‘The Power of Mindful Learning’ by Ellen J. Langer (Da Capo Press 1997)
Review by Robert M. Ellis
This book was published 18 years ago, but I’m excited to discover it. It’s a short and highly readable book that makes a big contribution to the developing body of work that recognises the power of uncertainty and questions entrenched dogmatic assumptions. It draws on a body of psychological research, and is cogently and economically argued, but at the same time intersperses engaging fairy stories and other material that help to carry this book beyond the limitations of mere intellectual argument. Its primary focus is ostensibly learning and hence education, but this is just a particular way of approaching wider issues of how we understand the world and what values we should be applying to it.
Langer uses the term ‘mindful’ in a way that is probably somewhat wider than that familiar to those who have practised meditation or learnt about mindfulness in a Buddhist or therapeutic context. Mindfulness for Langer is openness to wider possibilities at the time we make judgements: involving awareness and broadened attention, yes, but also a cognitive recognition of alternatives. Langer uses the term ‘mindfulness’ in the same way that I have been using ‘provisionality’, ‘objectivity’ and ‘adequacy’ in my own work, and she also recognises what I would call incrementality as a key element of it (though she tends to talk in terms of conditional learning). The flip side, what Langer calls mindlessness, is also often described as absolutes. Langer does not exclude meditation as a helpful practice, but this book focuses instead on all the more cognitively-focused ways we can improve our ability to address new conditions.
The underlying point is similar to the one you find in Iain McGilchrist, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Daniel Siegel and a widening circle of writers of what I have called the ‘Third Phase’. When we understand things in terms of a particular model, that model may well be useful within a certain restricted range of circumstances. But our dependence on that model makes it impossible to think beyond those restricted circumstances, and the positive feedback loop of confirmation bias continually deepens our entrenchment in that model. We need more integrated habits of understanding and judgement to be able to break out of that loop. McGilchrist has revealed how much that over-dependence on fixed models is a matter of brain lateralisation, and Taleb shows how ill-adapted it makes us to ‘Black Swans’ – unexpected conditions from beyond the horizon of the model we have been using. But Langer gives us quite a different twist on that underlying point.
Instead of focusing on the negative consequences of entrenched beliefs, Langer focuses on the ways in which we develop those beliefs through learning. In the process she is able to point out the many ways in which established education systems tend to reinforce fixed models rather than helping to develop more flexible and creative responses. Her central target is the belief in ‘facts of the matter’ and representationalist assumptions about the relationship between our theories and such ‘facts’. Leaving aside any philosophical questions about whether there are any such facts or whether they are relevant to us, she points out the many ways in which making such absolute assumptions disrupts the learning process itself and simultaneously reduces our motivation. Learning ‘facts’ or set skill patterns is boring, alienating and counter-productive in the long run. One could also add that it usually has to be imposed on the learners rather than being autonomously engaged with.
This is explored in relation to seven areas: ‘the basics’ of a subject, paying attention, delayed gratification, rote memorisation, forgetfulness, intelligence and ‘right’ answers. All of these areas are of such great interest (this is a book almost without a dull moment) that I’d like to try to discuss all of them. That will probably make my review rather long, but such length is in proportion to the interest and usefulness of the book.
Learning ‘the basics’
Langer first talks about the way we tend to ‘overlearn’ the basics in any particular new skill or subject through rote memorisation and repetition, and this can make our subsequent application of what we have learnt rigid and decontextualised. Instead, Langer has established through a series of experiments how even the most basic skills in a particular field can be learnt in more open, conditional ways, and how these are both more adequate and more motivating in the long-term.
As a pianist, I was especially interested to find how this could even be applied to basic piano exercises – the boringness of which has been the chief source of conflict for me in relation to my piano skills through most of my life. But when encouraged not to rote learn, but rather to learn whilst frequently changing styles and attending to the details of one’s own experience, the subjects of Langer’s experiments learnt even piano scales in a more confident and creative way.
