Ellen Langer [ Harvard University ] What I want you to do is play along with me, then you’ll get a better sense of what I’m going to try to show you.
So the first thing is: “what is this?”
Those of you who don’t see the cow, don’t worry – the others only see it because somebody previously told it to them.
This is the way the world starts off for us.
We have no idea what it is, then somebody labels it.
Now the problem is that, once it’s labeled, we’re no longer able to see it in any other way.
That’s the way we learn about most things.
Who we are, what we can do, what the world consists of.
We can meet back here in ten years – it’ll cost you more bagels Andrew – and I’ll show you the slide again and you’ll see.
It’s impossible not to see the cow.
Let’s play some more add these numbers with me 1000 1000 42,000 42,000 73,000 73,000 94,000 9d.
Okay now I want to do this one more time.
I want you to add 4090 and to that add 10.
The argument that I’m going to be making and have for last 40 years is that most of us are mindless virtually all the time so I don’t understand the intern who spoke about, “soon we may be living with robots”. I think that most of us already are.
I’ll give you a simpler one.
Tell me how much is one in one.
Now if I start with this people usually go, “oh no we’re going to have to listen to this for a long time that it’s so ridiculous”.
But it turns out one in one is two only some of the time.
One and one is two if you’re using the base 10 number system.
If you’re using a base two number system one and one is depicted as 10.
Easier to understand:
You take one wad of chewing gum you add it to one wad of chewing gum – 1 plus 1 is 1.
I want to argue that almost all that we think we know is wrong in at least some context.
But we’ll go further.
Do you know David Copperfield the famous magician?
What he wants is for you to pick one of these six cards – everybody pick a card now. For this to work you have to look right into his eyes.
He makes sure he doesn’t know you but he’s going to tell you which card you selected.
Look your card is gone.
Now for how many of you is your card gone?
Yes, they say.
I knew that.
I’ll have to talk later to the rest of you who wouldn’t raise your hands.
The reason for that is every card is different.
So what happens is we don’t see what’s right in front of us.
We don’t see what’s to the right, to the left and all the while we’re oblivious to the fact that we’re basically not there.
So for the for those of you – for those of you over let’s say 45 tell me or yourselves, a person sitting next to you, what you do when you’re driving along on ice and the car starts to skid.
What do you do.
What you’re being told by everybody in the audience is that you gently pump your brakes.
Now that made sense years ago when we learned how to drive. however, now that we have anti-lock brakes, that very thing we learned for safety’s sake is now dangerous.
What you do with anti-lock brakes is you firmly step on the brake.
The point of that is that this: mindlessness is not stupidity.
It’s behavior that made sense at the time when we took it in — without questioning it.
We’re using it over and over again.
Things are slowly changing and we’re oblivious to it and at some point the behavior that made sense now doesn’t.
I’m in this store and I make a purchase.
I give the cashier my credit card . She saw it wasn’t signed, she asked me to sign it.
Okay I signed it.
She then ran it through the credit card machine, asked me to sign the credit card form. I signed it.
She then compared the two signatures.
It would have been very bizarre if they didn’t match.
The point of this is that we’re unaware of when we’re mindless.
Again, when we’re not there we’re not there to know we’re not there.
I’m suggesting we’re not there too much of the time and that is taking away from us years of our lives and vitality and a way of being that I want to discuss in a few moments.
I’m at this horse show and this man asked me if I’d watch his horse because he wanted to go buy his get his horse a hot dog.
Now I’m Harvard-Yale all the way through.
I was the kind of student you hated.
The one who would memorize what was under the pictures.
I knew everything.
Horses don’t eat meat.
Horses are herbivorous.
So I try to be polite, you know, not to tell him I think he’s crazy.
He goes and he gets the hot dog and the horse eats it!
And then I thought, “what does it mean, ‘horses don’t eat meat’?”.
How many horses were tested?
How much meat was mixed with how much grain?
How hungry was the horse?
