psychology and meditation

Jettisoning the notion of the “true self”

Joshua Knobe has a thought-provoking article in the New York Times on the topic of what we believe to be our “true self.” Knobe is an associate professor at Yale, where he is appointed both in Cognitive Science and in Philosophy. He is one of a new breed of philosopher — the kind that not only takes account of science, but actively participates in scientific exploration.

In the article, In Search of the True Self, he explores the thorny problem, just what is the “True Self” anyway? Take the example of a Christian who believes that homosexuality is a sin, but comes to realize that he is homosexual. As the article says,

One person might look at his predicament and say: “Deep down, he has always wanted to be with another man, but he somehow picked up from society the idea that this desire was immoral or forbidden. If he could only escape the shackles of his religious beliefs, he would be able to fully express the person he really is.”

But then another person could look at exactly the same case and arrive at the very opposite conclusion: “Fundamentally, [he] is a Christian who is struggling to pursue a Christian life, but these desires he has make it difficult for him to live by his own values. If he ever gives in to them and chooses to sleep with another man, he will be betraying what was is most essential to the person he really is.”

You and I will almost certainly come down on one side or the other, but we may end up with diametrically opposed views of what it means for this man to be true to himself. The decision about what is someone’s True Self seems to be a subjective one.

According to Knobe, one answer, “endorsed by numerous different philosophers in different ways” is that “what is most distinctive and essential to a human being is the capacity for rational reflection.” That seems fair enough, but then he goes on to say that from this viewpoint our conflicted Christian would realize that “his sexual desires are not the real him … If he loses control and gives in to these desires, he will be betraying his true self.” This seems highly questionable. A reasonable person might say that if he has been born with an impulse to love others who happen to be of the same sex, and that if acting on this impulse harms no one, then it is the Christian restriction on homosexuality, and even the entire belief system of that religion, that is irrational. But as it happens, this isn’t what particularly interests me about this question of the “true self.” What does interest me about it is something I’ll return to later.

Knobe points out, however, that the very idea of our rationality being the True Self is incomprehensible in our wider culture, where our more base instincts are seen as who we really are. (I blame Freud. The Id is seen as being what’s really gone on, while the Super Ego (our values) are seen as fake, and as a front.)

So we have two opposed viewpoints, and Knobe highlights that the “trouble is that both of them assume that the true self can be identified in some straightforward way with one particular part of a person’s psychology.” He says that the matter is “more complex” although the study he cites (one he conducted with his colleagues George Newman and Paul Bloom) doesn’t seem to point to anything very complex at all. The study simply shows that what people identify as the “True Self” is subjective, and based on their existing religious and political views: “The results showed a systematic connection between people’s own values and their judgments about the true self.”

As a Buddhist I find the concept of a True Self fascinating. I experience myself as being composed of competing impulses: on the one hand I want to be kind, while on the other I’m inclined to yell at my kids when things don’t go the way I want them. I have a clear sense that being kind is more aligned with who I want to be. But is either of those “my true self”? Actually, I could say either “both” or “neither.”

In a practical sense, both kindness and yelling are parts of my behavior. I have to own them. No one else can take responsibility for my behavior. And in this sense I am, as the Buddhist suttas tell us:

the owner of my actions [karma], heir to my actions, born of my actions, related through my actions, and have my actions as my arbitrator. Whatever I do, for good or for evil, to that will I fall heir.

So from that point of view the answer is “both.” Both acting kindly and yelling unkindly are equally “really me’ although I may choose to prefer one over the other.

Why do I choose one over the other? It’s because, in my experience, yelling leads to suffering for myself and others, and I do not like suffering or causing suffering. Kindness, on the other hand, leads to a sense of enrichment and happiness, and I enjoy experiencing those things. And that’s why I’d prefer to act kindly rather than yell. It’s not that one is “the real me” and the other is not — it’s that they have consequences for my sense of well-being.