Langer then offers a fascinating discussion of attention and distraction. Whenever we are ‘distracted’, she points out, we are actually positively interested in something else. We all have difficulty focusing only on one object (whether visually or mentally) for very long, and when we do, that object actually changes in our experience. That point resonated strongly with my experience of meditation, in which I find that interest in an object of meditation (such as the breath) only develops in the form of interest in the ways in which it keeps subtly changing. Far too many beginners in meditation probably interpret it as requiring fixity of attention of a kind we can’t actually manage, as opposed to making our awareness of changes more subtle and contained. Interestingly, too, the kind of changes we could experience in a sensual object such as the breath do not apply to a concept held in the mind: we could only possibly hold that in the mind through rigidity.
In contrast, Langer shows how attention accompanied by some form of movement or change can be sustained much more effectively. We pay attention effectively, not by holding ourselves rigid in any sense, but through ‘soft vigilance’ in which the object of our attention is allowed to change but is still held within certain wider bounds. Langer challenges the medicalisation of ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and suggests that its treatment with drugs such as Ritalin could be avoided by removing competing distractions from environments and presenting information in ways that allow change and movement.
These observations seem to me to have far-reaching implications. One area that I have long been interested in from this point of view is ritual. Rituals frequently produce boredom or alienation in their audience, and one reason for this might well be the way in which they seem to require fixed attention. In the more puritanical religious traditions that avoid sensual stimuli in ritual, that fixation of attention tends to be focused on words expressing absolute beliefs: which, when not resulting in zealotry, predictably produces boredom and alienation in ways that Langer’s work could easily account for. In ritual and in many other areas, there is an evident Middle Way in the need to avoid both alienating, rigid attention and complete dispersal of attention, keeping attention focused in shifting ways that take into account our embodiment rather than ignoring it.
In her third section Langer looks critically at delayed gratification, and our tendency to separate ‘work’ (which is motivated by future reward) from ‘play’ (which we do for its own sake). Langer is aware of the role played by beliefs about intrinsic moral order (cosmic justice) in beliefs about deferred gratification. Not only does a culture dependent on delayed gratification encourage rigid beliefs about cosmic justice, but it also demotivates us by discouraging us from finding enjoyment in ‘work’ and encouraging us to focus on compensating future events instead. The rewards are never as good as they are assumed to be, but in the end it is the habit of deferred gratification, rather than the rewards as we come experience them, that keeps us ‘working’.
Langer shows that it is the drawing of ‘novel distinctions’ that helps us turn work into play and thus gives us intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. Even if people are given a task in an area that they find of no interest (such as watching a football match – for people like me anyway!) it can be made interesting by a task that involves making novel distinctions (such as observing the relationships between the players). If we make novel distinctions, anything can be interesting and motivating, and it is only an absolutised idea of the activity that we find boring and demotivating.
What I found particularly interesting about this is how far it goes beyond the ‘mindfulness’ I have found promoted in Buddhism. This is often presented either as something that will naturally be developed through meditation practice, or as something that can be developed through awareness of one’s body, mind, others and contexts. However, the problem with such awareness is that it is difficult to reconcile with the normal cognitive preoccupations of most people’s minds – it seems to unrealistically demand that we enter into a separate, refined aesthetic zone during everyday life. Langer’s approach, on the other hand, uses and channels our cognitive preoccupations. We do not need to ‘stop thinking’ in any sense, but rather think in habitually more open and creative ways, to enjoy life more and reduce stress, conflict and alienation.
Langer’s fourth section, on rote memory, shows how material remembered by rote remains locked to a particular context of use, as well as being unexamined and reinforcing of a belief in ‘facts out there’. Nearly everyone in the English speaking world can probably give you the date of the Battle of Hastings – 1066 – but can make no use of that information beyond passing tests or answering quizzes. Packaged as a ‘fact’ in that way, it also obscures the complexity of the events associated with William I’s conquest of England. As an alternative to rote learning, Langer argues that material can be presented in ways that enable students to make them personally relevant, or that students can themselves be trained in the skills of making it relevant. This is overwhelmingly done by giving more live and active context to the ‘facts’, and enabling students to actively make their own distinctions about it.
