport, e.g., the same way a
very tall man does?) Several years
ago, Alison Piper and I conducted
research testing the idea that if we
learn information mindfully when
we first encounter it, we will be
able to use the information in cre-
ative ways in the future (Langer &
Piper, 1987). In that work, we intro-
duced research participants to sev-
eral different objects in a way we
believed would encourage mind-
lessness (e.g., “This is a dog’s chew
toy”) or in a manner we thought
would encourage mindfulness
(e.g., “This could be a dog’s chew
toy”). A need for an eraser then
arose, and we were interested in
seeing who would spontaneously
think to use the “chew toy” in a
creative way, as an eraser. The par-
ticipants introduced to the object
conditionally were the only ones to
respond mindfully.
More recently, my colleagues
and I taught research subjects a
new sport, “smack-it ball,” in
which each hand wears a glovelike
racket. One group was taught the
game in the traditional absolute
fashion, the other group was
taught it in a conditional way to
foster mindful learning. Rather
than being told this is how you
play smack-it ball, they were told,
here is how it could be played—
with language that suggested
221CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE
Copyright © 2000 American Psychological Society
variation and perspective. After
they were well practiced, we sur-
reptitiously changed the ball they
were using to one that was much
heavier. Subjects who learned the
game mindfully were more likely
to accommodate to this change;
that is, their performance did not
suffer the way performance did for
those who took the basics for
granted and learned the game
mindlessly. Given the way most
people are taught to practice, the
idea that “practice makes perfect”
is questionable (cf. Langer & Im-
ber, 1979; study by Pietrasz &
Langer, described in Langer, 1997).
Myth 2: To Pay Attention to
Something, We Should Hold It
Still and Focus on It
My colleagues and I asked high
school teachers and students what
it means to pay attention to some-
thing. They all agreed that to suc-
cessfully pay attention, people
should hold the target of their at-
tention still and focus on it the way
they would focus a camera. There
does not seem to be a problem of
communication between teachers
and students. The problem is this is
essentially the wrong instruction.
To test this, just bring your thumb
up to your eyes for scrutiny. If you
try to pay attention to your finger
by holding the image of it still, you
will quickly come to see how hard
this is. The image fades from view.
Instead, attend to your thumb
mindfully—notice different things
about your thumb—perhaps its
size, a fleck of dirt, a spot of red-
ness. It is easy now to pay atten-
tion.
In several studies, my colleagues
and I asked subjects either to pay
attention to a stimulus or to notice
new things about the stimulus (i.e.,
to attend to it mindfully). Whether
the subjects were elderly adults
(Levy & Langer, in press), children
with attention problems (Langer,
Carson, & Shih, in press), or even
Harvard undergraduates (Bodner
& Langer, 1995), when they were
instructed to vary the target of at-
tention, their performance im-
proved. Not only is it easier to pay
attention this way, but people re-
member more about the target of
their attention when they attend to
it mindfully (study by Lieberman
& Langer, described in Langer,
1997), and they like the target of
their attention better after having
done so, as described next.
Myth 3: It Is Important to Learn
How to Delay Gratification
This idea suggests that tasks are
inherently good or bad. To get
through the bad ones, we should
look forward to the good ones, or
perhaps “add a little sugar to help
the medicine go down.” However,
evaluation does not reside in tasks;
it resides in our minds. Work and
study are not negative, although
we may make them appear to be.
My colleague Sofia Snow and I
asked subjects to evaluate how hu-
morous cartoons were. For half of
the subjects, we called the activity
work; for the other half, we re-
ferred to it as play. Even though
the task we used could seem inher-
ently fun to some people, when we
called it work, subjects did not en-
joy it, and their minds tended to
wander while they were doing it
(see Langer, 1997).
In other experiments, subjects
engaged in tasks they did not like
(listening to rap music or classical
music, viewing art, watching foot-
ball). Some of the subjects were led
to engage the task the way they
typically did; others were asked to
notice three, six, or nine new things
about it. The more they noticed, the
more they liked the task. Mindful
learning engages people in what
they are learning, and the experi-
ence tends to be positive (Langer,
1997; cf. Fox & Langer, 1999).
CONCLUDING THOUGHTS
Most of us believe that it is good
to be in the present, to be involved
in what we are doing, and that it is
good to keep our minds active. The
problem is that we are typically un-
aware of when we are not in the
present and when our minds are
virtually closed. The simple pro-
cess of mindful learning, of actively
drawing distinctions and noticing
new things—seeing the familiar in
the novel and the novel in the fa-
miliar—is a way to ensure that our
minds are active, that we are in-
volved, and that we are situated in
the present. The result is that we
are then able to avert the danger
not yet arisen and take advantage
of opportunities that may present
themselves. Teaching mindfully
not only sets students up for these
advantages, but has advantages for
teachers as well.
Respect for diversity often cre-
ates a dilemma regarding the
choice of teaching material. How
can teachers find material that will
be meaningful to people with such
different cultural backgrounds as
we find in many of our schools?
What is exciting about the research
I have discussed is the implication
that if the content of the material
encourages mindful learning,
rather than freezing the material in
one rigid perspective, students
more easily may be able to make
the material relevant to their idio-
syncratic concerns.
