Ellen Langer — Science of Mindlessness and Mindfulness
May 29, 2014

Social psychologist Ellen Langer's unconventional studies have long suggested what brain science is now revealing: our experiences are formed by the words and ideas we attach to them. Naming something "play" rather than "work" can mean the difference between delight and drudgery. She is one of the early pioneers — along with figures like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Herbert Benson — in drawing a connection between mindlessness and unhappiness, between mindfulness and health. Dr. Langer describes mindfulness as achievable without meditation or yoga — as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”


30 reflections
read/add yours


Shortened URL

Pertinent Posts from the On Being Blog


Even novice meditators are able to curb their pain after a few training sessions in mindfulness meditation.


One of the pioneering teachers of Buddhist thought and meditation in the U.S. answers our in-house "wannabe" mindfulness practitioner's questions on techniques and focus, and the balance of new technologies with human connection.

A week of gratitude for our many gifts: from Walter Rauschenbusch's gorgeous prayer to Thich Nhat Hanh's guiding dharma talk.

A Q+A with Phie Ambo on meditation, contemplative neuroscience, and what she learned while making the documentary Free the Mind on neuroscientist Richard Davidson.

Take this mystical aural hike into the Hoh Rain Forest in Olympic National Park to One Square Inch of Silence — and experience the chirping twitter of the Western wren and the haunting call of the Roosevelt elk.

Happiness. A word that gets bandied about quite a bit lately, and for good reason. An infographic that jogs a host of questions and insights.

A joyous monk at a meditation center in India teaches a young journalist how to breathe, one breath at a time.

About the Image

Dr. Ellen Langer presents at PopTech's annual conference at Camden, Maine, where she discussed the illusion of control, perceived control, successful aging, and decision-making.

Your Comments

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd><span><div><img><!-->
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Embed content by wrapping a supported URL in [embed] … [/embed].

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.


This merits listening to again and again. The concepts are at once simple and obvious yet complex and profound...like life. I have sent links to many of my clients (I am a therapist), my children, and I put the link to this podcast on my iPad homescreen. Thank you for such a thougtful and thought-provoking interview.

Thanks, Nancy. You said it for me.

Learning English as SL with this so so delightful and interesting conversation is a true pleasure.
Thank you very much for the transcription, and kind regards from Spain

I think she interpreted your first question from her psychological perspective, but she did not understand it...

If that's the one about 'having a religious experience,' she answered it directly and simply and completely. --If psychology isn't about being 'human' what is, what is more important for you to understand? (But: "Psychology is today where chemistry was when it was alchemy--it's not a basic understanding yet, relative to it's subject.")

Meditation is not just the preparatory work to mindfulness, it is the most mindful state when mantras and objects fade away. Enlightenment, in part, is the state of constant mindfulness/awareness. After years of meditation, mindfulness becomes more and more the natural state of being, similar to compassion( empathy, cognition, action) vs empathy.(see Richie Davidson's work)

One thing meditation does develope, at least in myself and most others I have observed, is a more ethical way of functioning. But, I do agree with most of what Langer has to offer. She is a very REFRESHING voice, not prone to only her point of view and this is how it is etc. Thanks for a great interview!!has

Another note is that mindfulness without ethics, could also be used in many nefarious ways.

Very good point...

Great show. Langer's work is very very important and deserves to be much more widely known.

Very interesting interview with Ellen Langer. I have not come across her work before but I will be looking out for her work in future. I completely agree regarding the mind / body split. After reading Patrick Wall's book on the science of suffering I began to think in terms of the thinking or conscious body. We talk about the mind in a very ambiguous way, sometimes in the sense of the mind being the brain, other times as that which gives rise to consciousness experience. I now conceptualise the mind as a phenomena that arises from the thinking or conscious body and it's environment (both internal and external), rather than it being an entity in itself. Our whole body thinks, it's not a function confined to (that admittedly amazing organ) the brain; and the body, with it's internal and external senses, is dependant on it's environment as part of that thinking process. Sensory deprivation soon leads to pathology in the thinking body. Could the mind then be the (conscious) experience of that process, not an entity which functions in its self?

I also completely agree with Ellen regarding placebo. This powerful phenomena has been long overlooked. As has it’s darker counterpart, nocebo. I dislike the term placebo because of its negative connotations. I have been playing around with different names. Symbolic healing? Symbiotic healing even!