How big were the horses and so on . ..
These are the hidden decisions.
Similar to this, in research, if you change any one of the parameters the results very well may be very different.
At best, research gives us probabilities.
That means, if we do the exact same thing – which we can’t do – that much of a time we’ll get these same results.
This is translated in talks and textbooks, by the media, as absolute fact.
When it’s absolute fact you lock yourself in.
This is a cow right?
What that leads to is us being frequently in error but rarely in doubt.
The way to understand mindlessness is that it’s an inactive state that’s characterized by reliance on distinctions and categories we drew in the past.
So the past is guiding.
We’re not there in the present.
We’re oblivious to it.
We’re trapped in a single perspective.
We’re insensitive to context and rules and routines –that might have made sense at one time but no longer make sense – are still governing our behavior.
Okay now in contrast to this mindfulness is I study it.
This is mindfulness without meditation.
It’s so simple. it’s an active state of mind where you’re drawing novel distinctions.
You’re intentionally noticing things.
When you’re noticing things you’re in the present.
Everybody says be in the present and again.
The problem is, when you’re not there, you don’t know that you’re not there.
This is the way to be there.
You notice new things.
You can use rules and routines.
Those rules and routines guide what you’re doing and the experience of this mindfulness of this act of noticing is the feeling of engagement.
Okay it feels good.
It’s what we do them we’re having fun.
Humor relies on mindfulness.
Later you tell Andrew to give me an extra two minutes and I’ll tell you a joke to prove that to you.
All right the point of this is as we notice new things we become aware of the inherent uncertainty.
Everything is always changing.
Everything looks different from different perspectives.
So it’s a great mistake to hold it still.
With the time and money we spend trying to increase health, creativity and vitality – would it not be my better if we didn’t teach people to be mindless in the first place?
But there are ways for us now to learn to be mindful even though we’ve gone through a system of education and have been trained in families and so on not to be there.
No matter what we’re doing, giving a talk, listening to a talk, playing golf, eating a sandwich – no matter what you’re doing it in one of these two ways mindlessly or mindfully.
Now I’m an academic right?
So I can’t say what I really think, because its in print.
When I say “most of our suffering,” I really mean “all”.
All of our suffering, psychological and physical, is the direct or indirect effect of mindlessness.
So for over 35 years – I started when I was 10 years old –in study after study we teach people one way or the other to be mindful in the fashion that I explained before.
And what we’d find are measurable benefits to our creativity, our competence, our psychological well-being and our physical health.
Here are just some of the results.
There’s obviously not enough time to go through all of it but you see an increase in innovation, an increase in neonatal health, people live longer alright and I’ve got hard data on each of these.
Okay people know if we’re mindful or mindless.
O Johnson loca and I did this little study a while ago we had people selling magazines door-to-door.
We had one group learn the script and then go give it.
We had the other people learn the script but then when you give it we said just make it new in very subtle ways that only you would know.
Okay they go and somebody else follows them to find out what the client thought.
Well what happens is that when they were there they are evaluated as more charismatic.
Those of you in business probably also should know they sold many more magazines.
Right then. we have lots of studies like this.
We make people mindful.
People are aware of it.
People find it attractive.
It’s the essence in fact of charisma.
Interesting layouts even a visible in the products of our labor.
Okay so what we did, I think I’m going to take that off so you pay attention to me, instead of read it.
We have these orchestras and I don’t know if you’re aware but for many Symphony musicians they’re bored to death.
They’re playing the same pieces over and over and over again because for them it’s a high status job.
They’re loath to give it up.
Then we take these musicians of different orchestras and we tell one group, the control group, we say we want you to think about the last time you perform this particular piece and the last time you were satisfied with that performance and try your best to replicate it.
The mindful group is told what we want you to do is make it new in very subtle ways that only you would know and it was certainly subtle – they were playing classical music, not jazz.