As an educator, I’m aware that these kinds of arguments about learning may be viewed as nothing new. Indeed ‘active learning’ and the like have been promoted in various ways in the English school system for decades. However, such laudable intentions in making education more interesting and relevant have to contend with a testing and examination regime that gives priority to easy accountability and comparability rather than limiting rote learning. So, some rote learning of the most old-fashioned kind still goes on, and continues to be promoted by educational conservatives such as the Campaign for Real Education. At the same time, attempts to focus more on encouraging students’ autonomous skills are constantly undermined by heavily prescriptive forms of directive, testing and inspection that all assume the educational priority is measurable results that can be reduced to ‘facts’ of some kind. Langer’s approach here is far from being universally applied. Rigid expectations remain the overwhelming limitation on the actual success of our educational systems in actually educating.
The most common way of thinking about memory and forgetting is as a set of data about the world that is retrieved by memory. Forgetting is thus seen as a failure of retrieval. As Langer shows, this is an unhelpful paradigm. Memory that does follow this sort of pattern is absolute and decontextualised, ‘mindless’ memory, and thus more easily forgotten than fully contextualised memory. Fully contextualised ‘mindful’ memory involves re-living events and going through the same mental processes as we had in an earlier experience. Because we couldn’t do this all the time, forgetting is actually a useful and necessary process. If we remembered painful events as vividly as they occurred we would never be able to recover from them, and the only reason we enjoy pleasure is because we do not have complete recall of what it was really like before, so get more from re-experiencing it.
The extent to which we forget our mindful memories has both advantages and disadvantages. Its disadvantages involve laying us open to cognitive biases: for example, Langer points out, the fact that we lose specifics from a memory make us more open to the sleeper effect, whereby we remember instructions from the past, but not who made them, and thus have our critical response to propaganda disarmed by time. However, it also means that every time we recapitulate something from the past it is a fresh experience, and we can make new distinctions about it that stop us merely replaying ‘data’ from the past. That also enables us to adapt to new situations rather than merely replaying old patterns.
Langer challenges widespread thinking about forgetfulness in ageing, showing that it is very much dependent on cultural attitudes, and that older people are more likely to forget decontextualised ‘mindless’ information than ‘mindful’ information that they are using in a new context. I imagine that the direction of this argument is taken up in more detail in her more recent book about ageing – ‘Counter-clockwise’.
Intelligence and mindfulness
Langer challenges the traditional concept of intelligence, which she interprets as involving a linear process of reasoning towards the resolution of a problem, where the goals are set. Intelligence, she suggests, involves a notion of ‘best fit’, because the more intelligent someone is, the better able they are to work out the best correspondences to a supposed reality. Intelligence enables us to become experts in an area where there are stable categories that we become deeply familiar with. However, there is no necessary connection between intelligence and a tolerance of ambiguity or an ability to see more than one perspective on a situation. Langer wants us to value intelligence rather less and value mindfulness more.
If you are capable of thinking mindfully (in Langer’s use of the word) you will be able to think ‘outside the box’ in the sense of not merely being focused on the solution of a particular problem and unable to question the framing of that problem. On the contrary, we may be able to reframe what is a problem in one respect into an opportunity in another. Rather than choosing from available options as we see them, we are looking to create more options. Although this is likely to be helpful in the longer-term, we cannot always anticipate in what ways it will be helpful to us, because to practise it we cannot rely solely on external definitions of our goals. We need to create new goals from within as we respond creatively to new situations.
This way of thinking fits very closely with the kind of thinking I have adopted ever since I became disillusioned with the concept of a final goal as it is used in Buddhism. I realised quite early on in my experience of Buddhist practice that ‘seeking enlightenment’ was really not a helpful description of what I was trying to do, but then nor was I satisfied with reductions such as ‘ending suffering’. The widest description of our goals needs to be universally applicable without being absolutised, which is why I have for some time been saying that the widest goal of practising the Middle Way is to ‘address conditions’. This is obviously a rather vague way of putting it – but better vague than misleading. However, Langer helps me to see other ways of expressing this point. The reason we cannot define our goals externally is that to do so in advance is to fail to take into account the limitations in our grasp of them. If we are seeking a creative and integrative process we need to describe them in ways that are in harmony with that openness. That means that any account of our ultimate goal must be entirely conditional: we cannot just give an absolute goal and then add an ineffectual caveat that we don’t understand it yet, after the manner of the Buddhist tradition. Instead, we have to admit that we do not know what conditions we are going to meet in future, and how we need to frame our response to them. We cannot possibly legislate ourselves goals for the future, but we can state in very general terms that there will be some conditions of some kind that we will need to address. If we hope to address those conditions we do not just need narrowly-focused intelligence promised on any specific model, but rather a far more flexible type of objectivity or adequacy.