This follows the Buddha’s advice to his son:

Whenever you want to perform a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I want to perform — would it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

What is “unskillful” is what does leads to suffering rather than happiness. Rather than have some abstract principle leading us to look at what is “true” or not true in ourselves, we simply look at what leads to suffering or happiness. The Buddhist path is purely pragmatic, as this sutta shows:

I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ If this development of what is skillful were conducive to harm & suffering, I would not say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’ But because this development of what is skillful is conducive to benefit & happiness, I say to you, ‘Develop what is skillful.’

You may note that what is unskillful is not what is “bad.” To say that an action is unskilful is simply to point out that it leads to suffering. There’s no value judgement involved.

But what of my assertion that as well as both kindness and yelling being “the true me,” neither of them is the true me?

Pragmatically, both skillful and unskillful tendencies are truly me, and I have to take responsibility for them. Saying that one side or the other is “not truly me” is a bit of a cop-out. But when we look at the factors that cause suffering, we find that at the core of these is a sense of self-identification that leads to self-definition, reinforcing a sense of the self being static and separate. Ultimately we let go of any identification of any part of ourselve as being “the real self.”

Nothing that we can identify as a constituent of the self defines the self, and so our selves are essentially indefinable. We’re told that our form is not the self, and neither is feeling, perception, our habits or even (despite what some Tibetan forms of Buddhism say) our consciousness is not the self.

In the end, we have no “true self.” Whatever constitues the self “must with right understanding how it is, be regarded thus: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'” The very effort to identify a “true self” is a cause of suffering, and is to be abandoned.

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News of selfless acts has positive effect: study

Good news begets better people.

That was the conclusion of new research released Tuesday by the University of British Columbia, that found people with a strong sense of “moral identity” were inspired to do good when they read media stories about Good Samaritans’ selfless acts.

According to lead author Karl Aquino, who studies forgiveness and moral behaviour issues, four separate studies found a direct link between a person’s exposure to media accounts of extraordinary virtue and their yearning to change the world.

He said media reports could potentially play a crucial role in the mobilization of history makers if less attention was paid to negative coverage.

“Our study indicates that if more attention was devoted to recounting stories of uncommon acts of human virtue, the media could have a quantifiable positive effect on the moral behaviour of a significant group of people,” said Aquino, a professor at the Sauder School of Business at UBC.

“The news media have a tendency to celebrate bad behaviour, from Charlie Sheen’s recent exploits to articles that focus the spotlight on criminal and other aberrant behaviour.”

The findings, to be published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by the American Psychological Association, suggested people were not likely to act on reports that were merely positive.

“These things have to be beyond just everyday goodness,” Aquino said in an interview. “We help our neighbours all the time, we volunteer for things — we’re talking here about really exceptional acts of virtue.

“Acts that require enormous…

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sacrifice, that put people at risk for the sake of others.”

Two groups in study
In one of the studies, researchers conducted an experiment with 63 male and female subjects. One group was first assigned to complete a word search that including words with moral connotations, such as “compassionate,” “honest,” and “kind.” A second group completed a word search comprised of morally neutral words of everyday objects.

Participants were then randomly assigned to read one of two news stories, both about positive human interactions.

However, only one recounted an act of uncommon goodness, describing a 2006 shooting at an Amish schoolhouse. Days after the incident, parents offered forgiveness and financial assistance to the widow of the man who shot their children.

The second story recounted a couples’ experience of seeing a beautiful sunset.

Those exposed to the story of the Amish community’s uncommon goodness gave 32 per cent more money to charity than those who read about the sunset.

In a second study, Aquino and his team were surprised to discover even a music video could inspire people to give generously — and not to the people you’d typically expect.

Study participants were shown a music video by Canadian artist Sarah McLachlan, in which it’s described that all but $15 of the $150,000 budget for a video was donated to various international charities.

A second group was shown McLachlan’s Adia video, which pictured her singing in front of various cityscapes — a pleasing, yet not uncommonly good act.