We taped the performance, play it to people who are unaware of the experiment (to see which they preferred) and we also questioned the musicians about howmuch fun it was for them to play.
And what we find is that the mindful performance is overwhelmingly preferred.
So you can even hear.
It leaves its footprints in what we do.
And the musicians themselves much enjoyed it.
Now one of the reasons that we cling to these routines, and we’re afraid to try new things, is because of our fear of making mistakes.
But it turns out that a mistake in one context very often can be a success in another context.
So you know the glue CEO gets asks his company to make a glue, puts a lot of effort and money into it and what happens at the end of this is that the glue fails to adhere.
So that would seem a terrible failure.
However, rather than just discarding the whole thing, he then thought, “what can I do with the glue that fails to adhere?” and what he comes up with is a post-it note.
So as a glue, it’s a failure but as a post-it note it’s a tremendous success.
We did a study will be frightened of the study fogger –the same thing.
There are hundreds of these examples.
This person comes up with a defogger, sprays the crops of Florida in order to save them instead it produces this icy cigna snowy substance that ends up killing them.
A terrible failure.
Somebody else takes the very same machine to spray the slopes in New England – when skiers want it to snow but mother nature hasn’t enabled that.
Now in some of the work we’ve done on innovation we take all of these products that have failed and we ask one group why the product failed what would you do and most of them would just discard it and start again or just leave it.
We asked another group what could you do with this product that failed and for them many more are able to come up with creative uses.
But the most interesting or the most successful way is not to Prime failure but rather to go down to a level of property.
So for example with the glue, it would be what could you do with the glue that adheres for a short amount of Time and that leads you on an information search where for.
The subjects in the study almost everybody was able to come up with creative uses.
I want to switch gears.
I’ve got so much I’ve got 40 years of research I want to tell you.
I asked Andrew he said no.
I say we should extend this another few days but he wouldn’t let it happen.
So I want to switch to an appreciation of some of this work in the context of health and I want to ask why are we so sure that we can’t improve vision beyond 2020, think ourselves thin, reverse virtually all brain damage or whatever you can come up with that you think we can’t do and I want to suggest that possibility opens up for us when we understand the very real difference between uncontrollable and indeterminate.
There is no science – not physics, biology, psychology –that can prove uncontrollability.
All we can say is that we don’t yet know how to do it.
And that makes it a little easier to go forward in the face of very other very little motivation to try something brand-new.
For virtually all chronic illnesses there are moments of no symptoms.
Do you still have the disease.
If you don’t have the tumor anymore alright what causes the symptoms to go into spontaneous remission.
Had a placebos work and placebos a doctor gives you a pill which happens far more frequently than most people realize that inner drug cures you.
Well clearly it’s not the pill you’re doing it yourself.
And part of my life’s work is to find the ways to return this control directly to us rather than have to go through that sham.
All right biological theories.
The medical world can’t explain these things and I want to suggest a simple explanation a psychological explanation that can.
Before I do though I have to appeal to gay white men so you don’t find it don’t dismiss it out of hand all research passes through three phases first it’s ridiculed second is violently opposed and third it’s accepted as self-evident.
Chopin or Einstein said if at first an idea is an absurd then there’s no hope for it.
So this idea is so simple.
There’s the mind-body problem which I’m sure you’ve heard about one way or the other and the question is how do you get from this fuzzy thing called a thought to something material called a body and this has held up progress I think for quite some time.
I want to argue that mind and body are just words and if we put them back together then wherever we’re putting the mind we’re necessarily putting the body.
Now I want to tell you about a few studies, that will seem extreme to you, that test this idea.
The first one we did quite some time ago we were going to take old old men was the first study to a timeless retreat and have them live as if they were younger.
We’re going to put their mind in a younger place all right.
Now these were 80 year old men but this was when 80 was 80 not the new 60.
I mean no really they were old.
I’m sitting my office and they’re coming down the hall and I keep saying less why am I doing this.
I didn’t know if they were going to live through the day no less the week.
