Doing Your Mind

Research, comments and musings about active minds.

Mindlessness, consumption and skills.

I have recently read two books by Ellen Langer, Mindfulness and Counterclockwise. The content and moral of both are largely the same – that we are better off in all manner of ways when we are mindful1. The essence of mindfulness is being aware not just what what is (or what appears to be) but also what other possibilities there are. When we are mindful we don’t take things for granted and we don’t just accept the immediate or "obvious" interpretation for what we’re seeing. We notice how variable situations and people’s behaviour really are and we seriously consider a range of considerations as to why this is so.

Much of Langer’s research examines the various impacts of being more or less mindful on a range of things, from how persuaded we might be by a request, how likely we are to make certain kinds of mistakes or how prejudicial our views of others and ourselves might be. The repeated moral is that the interpretations available to us are always greater in number than initially appears, and the implications of choosing one rather than another are not trivial.

Some of the studies involved here are eye-opening ones in which the meaning of a situation dramatically affects people’s minds and bodies (and thus help support the view that the two are really one and the same). Perhaps the most famous is Langer’s "counterclockwise" study (Langer et al., 1990; here’s a documentary segment on it), in which men in their seventies lived and spoke as though it was twenty years earlier (the study was done in 1979, the men on a retreat spoke in the present tense about 1959). Various measures of memory and other psychological functioning improved, as did the mens’ postures, their gait, their sleep patterns and, startlingly, their hearing and eyesight. This study was driven by noticing that elderly people, while often expected just to get worse have, like everyone else, good days and bad days.

In another study, done with the household staff of hotels in New York, Crum & Langer (2007) found that women who were told that their daily activity at work was the equivalent of their daily exercise requirements lost weight, despite the fact that they did not change their diet or engage in any new exercise.

Meaning matters, and paying attention to the situations in which we find ourselves not just as whatever it is presented (work, a regular meal, an effectively scripted social interaction) but as a specific instance with its own quirks, variability and potentials is powerful and empowering mode of thinking.

Langer notes that on being introduced to the ideas of mindfulness people tend to find them intimidating. Surely acting mindfully the whole time would be draining. Keeping an open mind and thinking through numerous possibilities at every turn must be draining. But Langer claims that rather than being exhausting being mindful is in fact invigorating. Given its purely positive characteristics we might ask why mindfulness is so rare. One obvious-looking answer is the that it runs counter to some of the basic values of what we might baldly call "modern Western society", and in particular to consumerism.

Consumer living is mindless living. We buy whatever it is we want or need, use it and discard its remains. Products are refined and specialised to suit a very particular niche and are not used outside of the particular context for which they are designed (and "fit for purpose"). Products in consumer culture resist reinterpretation, inviting only one mode of thinking. What is more, once the use for which they were designed is complete they don’t just cease to be useful for what they were intended, they cease to be useful for anything and become garbage, excreta.

Precisely what makes consumer products attractive is that they remove the need for thinking things through. Problems can be solved and needs met not through effort or consideration, but off the shelf. The ease of it is inviting, habit-forming and directly contrasting with a mindful attitude. We love mindlessness.

There’s a missing step between Langer’s work and modern life. It’s a step that is rather important but very poorly understood, and it has to do with the developmental of skills.

Part and parcel of the development of skill is the automatisation of activities. As we become better at something we pay less attention to the details of it. While there are several ways in which this phenomenon is described in computational terms (usually to do with the compilation of production schemata) we don’t really know much about how it happens, or precisely what is going on. Typical wisdom goes along lines that having to pay less attention to something frees up our limited mental resources (whatever they might be) to focus on other things, and forms habits which can act as the foundation of ever more rich and interesting activities.

To complicate matters a bit, skill development is neither accidental, nor often incidental. We learn skills by deliberately attempting to achieve an end, practising to get better at it, and even unconscious perceptual learning is typically structured by goal-relevant aspects of the situation in which we’re acting (Watanabe, Nanez & Sasaki, 2001). Our motivations, our goals, structure our learning of skills and the formation of habits. For one of the most significant figures in tihe psychology expertise, K. Anders Ericsson (e.g. Ericsson & Charness, 1994; Ericsson, 2006; and my personal favourite Ericsson, 2003), the only thing standing between a person and any standard of performance you choose to highlight is their willingness to put in the effort to practice2. But the motivation to learn, that willingness to put in the effort, which seems to me to be precisely what stands between the typical mindless pleb such as myself and a more satisfying life as a mindful citizen. Ericsson is classically criticised for not addressing the issue in any satisfactory way (this complaint shows up in basic Cognitive Psychology textbooks, e.g. Eysenck & Keane, 2010), and Langer doesn’t really touch on it either.

I suspect the first place that psychologists would take us trying to address this rather basic concern (which is to say, it’s the first place that comes to my mind) is to the literature on self-regulation and mental control. But that seems to me too glib and to miss precisely those motivational aspects of the issue. Self-regulation and mental control are rather abstract, cognitive, phenomena. Laziness is in the bones, and passion is in the gut. We need an fully embodied thinking on motivation and skill acquisition that we don’t have right now.

1 It is worth noting that Langer distinguishes between mindfulness as she describes it and as it is often described within the context of Eastern meditative traditions. Mindful practice in Buddhism and other ways of living tend to be entwined in moral practice – mindfulness aids in the arising of good or right actions. Langer makes no such moral claims.

2 Ericsson does acknowledge a very few cases in which biological or innate factors can constrain the level of performance attained, where height or body-scale can be shown to have an impact.

Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect. Psychological Science, 18(2), 165-171.

Ericsson, K. A. (2003). The search for general abilities and basic capacities: Theoretical implications from the modifiability and complexity of mechanisms mediating expert performance. In R. J. Sternberg & E. L. Grigorenko (Eds.), The psychology of abilities, competencies, and expertise. (pp. 93-125). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ericsson, K. A. (2006). The Influence of experience and deliberate practice on the development of superior expert performance. In K. A. Ericsson, N. Charness, P. J. Feltovich, & R. R. Hoffman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of expertise and expert performance. (pp. 683-703). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ericsson, K. A., & Charness, N. (1994). Expert performance: Its structure and acquisition. American Psychologist, 49(8), 725-747.

Eysenck, M. J. & K. M. K. (2010). Cognitive Psychology: A Student’s Handbook. Hove: Psychology Press.

Langer, E. (1993). Mindfullness. Reading Mass: Addison-Wesley.

Langer, E. (2010). Counterclockwise. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Langer, E. J., Chanowitz, B., Palmerino, M., Jacobs, S., Rhodes, M., & Thayer, P. (1990). Nonsequential development and aging. In C. N. Alexander & E. J. Langer (Eds.), Higher stages of human development: Perspectives on adult growth. (pp. 114-136). New York, NY US: Oxford University Press.

Watanabe, T., Nanez, J. E., & Sasaki, Y. (2001). Perceptual learning without perception. Nature, 413(6858), 844-848.

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