Those who watched the charitable video were more likely to open their wallets, Aquino found, despite the fact that the charity was somewhat controversial, reintegrating former prisoners back into the community.

“It’s a group of people that generally wouldn’t evoke lots of sympathy, but yet we show that when you’re presenting people with an example of virtuous action, that it can make them think differently about these kinds of people — people who may be outside of their radar, as far as the kinds they would want to help.”

Media role
Based on his research, Aquino also said the media could play a strategic role in helping the fundraising efforts for natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan.

“Focusing on individual examples of extraordinary goodness within the crisis may be a more effective and subtle way to encourage people to donate than inundating them with stories and pictures of need and desperation,” he said.

Yet not everyone is inspired by stories of extraordinary greatness.

“Not everyone thinks that Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is beautiful,” said Aquino, who co-authored the study with University of Michigan researcher, Brent McFerran, and Marjorie Laven, a communications professional from Vancouver Island. “There are some people who are more attuned or open to these experiences than others.”

People who are already more connected to being a moral person are more likely to be affected.

“These are the ones that we find are more receptive to seeing virtuous acts,” he said.

Aquino said he didn’t know if a person’s culture or nationality plays any part in determining what they deem “virtuous.”

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How ‘self-compassion’ trumps ‘self-esteem’

It was the 1970s and adults were looking for a way to raise confident, go-getter children, ones who would celebrate the person they were to become.

And so parents and teachers started showering them with praise, creating a pop movement of self-esteem that played up their worth. Up those youngsters grew, with grand aspirations of becoming celebrities, astronauts — anything they wanted to be.

And then out came the beating sticks.

Children of the self-esteem movement — their identities shaped by I Am Special songs and “Princess” t-shirts — have become entitled, confused and self-critical youth and adults, raised to believe they can do anything and frustrated, sometimes devastated, when they can’t, experts say. The phenomenon seems at odds with the very definition of self-esteem: feeling good about yourself.

Title: Self-Compassion
Author: Kristin Neff
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 978-0061733512
Available from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle.

Now, decades since the praise began, psychologists and researchers say they’ve found a way to ease the mental self-battery that has become prominent in North American culture.

A new wave of research on self-compassion — the ability to treat yourself the way you’d treat a friend or a loved one — has been creeping into the mainstream, aiming to rescue people from the depths of narcissism and unreasonable standards they will never meet.

Borrowing principles from Buddhism and mindfulness, the practice demands people be kinder to themselves instead of sizing themselves up against others and beating themselves down.

Kristin Neff, a professor of human development…

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and culture at the University of Texas, is considered a pioneer in self-compassion research. She published her first paper on the subject in 2003, and, since then, there have been more than 100 academic journal papers on self-compassion by a range of psychologists and neuroscientists.

Prof. Neff publishes her first book on the topic this month, entitled Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind. In December, American psychotherapist Jean Fain released The Self-Compassion Diet, a book that applies the practice to weight loss.

But as a growing number of books advocating self-compassion roll off the presses, some academic observers are skeptical of the approach, questioning whether it will breed complacency and self-indulgence or if it’s just another self-help gimmick.

It certainly smells that way to Stewart Justman, author of the 2005 pop psychology critique Fool’s Gold. The director of the Liberal Studies program at the University of Montana said it smacks of some of the classic self-help strategies, applying the word “self” to many virtuous words such as compassion, loyalty and honesty.

“At some point, obviously, a price is paid for these redefinitions,” he said in an email interview. “I wonder if ‘self-compassion’ constitutes a remedy for the excesses of the self-esteem movement or is really more of the same.”

Narcissism expert W. Keith Campbell regarded the concept of self-compassion with suspicion when he encountered it a few years ago.

“It sounds like self-help hooey and it sounds wimpy,” said the co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, published in 2009. “I think sometimes people hear a word like self-compassion and they think ‘Oh, it’s just like making excuses.’”

Regardless, Prof. Campbell, who teaches social psychology at the University of Georgia, says the approach could have some remedying effects on a generation of narcissists.