Should all learning, beginning
with children’s earliest experi-
ences, proceed in this conditional
fashion? Or do we need to teach all
(or some? and if some, which?)
children stability first so they will
not be overwhelmed by all the pos-
sibility mindful learning theoreti-
222 VOLUME 9, NUMBER 6, DECEMBER 2000
Published by Blackwell Publishers Inc.
cally makes available? Some
people (e.g., Bargh & Chartrand,
1999) believe that mindlessness is
important because it frees limited
cognitive resources. This might be
true, but it raises the question, “At
what cost?” (return to the example
of antilock brakes). These are mat-
ters still to be determined. My own
view is that we are poorly served
by mindless learning. So that we
do not prematurely close the fu-
ture, we should at least consider that
all of our learning be mindful or po-
tentially mindful (i.e., not mindless).
Perhaps we only believe that we
need certainties, because that is the
way we ourselves were taught.
Recommended Reading
Langer, E. (1989). Mindfulness. Read-
ing, MA: Addison Wesley.
Langer, E. (1997). (See References)
Note
1. Address correspondence to Ellen
J. Langer, William James Hall, 33 Kirk-
land St., Harvard University, Cam-
bridge, MA 02138; e-mail: langer@wjh.
harvard.edu.
References
Bargh, J., & Chartrand, T. (1999). The unbearable
automaticity of being. American Psychologist,
54, 462–479.
Bodner, T., & Langer, E. (1995). Mindfulness and
attention. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press.
Fox, B., & Langer, E. (1999). Mere exposure versus
mindful exposure. Unpublished manuscript,
Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Langer, E. (1997). The power of mindful learning.
Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Langer, E., Carson, S., & Shih, M. (in press). Sit still
and pay attention? Journal of Adult Development.
Langer, E., & Imber, L. (1979). When practice
makes imperfect: The debilitating effects of
overlearning. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 37, 2014–2025.
Langer, E., & Piper, A. (1987). The prevention of
mindlessness. Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, 53, 280–287.
Levy, B., & Langer, E. (in press). Improving attention
in older adults. Journal of Adult Development.
223CURRENT DIRECTIONS IN PSYCHOLOGICAL SCIENCE
Copyright © 2000 American Psychological Society
... As will be seen, the formative literature on leadership took the position that leadership was a top down process. However, subsequent challenges and advances to leadership theory over the past few decades have continued to move leadership theory in a direction where leaders become accountable for their own leadership actions through a deeper understanding of their embodiment (Sinclair, 2005;Ladkin, 2008), aesthetics (Hansen et al., 2007;Ladkin, 2008), and mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn, 2006;Langer, 2016). This takes place whilst simultaneously acknowledging both the environment and team members roles as an integral part of a leaders' success (Hargreaves, Harris & Boyle, 2014 ...
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Thesis
Full-text available
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Chapter
Wahrheitssuchende waren angesichts der Komplexität unseres Universums lange Zeit voller Ehrfurcht. Physiker, Historiker, Botaniker und andere Gelehrte studierten die Geheimnisse der Natur und unserer Herkunft. Alle sind sich darin einig, dass das Leben ein endloses Mysterium ist (Hemenway, 2018). Dieses Kapitel beschäftigt sich mit den unterschiedlichen Sichtweisen und dem Zusammenspiel verschiedener relevanter Disziplinen und beleuchtet diese. Bei genauerem Hinsehen entdeckt man, dass es eine Vielzahl divergierender wissenschaftlicher Arbeiten gibt, die das Themenfeld der Motivation, der impliziten Motive und der Entscheidungsfindung im Allgemeinen aus verschiedensten Blickwinkeln und Forschungsfeldern beleuchtet haben. Da es zahlreiche Ansätze in Bezug auf die Entscheidungsfindung gibt, werden wir die wichtigsten Thesen beleuchten und analysieren.
Chapter
Incorporating the theoretical conceptualizations of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ellen Langer, this volume illustrates how performers from a variety of disciplines - including sport, dance and music - can use mindfulness to achieve peak performance and improve personal well-being. Leading scholars in the field present cutting-edge research and outline their unique approach to mindfulness that is supported by both theory and practice. They provide an overview of current mindfulness-based manuals and programs used around the globe in countries such as the United States, China and Australia, exploring their effectiveness across cultures. Mindfulness and Performance will be a beneficial reference for practitioners, social and sport psychologists, coaches, athletes, teachers and students.
Chapter
Incorporating the theoretical conceptualizations of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ellen Langer, this volume illustrates how performers from a variety of disciplines - including sport, dance and music - can use mindfulness to achieve peak performance and improve personal well-being. Leading scholars in the field present cutting-edge research and outline their unique approach to mindfulness that is supported by both theory and practice. They provide an overview of current mindfulness-based manuals and programs used around the globe in countries such as the United States, China and Australia, exploring their effectiveness across cultures. Mindfulness and Performance will be a beneficial reference for practitioners, social and sport psychologists, coaches, athletes, teachers and students.