The illusion of right answers
Langer’s final section takes us further into the same terrain – the terrain of radical pluralism. In this brave new world, we make progress not by finding the ‘right answers’ but by realising that all answers are context-dependent and thus that there are many answers to any problem. Langer here makes an interesting distinction between the standpoint of an observer and that of an actor in a situation. From the point of view of an observer, there may that be one right answer to a problem, even if that answer is only known with hindsight. However, for an actor who has to work through the problem without the assumption of omniscience carried by the observer, there is a plurality of solutions created by the actual limitations of our knowledge when we make judgements.
From the actor’s perspective, there is no need to limit the recognition of plurality to a separate academic realm – it can be applied directly to our lives. For example, when we are told something by an expert but it directly conflicts with our own experience, we need not to just deny the expert, but to persist in further examination until the discrepancy is resolved. Langer also points out how much the attitudes of the individual can influence what happens to them, regardless of the statistical probabilities surrounding us: for example, those with worse expectations of post-operative suffering were more likely to experience the fulfilment of those expectations. By becoming aware of the alternatives to our current assumptions, we can actually change the probabilities of what will happen to us as individuals.
I have been summarising what I have got from this book so far, without critical comment, because it has so much to offer and seems to be so much on target in striking the Middle Way. The main limitation of the book, however, is that it is too short, and offers little more than a tantalising outline of some important insights that each deserve a lot more exploration. However (to put the teachings of the book into practice) that limitation can also be seen as an advantage from other points of view: it also makes the book more accessible. I am also conscious that some of this development may take place in Langer’s more recent books, which I have yet to examine.
However, there are also some conceptual limitations in how far this book, embedded as it is in psychological methods and approaches, recognises the philosophical issues that are implicit in it. For example, the whole book is deeply sceptical, in the sense of recognising the uncertainty attached to all knowledge claims. However, this is never acknowledged. The book is also very compatible with embodied meaning theory, but embodied meaning theory is never referred to as a possible counter-weight to the assumptions about a representational relationship between propositions and reality that the book constantly undermines. Many people will wrongly assume that the pluralism of the approach implies relativism, and fundamentally reject the whole approach because of that – but there is no attempt to tackle this issue. Again, I can see some merit in not trying to tackle these issues if they are merely distractions from the main psychological insights, but they need to be tackled if they turn out to be barriers for readers in engaging with those insights.
Langer also makes no mention of the brain, or of the relationship of these psychological observations to brain states. Of course, she was writing long before the publication of McGilchrist’s Master and his Emissary, though some of the evidence he drew on must surely have been available to her. The use of brain lateralisation as an explanation for why we use absolutes rather than conditionals could surely have added another layer of evidence and convincingness to this book.
Perhaps the most important limitation, though, is a lack of even-handedness in the kinds of certainties that Langer rejects: that is, that negative certainties are not given the same experimental or discursive treatment as positive ones. For example, Langer’s final section is called ‘The illusion of right answers’, not ‘The illusion of right or wrong answers’. But the allure of certainty attaching to negative certainty works in exactly the same way, and recent work suggests that similar brain events are going on in the case of an absolute denial to those that take place in the case of an affirmation. If it is not recognised that negative absolutisation is just as unhelpful as positive, there remains a grave danger that the rejection of positive absolutes will be misinterpreted as the assertion of negative (as in the above example of a relativist interpretation).
Nevertheless, all the key components of a Middle Way Philosophy are in my judgement present in Langer’s use of mindfulness (meaning provisionality), conditionality (which is compatible with incrementality), a recognition of absolutes as unhelpful dogmas, embodiment (often implicitly present), and an insistence on moving beyond the socially-sanctioned achievements of scientific justification to engage with individual experience. These elements of the book offer vast implications that are not explored here. I look forward to finding out whether they are explored further in Langer’s more recent books.