“I’ve seen the data and it’s a way of being very resilient and strong in the face of negative feedback,” he explained. “It’s not just giving yourself a hug.”

Negative feedback is something people with unrealistically high expectations of themselves struggle to accept, adds Mark Leary, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University.

He co-authored a study, published in the May 2007 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which found self-compassion to be more important than self-esteem in dealing with negative events. The benefits usually attributed to high self-esteem may even be due to self-compassion, the researchers say.

“This shows us it’s far more important to be kind to yourself than it is to have high self-esteem,” he says.

“High self-esteem is no good unless it’s accompanied by self-compassion.”

Studies have shown narcissism can have serious impacts on mental health, contributing to depression and suicide if the supply of adoration, adulation and attention depletes.

Low self-esteem, on the other hand, can lead to the many of the same things if taken to the extreme.

Self-compassion, its proponents say, can guard against these things, at least in part. Studies from the University of Texas at Austin have found those high in self-compassion have lower rates of depression and mental health problems.

Studies on senior citizens and HIV patients conducted at Duke University in North Carolina have found those with higher levels of self-compassion are far more likely to ask for help.

“Our research shows most people are much harder on themselves than they are on other people,” said Prof. Neff. “What we find is people who are low in self-compassion are really compassionate to others and hard on themselves.”

But Christian Jordan, a self-esteem researcher and professor of psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., says there is a danger people will mistake the “go easy on yourself” mantra of self-compassion for an excuse to be lazy.

“I think there’s a real risk, given the superficial similarities the self-esteem movement has taught people, of bringing them into that mentality when it could be interpreted as being ‘You should always value yourself no matter what and not take an objective view,’” he said.

It could also backfire if someone with too much self-esteem or off-the-charts levels of self-regard adopts the concept, offered Scott Lilienfeld, a professor of psychology at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., who co-authored the 2010 book 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior.

“There’s always the law of unintended consequences, and there’s a long history in psychology of people getting very excited about various fads without thinking about what the consequences might be,” he said. “Plenty of people who do have low self-esteem, I’m all for raising their self-esteem, that’s good and fine. But some people don’t have that problem.”

The notion that it will lead to self-indulgence is something researchers like Dr. Neff have heard time and again.

“Whenever you talk about self-compassion now, it’s almost the first thing out of my mouth: ‘It’s not self-indulgence’,” she said. It actually demands a lot of tough love, she said, using the analogy of a mother’s reaction when her child comes home with a failing grade on schoolwork.

“If she criticizes him and says “You’re so stupid and will never amount to anything,” that’s not going to motivate him — he’s going to be depressed and take basketball instead,” she said.

“But does she say ‘That’s OK, little John, you got an F, we love you anyway’? That’s not healthy either.” A compassionate mother would tell her son an F is unacceptable, but will help him figure out a way to improve the situation and not dwell on the failure.

Sounds like common sense. Then why don’t people apply the same approach to themselves, many researchers have asked.

The head of the Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Derby published a paper last year which found that fear of compassion towards oneself was tied directly with a person’s fear of receiving compassion from other people.

The next stage of research on Dr. Neff’s horizon is figuring out why people tend not to take compliments very well.

Self-criticism is a tricky habit to shake. It’s why Dr. Neff stresses that self-compassion is a practice, an exercise that doesn’t, and won’t, come easily to most people. But she hopes that one day, instead of children in pre-school singing “I am special” in a continuous loop, they will employ some aspects of self-compassion.

For Prof. Campbell, whose own young daughter still takes home school assignments that emphasize her specialness, the change in tack could not come too soon.

“My only hope is that if this work gets out, people will start questioning uniqueness and they’ll start questioning self-esteem and maybe take some of the forces that push for those things out of our schools,” he said.

“But in terms of everyone in the country turning toward self-compassion, that’s a harder sell.”

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Meditation, hypnosis change ‘brain signature’

Amir Raz gets some funny looks when he talks about using hypnosis and meditation techniques to build attention spans in a hyperactive MTV world.