Okay it’s important to put it in context that case are they going to spend.
They’re going to spend the time surrounded by props from the past speaking of the past in the present tense watching movies from the past but again as if now then was now.
Okay so let’s take you back to nineteen fifty-nine.
Okay now on the comparison group was going to spend the same amount of time in the retreat surrounded by the same props discussing the same things.
However for them they were going to be reminiscing for the week.
But something happened on the way to the retreat.
This was happened a long time ago this wasn’t a part of the experiment it was part of my laziness part of my being a chauvinist at the time.
I don’t know.
All I know is that I’m on the bus with these guys and eight large suitcases and my male graduate students aren’t there when we get to the retreat.
I say to them you’re in charge of your own suitcase.
I don’t care if you unpack it one shirt at a time or move it an inch at a time.
Now this was so drastically different from the way these men had been treated coddled over loved that even this experiment roll group showed incredible change but just not as much as the experimental group.
When is the last time you heard hearing improve for anybody less people in their 80s.
Memory it’s supposed to be only one way downhill.
That’s not what we keep finding.
In addition to that, for the experimental group their vision improved.
Their South Riddick symptoms were all released reduced and we took photographs of everybody at the beginning and then at the end and they were evaluated by people again who knew nothing of the study as looking younger.
Now bring it fast forward.
We have these chambermaids.
We asked the chambermaids how much exercise do you get they say we don’t get any exercise.
That’s bizarre that’s all they do is.
Exercise is good for you.
They should be healthier than socio-economic equivalent others.
But that aside now we take half of these chambermaids and we teach them that their work as exercise.
Remember we’re just trying to change their mindset so for example making a bed is like working on this machine at the gym and so on.
Okay the only difference is a change in mindset we take all sorts of measures we come back a month later.
Are you working any harder.
Issue working any harder.
Are you eating any differently and so on on.
None of those.
Is there any difference.
And to make sure you understand what I’m saying this woman over here in the pink shirt because she believes she was at the gym all day even though she wasn’t exercising should lose weight what do we find.
A significant change in weight a decrease in body mass index waist to hip ratio and their blood pressure came down from this change in mindset.
Okay you’ve all been to a doctor and why do we accept.
This is amazing to me.
You’re going to go to a doctor he’s going to show you letters how often do you look at letters that make no sense now usually in black and white and then in this stressful situation he’s going to tell you how good your vision is and we buy it right.
I don’t know about you but if I’m hungry I can see the restaurant sign from quite a distance away.
Now something built into this I chart.
If you look at it.
I realize my goodness the letters get progressively smaller.
What that is telling us as soon we’re not going to be able to see.
So what we do but we did was reverse the I charge now it’s telling us soon we will be able to see and you know what happened we could see what we couldn’t see before.
Most of us have the mindset that you know about two-thirds of the way down the chart we’re not going to be able to see so what we did was start the eye chart a third of the way down making two thirds of the way down letters that were much smaller and again people could see what they couldn’t see before.
We have many many studies that suggest that the limits we assume are real are artificial.
And that we don’t have to accept them.
All right the magic lies in being aware of the ways we mindlessly react to social and cultural cues.
We need to challenge the idea that the limits we assume or real must exist at all.
With only subtle shifts in our thinking or language and our expectations we can begin to change the ingrained behaviors that sap creativity health optimism and vitality from our lives.
Improved, vision younger appearance, weight loss increased longevity and of course increase creativity or just fine five of the many experimental results that are a consequence of these subtle changes.
Okay very simple you increase your mindfulness you’re going to increase all aspects I believe of your life.
You’re going to be free to be as creative as all of the speakers before me are hoping you’ll become.
Ellen Langer is an artist and Harvard psychology professor who authored 11 books on the illusion of control, perceived control, successful aging and decision-making. “We have many, many studies that suggest that the limits we assume are real are artificial, and that we don’t have to accept them at all.”
FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT: Mélanie Plante