One of the threads I have come across time and time again in healthcare it that people need their suffering acknowledged and validated. I think that is why diagnosis are frequently sort and so important, especially in our Western culture which has many systems in place which fail to acknowledge your suffering unless you have a diagnosis - preferably with lots of tests to back it up!

I think part of placebo is about acknowledging suffering, validating the individuals experience and giving them ‘permission’ to heal. Louis Gifford frames placebo as primarily a social phenomena – as social creatures we respond biologically the people around us. The thinking body!

All the shows are wonderful and this one was especially amazing. It is surprising how many of the guests are people I've never heard of.

The only aspect I have a very different sense of is that there is an explosion or even growth in consciousness awareness and that everyone knows about mindfulness and meditation. Sometimes I think people who are in this world for a "living" think everyone else is too. I hear very very very few people reference these subjects in everyday life - really, it's hard to find anyone who even cares enough to wonder about it. Look at the number of comments on this page relative to say any article on Huffington Post or some celebrity or sports page.

As i was listening to this lovely program on Mindfulness, and Ellen was talking about ‘pretending”it occurred to me that the process of pretending, as an actress, has often had a profound effect on my state of being. And the next thing she said was that it would be interesting to study actors!! I had an amazing experience last year playing the part of Violet in August Osage County here in Michigan. I think actors are trained to pay attention. We need to be mindful in order to recreate the experience of being someone else, and then to turn it off. I would love to take a course with Ellen.

I was distracted enough during the Langer interview by her repeated interruptions of Krista to recommend viewing a transcript instead. At one point, she even asked Krista, "Do you have a question?" -- this after Krista apparently sighed. Did the guest have a lapse in mindfulness as to decorum during an interview?

While listening this morning I had an opposing feeling. ..that Krista was doing the interrupting. I believed she was not following the flow of the thoughts being presented. I did find the hour to be one of the most enlightening I've heard in a long time. Thanks.

This woman (Langer) was full of herself. I was waiting for Krista to stop the interview.

I had the same take.  The exchange where Krista was taken to task for not marveling at the good Dr. Langer's originality was awkward.  A bit oversensitive for a tenured Harvard prof are we?   Kind of curious now about what was removed from the unedited interview.   Any hints guys? :)

Although the Tolle association was right on target, and with a great deal of institutional supporting research I'll assume.  As such I do plan to read one or more of Dr. Langer's books so mission accomplished.  A few red flags however.. 

Fantastic show... fantastic show today with Dr. Langer. Thank you so much.

Ms Tippett,

Well, Sundays with OnBeing reminds me of growing up watching the morning news show with my parents and the discussion around events and what make us part of this wonderful, wacky and worldly experience...called life. Dr. Langers' research appears so important that I will share with colleagues and friends. Have you thought of interviewing Drs. Steven Hayes or Kevin Polk [ ACBS] as to the impact of verbal behavior run amok that disposes us humans [verbal] beings to greater qualitative grief and even what we call as...dysfunction.



Krista, please, there's a show/theme here begging to be. The word "mindfulness" has become a plastic word. To some it means being more aware of yourself, to others more aware of other things. O.K. But spiritual development used to be about waking up. Waking up can't just be a nicer, longer list of things to be "aware" of. Like, now I've got all this other stuff to think about.
Waking up is about finding the original balance between our two brains. (Jill Taylor)
Waking up is about learning to be instead of always being a doer.
Waking up is about coming into the full consciousness of your own presence and realizing
that whereas your thinking mind is quiet, the rest of your mind is very bright and brilliant. (see Tara Brach Wed. nite talks) I'm reacting, Krista, because the term "mindfulness" needs to be rescued from the narciscisstic idea that we can just get more comfortable. The left brain ego mind always wants to get more comfortable. And our ego mind doesn't want to believe that it's only a tool. But truely being here now involves opening the heart and seeing/understanding our connections to all of the web of nature, especially since we're the dominant species. We need to know where we are and what we're doing. The right brain has been performing those functions for 600K yr. Opening up and coming into your total presence and full consciousness means allowing your energy to go into the consciousness of right brain, body and heart, and because there's no need for "thinking" to go on, no need for analyses, the thinking (chattering) brain is quiet. called meditation.
True mindfulness, said Stephen Levine, doesn't seek to change anything, just be aware.
So I would submit, Krista, I would offer this theory, that hard working folks who are doing difficult challenges in their lives, many of whom wake up in the morning with to-do lists, and many of whom have become addicted to left brain dominance, would have a different kind of meaning for the term "mindfulness" than someone who was not locked into the necessity of left brain dominance, which, I believe, is necessary in order to get complicated stuff done. The problem is the ego brain wants to think that it's doing everything. It thinks it sees. Wrong. (that's just thinking) It thinks it holds the energy of life that is present. Wrong. The "life that is here" in any presence might include the ego mind, but the magic of aliveness, the humming in the cells, is a phenomenon that exists and is perceived quite outside the thinking mind. Meditators learn this.