“Mention contemplation to a lot of people, and all they think of is some kind of (wacky) spiritualism, people sitting around a darkened room with candles, chanting,” says Raz, a McGill University professor who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Cognitive Neuroscience of Attention.

“Our ideas are shaped by Hollywood movies. So you talk about hypnosis, and people see something out of a Woody Allen movie, a guy in a turban with bushy eyebrows who wants to put you to sleep.”

But “trim away the folkloric fat,” and Raz, a cognitive psychologist who worked his way through graduate school doing magic tricks, sees mindfulness training as a valuable, drug-free tool in the struggle to foster attention skills, with positive spinoffs for controlling our emotions and even making us smarter.

“We live in a time when modern medicine is weighted heavily toward…

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pharmaceuticals.

“Everyone wants a magic bullet that will help them lose 40 pounds, or a surgical procedure that will cure all our ills,” says Raz, who will be speaking Wednesday about the chemical benefits of brain science and chicken soup as part of McGill’s Mini-Science lecture series.

“We live in an impatient society, and we want results immediately. But that’s not realistic, and without behavioural modification, likely to provide only temporary relief.”

In his lab at McGill, Raz explores ways meditation and braintraining exercises can be used to help people pay more attention to what’s happening around them, skills which will come in handy in sharpening the mind, controlling emotions and blocking out distractions.

“We live in a high-speed world, where events change rapidly, but our bodies may not be biologically crafted for that,” said Raz, whose especially curious about the effects attention training can have on children.

“We need to train ourselves to prioritize and manage what gets our attention. It’s like learning to control our email. Otherwise, life becomes one big interruption.”

He cites studies in which young children age 4 to 7 were asked to play computer games expressly designed to stretch the parts of their brains that regulate attention. Researchers found that non-verbal aspects of the intelligence quotients went up and the youngsters were better able to focus. But they also noticed other changes, with participants exhibiting “brain signatures” more like those of adults, reflected in improved mental processing and greater control of emotions.

“We’re not elated, we don’t win a trophy every day. We need to build resilience,” said Raz, who would like to see some form of attention training built into the school curriculum to help children focus, ignore distractions and learn social cues they won’t pick up sending text messages.

“With quality stimulation, people are better able to regulate emotions, prevent depression and obsessive behaviours. We’re less likely to explode when someone disagrees with you or shatter when things don’t go your way.”

Lately, he’s begun to worry about the potential impact of global positioning systems and other devices on spatial memory. “Attention systems expand based on usage.”

Raz sees behavioural modification techniques used in concert with medications, “some of which are over-hyped or at large cost in side effects.”

“Too often, drugs become the default and people discount other options.

“There are attentional ways to regulate. Some prefer the drug route. It’s a question of whether you want to regulate or self-regulate.”

pcurran@montrealgazette.com

Amir Raz is speaking Wednesday at 6 p.m. in McGill’s Bronfman building, 1001 Sherbrooke St. W. as part of McGill’s Mini-Science series. For information on fees and registration, visit www.mcgill.ca/science/mini

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Conquering self-doubt with mindfulness-based therapies

The boss loves your work. Your spouse thinks you’re sexy. The kids—and even the cat—shower you with affection. But then there’s the Voice, the nagging presence in your head that tells you you’re a homely, heartless slacker.

Even people who appear supremely fit, highly successful and hyper-organized are sometimes riddled with debilitating doubts, fears and self-criticisms.

“Most people are struggling with difficult thoughts and feelings. But the show we put on for others says ‘I’ve got it handled,'” says Steven C. Hayes, a professor of psychology at University of Nevada-Reno. In reality, however, “there’s a big difference between what’s on the outside and what’s on the inside.”

Cognitive-behavioral therapy aims to help patients conquer their self doubts in two ways: Either by changing the behaviors that go along with it (I’m so fat—I need to get to the gym!) or by challenging the underlying thoughts, which are often distorted. (I’m 45-years old and I’m comparing myself to anorexic models. Get serious!)

