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Be Aware of Life's Mindfields

When we go through the day on automatic pilot, we risk tragedy.

August 14, 2003|Ellen Langer | Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard University, is author of "The Power of Mindful Learning" (Perseus, 1998) and "Mindfulness" (Perseus, 1990).

When people hear of the UC Irvine professor who forgot that his infant son was in the back of his car and, instead of driving the baby to child care, went to work -- unwittingly leaving the child to die in the car -- one of the first questions is: What was this man thinking? The unfortunate answer: probably nothing.

This horrible story is the result of mindlessness, which is not confined to the proverbial absent-minded professor who has more important things to think about. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that there was anything more important to him than his son. Mindlessness is more ubiquitous than most people realize, and it is only after dramatic events like this that we sit up and take notice.

In another example, in 1982 an Air Florida plane took off from Washington, D.C., after the pilot and co-pilot went through their usual checklist. Traveling from one traditionally warm climate to another, the pilot indicated that the "anti-ice" switch was off, as it had virtually always been on this route. This time, however, Washington was experiencing snow. With the anti-icer mindlessly checked "off," the plane crashed and 74 people were killed.

We don't notice how often we are mindless because when we are mindless, for all intents and purposes we're not there to notice. Yet the price we pay is real, even if what happens is not as tragic as these two examples.

In the 25 years I've been studying this, I've learned that the consequences of mindlessness include things like accidents, burnout, poor job performance, memory problems, interpersonal difficulties and health problems. Our mindlessness essentially turns the body off. On the other hand, when we are mindful, we are literally more alive.

Our research with nursing-home elderly found that when people were encouraged to be more mindful, they actually lived longer. In one study, mindfulness was encouraged by giving people decisions to make and a plant to take care of to engage them. When we returned for our follow-up study, these residents were more likely to still be alive 18 months later.

What is mindlessness and how can we avoid it?

When mindless, we let the past determine the present. We are "rule and routine" governed and insensitive to context and perspective. We look for the ways things are the same and miss all the subtle ways things are different. It seems efficient. After all, why pay close attention to the "same old thing"? And yet it is these small, unexpected differences that result in many, if not most, of the problems we experience. When we are mindful, we can avert the danger not yet arisen.

In times of uncertainty, we mindfully notice small details, and it is this noticing that keeps us tuned in. For example, we pay attention to the sounds our new car makes but soon tune out, once we come to "know" the vehicle. We tune back in when the car makes a loud grinding sound and act as though this problem has happened all at once. Had we kept our minds open, we might have been able to notice more subtle changes in the sound of the car and to care for it before the damage became excessive.

We pay attention to subtleties when we meet someone new but then notice only dramatic changes after we think we know that person well. As a result, the relationship suffers.

We notice that we've gained 20 pounds as if it happened overnight, rather than notice the smaller accumulation of ounces and pounds.

The antidote to tragedies dramatic and mundane is to be more mindful. What does it mean to be mindful? How do we do it?

Mindfulness is actively noticing new things. When we actively notice new things, we are situated in the present, sensitive to perspective and context. Rules and routines learned in the past guide us but do not overdetermine what we do, as is the case when we are mindless. When we learn things mindfully in the first place -- that is, always retaining some uncertainty -- we are not caught unaware as things change.

Preventing mindlessness, however, is easier than curing it. We can decrease our mindlessness considerably if we intentionally look for differences among things we think are similar and for similarities among things we presume are different.

If every day I drive to work mindful of the fact that today, though it feels similar to yesterday, is also different, I am in the present, averting potential tragedies of all kinds.

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