Fantastic--I've believed many of these ideas for years--how wonderful to have someone speak about this with such clarity. Can't wait to get some of her books!

Thank you Ellen and On Bieng Team. So well done.

When I awoke this Sunday morning, much earlier than I intended to, and felt refreshed and awake, strangely, I decided to turn on the radio (more to hear how the Red Sox had done the night before, than anything else, but anyway . . . ) and just in time to hear the beginning of this show, which I do not regularly listen to. I was so interested in what Dr. Langer had to say, I just lay there for an hour listening. I found myself agreeing with so many points, and thinking how astute many of her quotes were, and hoping I could remember some of them. Then during the day, kept thinking about that hour, as my recollection of her name, the show's title, and many of the specifics faded from my memory. So decided to find this and so glad I did. I look forward to listening again, perhaps buying her books, and bringing her ideas to the attention of family and friends. Thank you, NPR. (and AFN for broadcasting overseas)

I have labeled my work as "play" ever since I started with SWBT 40+ years ago. I transitioned to SBC and now AT&T. It's easy to embrace change in telecommunications - I started there when I was young and was taught that change is the 'norm'. I loved it and loved learning anything new. Still do. I read Quantum Physics books at lunch because I like reading over my head. I have two offices: my work office and my play office. The kids in the family have to ask which is which. i think my mindset was the key just as Langer suggests.

As a fan of Roman Stoic philosophy, a lot of this interview rang true for me. Ellen then confirmed I was on the right page by quoting Epictetus.

There's a large and often unexplored overlap between Stoicism and Buddhism, particularly around mindfulness and attachment to the transient. Perhaps because of its, and my, western heritage, I found Stoicism much easier to connect with than Buddhism. And like Ellen, Stoicism is unerringly practical in the advice it provides.

One of the things I enjoy most about On Being is being exposed to different views on similar concepts. It was a nice change to have something more directly in my wheelhouse, so to speak.

I was thrilled with this program! i've listened three times now, and have it queued up again for later today. more here than meets the ear.

Listening to the interview with Dr. Langer was shocking to me. All she was discussing, in fact, was simply the concepts of mental discipline and maturity. Her condescending, sanctimonious, and insulting perspective about individuals who feel stress is so ridiculous that I felt embarrassed that Ms. Tippett would conduct such an interview. Certainly, I was considered there were no real challenging questions regarding the simpleton nature of Dr. Langer's theories.

I felt like I was listening to a snake oil salesperson trying to claim that their approach was the solution for all problems.

If I heard correctly that the APA views Langer's approach as significant, then it sets back the reputation of psychological studies.

While I enjoyed hearing Ms. Langer and appreciate much of what she said, I was flabbergasted and insulted by her example of chambermaids "getting exercise" instead of her recognition of how blue collar workers earn their living. Labor, toil and sometimes excruciating pain in legs, feet and back from so much exercise! Not to speak of insensitive bosses breathing down their necks to do more, go faster, work harder. Maybe she needs to get out in the real world, away from Haaavad Yaaaad, and spend a few hours working out with chambermaids. She can start with an upscale hotel, but then she needs to shadow these fit and fabulous women at a Red Roof Inn. What a spoiled, self-absorbed woman. If she has a spiritual or compassionate component, she covers it well.

I think you missed her point. The work is the same, the feeling about it is different when we give it a different label. How you see your relationship to your "work" does make a difference even though the work may not change. Ms. Langer did not even address the difficulty of the work, because it was not the point she was making.

Mary Baker Eddy discovered this in 1866 and spent the rest of her life increasing in understanding of it.

Voices on the Radio

is a social psychologist and a professor in the Psychology Department at Harvard University. Her books include Mindfulness and Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

Production Credits

Host/Executive Producer: Krista Tippett

Executive Editor: Trent Gilliss

Senior Producer: Lily Percy

Technical Director: Chris Heagle

Associate Producer: Mariah Helgeson