Now, a third-wave of cognitive-behavioral therapy is catching on…

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in psychology and self-help circles. It holds that simply observing your critical thoughts without judging them is a more effective way to tame them than pressuring yourself to change or denying their validity.

” ‘Tame’ is an interesting word,” says Dr. Hayes, who pioneered one approach, called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. “How would you go about taming a wild horse? You wouldn’t whip it back into a corner. You’d pat it on the nose and give it some carrots and eventually try to ride it.”

This new psychology movement centers on mindfulness—the increasing popular emphasis on paying attention to the present moment. One of its key tenets is that urging people to stop thinking negative thoughts only tightens their grip—”like struggling with quicksand,” Dr. Hayes says. But simply observing them like passing clouds can diffuse their emotional power, proponents say, and open up more options. (“Here’s that old fat feeling again. You know, this happens every time I look at fashion magazines. I am sure judging myself harshly. Do I want to go to the gym? Or I could go to a movie. Or I could stop reading magazines.”)

“Part of what mindfulness does is get to you to recognize that these critical thoughts are really stories you have created about yourself. They are not necessarily true, but they can have self-fulfilling consequences,” says Zindel V. Segal, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto who devised Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to help depressed patients. “If you can get some distance from them, you can see that there are choices about how to respond.”

Mindfulness also involves paying attention to your breathing and other physical sensations while observing your thoughts so you have a tapestry of information to consider, says Dr. Segal. In fact, neuro-imaging studies have shown that when people consider problems mindfully, they use additional brain circuits beyond those that simply involve problem-solving.

Although some critics initially dismissed mindfulness-based therapies as vacuous and New Age-y, dozens of randomized-controlled trials in the past decade have shown that they can be effective in managing depression, panic disorders, social phobias, sleep problems and even borderline personality disorder.

A study of 160 patients with major depression, led by Dr. Segal and published in the Archives of General Psychiatry last month, found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was just as good at as antidepressants at warding off relapses of depression.

The National Institutes of Health is funding more than 50 research studies involving mindfulness treatments for psychological problems.

A growing number of therapists are also using mindfulness-based acceptance in their practices. Katherine Muller, associate director of the Center for Integrative Psychotherapy in Allentown, Pa., says she sometimes brings out a little plastic gnome to represent a patient’s negative feelings. “The idea is, ‘These feelings are going to come. What are you going to do about them?’ ” she says. “You don’t have to react to them at all. Just allowing them to exist takes away their power.”

She also finds that practicing mindfulness is more effective at easing her own fear of flying than being reminded about the safety statistics.

On one flight, she says, “all my cognitive skills were going right out the window.” Then another psychologist suggested focusing on the tray table rather than fighting her fears. “It helped me center my head and get a grip,” she says. “It gave me a chance to watch the movie and talk to the person next to me, rather than focus on how the plane might go down in a fiery ball.”

Psychologist Dennis Tirch, director of the New York Center for Mindfulness, Acceptance and Compassion-Focused Therapies, uses this formula to help even people with profound developmental disabilities take control of their emotions: “Feel your soles of your feet. Feel yourself breathe. Label your emotions and make space for your thoughts.”

Extending some compassion for yourself is also an important part of the new mindfulness therapies, Dr. Tirch says. “I can’t tell you how many clients I have who are just beating themselves up about things” says Dr. Tirch. “Give yourself a break—not so you can curl up in bed and stay home, but so you can interact better with the world.”

Kindness and accepting your thoughts nonjudgmentally doesn’t mean having to settle for the status quo, proponents say. Rather than be paralyzed by negative thoughts, you can opt to change your situation—get to the gym or work harder—but with a clearer set of options based on what really matters.

Some critics note that such advice doesn’t sound so different from standard cognitive-behavioral therapy or being kind to the “inner child” of earlier psychotherapy approaches. And some experts say that still more scientific data are needed to evaluate its effectiveness, particularly now that it’s being applied to such a wide array of disorders.