Chapter
Incorporating the theoretical conceptualizations of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ellen Langer, this volume illustrates how performers from a variety of disciplines - including sport, dance and music - can use mindfulness to achieve peak performance and improve personal well-being. Leading scholars in the field present cutting-edge research and outline their unique approach to mindfulness that is supported by both theory and practice. They provide an overview of current mindfulness-based manuals and programs used around the globe in countries such as the United States, China and Australia, exploring their effectiveness across cultures. Mindfulness and Performance will be a beneficial reference for practitioners, social and sport psychologists, coaches, athletes, teachers and students.
Chapter
Incorporating the theoretical conceptualizations of Jon Kabat-Zinn and Ellen Langer, this volume illustrates how performers from a variety of disciplines - including sport, dance and music - can use mindfulness to achieve peak performance and improve personal well-being. Leading scholars in the field present cutting-edge research and outline their unique approach to mindfulness that is supported by both theory and practice. They provide an overview of current mindfulness-based manuals and programs used around the globe in countries such as the United States, China and Australia, exploring their effectiveness across cultures. Mindfulness and Performance will be a beneficial reference for practitioners, social and sport psychologists, coaches, athletes, teachers and students.
Article
Full-text available
Sitting still while trying to pay attention implicitly reinforces the idea that to pay attention one should focus on a single aspect of the stimulus. Movement encourages attending to different aspects of the stimulus and as such is hypothesized to increase attention. We tested this with students from a traditional and a nontraditional school. Students were asked to observe and recall landmarks on a map. Students from the traditional school who viewed the map from multiple perspectives remembered more landmarks and locations than students who viewed the map from a single perspective. Students from a nontraditional school who are accustomed to movement while learning, did not show this effect. The experiment is discussed in terms of mindfulness theory.
Article
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Article
We conducted three experiments to assess the hypothesis that mindlessness could be prevented with a simple linguistic variation. Subjects in the first two experiments were either introduced to new objects conditionally (e.g., this could be an X) or unconditionally (e.g., this is an X), and the objects used were either unfamiliar or familiar. In each study a different need was then generated for which the object in question was not explicitly suited but could fulfill. Only those subjects in the conditional-unfamiliar group gave the creative response and met the need. When subjects were asked explicitly to generate novel uses for the target items, they had no difficulty doing so. However, given the way we are traditionally taught, it simply does not occur to us to think creatively unless explicitly instructed to do so. In the third experiment we introduced an unfamiliar item in one of three ways. In addition to the groups used in the earlier experiments, we added a group that was led to believe that the object was identifiable (unconditional) but was currently unknown. We also added a second need to determine whether the original conditional group truly learned conditionally or if they were in search of an absolute understanding of the target object. Significantly more of the subjects in the conditional group gave the creative response to both needs. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Article
What was noted by E. J. Langer (1978) remains true today: that much of contemporary psychological research is based on the assumption that people are consciously and systematically processing incoming information in order to construe and interpret their world and to plan and engage in courses of action. As did Langer, the authors question this assumption. First, they review evidence that the ability to exercise such conscious, intentional control is actually quite limited, so that most of moment-to-moment psychological life must occur through nonconscious means if it is to occur at all. The authors then describe the different possible mechanisms that produce automatic, environmental control over these various phenomena and review evidence establishing both the existence of these mechanisms as well as their consequences for judgments, emotions, and behavior. Three major forms of automatic self-regulation are identified: an automatic effect of perception on action, automatic goal pursuit, and a continual automatic evaluation of one's experience. From the accumulating evidence, the authors conclude that these various nonconscious mental systems perform the lion's share of the self-regulatory burden, beneficently keeping the individual grounded in his or her current environment. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
Article
The aim of this study was to examine whether a mindful intervention, based on noticing distinctions, could be used to improve the attention of older individuals. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four attention interventions. In the mindfulness groups, participants studying a set of pictures were told to notice either three or five distinctions. In the control groups, participants were either told to pay attention or were not given any directions related to attention before exposure to the set of pictures. The results indicated that those who viewed the stimuli in terms of distinctions were able to remember significantly more pictures than did those in the control groups. Distinction drawing also increased liking for the stimuli. The findings suggest that if older individuals want to increase attention and recall, rather than focus their attention, they may want to find ways to vary their attention.
Article
It was hypothesized that as overlearning leads to "mindlessness," the individual components of a task become relatively inaccessible to consciousness and therefore unavailable to serve as evidence of task competence. This may lead to a decrement in performance if circumstances, for example, a label connoting relative inferiority, lead one to question one's ability. This was tested in the first experiment by varying practice on a task (no practice, moderate practice, and overpractice) by label assigned to subjects (no label, assistant, boss). As predicted, performance decrements resulted for the no practice and overpracticed subjects who were assigned the inferior status label but not for the moderate practice subjects for whom the task components were still salient. In a second experiment it was found that the debilitation could be prevented for an overlearned task by making components of the task salient. Implications for the vulnerability of experts to these performance debilitations are explored.
Mere exposure versus mindful exposure
  • B Fox
  • E Langer
Fox, B., & Langer, E. (1999). Mere exposure versus mindful exposure. Unpublished manuscript, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Mindfulness and attention
  • T Bodner
  • E Langer
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