It’s also not clear yet who might benefit most from mindfully accepting their thoughts rather than reasoning with them. For example, Dr. Tirch thinks that it’s still important to convince someone with severe agoraphobia that a piano won’t fall on their head if they leave the house.

Yet Marsha Linehan, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, found that the acceptance therapy she developed in the 1990s enabled suicidal patients and those with borderline personality disorder to accept their feelings and get help while trying to challenge them would only have created more bad feelings.

“It’s the nonjudgmental part that trips most people up,” says Dr. Linehan. “Most of us think that if we are judgmental enough, things will change. But judgment makes it harder to change.” She adds: “What happens in mindfulness over the long haul is that you finally accept that you’ve seen this soap opera before and you can turn off the TV.”

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“Life Happens,” by Cheryl Rezek

life happensLife Happens is the work of Dr. Cheryl A. Rezek, a UK-based clinical psychologist who teaches mindfulness as a way of helping her clients deal with often difficult life situations. It combines pithy insights in written form with excellent audio instructions that guide the listener through a variety of meditative exercises and even physical stretches. It’s aimed in particular at those who have problems with mental distress or physical pain, such as stress, depression, chronic pain, cancer, and addiction.

The recordings most clearly show Rezek’s strengths as a teacher. Her voice is very pleasant to listen to, and conveyed to me a sense of warmth and gentleness, combined with precision. Her instructions emphasize self-care, for example in learning to recognize when you’re trying too hard in stretching exercises. These audio guides, which span two CDs, introduce yoga-based movements that promote body awareness and also help to release tensions. They also include a number of meditation and mindfulness exercises of various lengths. The instructions are well-paced and clear.

Title: Life Happens
Author: Dr. Cheryl A. Rezek
Publisher: Leachcroft
ISBN: 978-0-9566020-0-8
Available from: Leachcroft, Amazon.co.uk, and Amazon.com.

Rezek’s work as a clinical psychologist deeply informs her writing, which shine light on the mental processes that create much of our suffering, and which recognize our complexity as human beings. For example, she points out that many of our problems are caused by coping mechanisms that have gone astray, such as defense strategies that lead to us cutting off from others in order to protect us from harm, but end up impoverishing our lives by isolating us and removing us from sources of love and support. The book is full of such analyses, and I suspect many people who are beginning a part of spiritual exploration in order to transcend their psychological suffering will have “aha!” moments of self-recognition, and will feel relieved to have put a finger on what has been hindering their happiness.

Implicit in Rezek’s approach is not giving ourselves a hard time for being imperfect. This is heartening, since for many people beginning meditation the tendency is to see parts of themselves (their unhelpful habits) as “the enemy,” to be vanquished. Rezek’s approach is based on lovingkindness and wisdom, seeing our unhelpful habits as simply strategies that don’t work very well at accomplishing the aim of bringing about our well-being.

Rezek repeatedly points out that there are limits to the change we can bring about: “We cannot change rocks into rivers or trees into streams: we cannot change the fundamentals of who we are so we cannot be who we are not.” She stresses however that we can exercise choice and make changes in our lives, and thus bring about more balance. At the same time, she also stresses that our unhelpful ways of relating to our experience — while they may have been with us since childhood — are not integral to who we are. We don’t, in other words, have the ability to change everything about ourselves, but we can change what really matters, which is our tendency to make ourselves unhappy.

I enjoyed the fact that the final chapter of the book is called “No conclusion,” suggesting that practice is a life-long task of learning. In keeping with the principles of lovingkindness, Rezek reminds us that we will inevitably make mistakes, and that we should accept this and simply keep on making an effort to learn from them.

“Life Happens” is not perfect, and the editing leaves much to be desired. Although Rezek is generally a good writer, she would, like all good writers, have benefited from having some occasional “clunkiness” smoothed out. And there were times I wished she’d had someone on hand to encourage her to write more, or sometimes less; certain passages are a bit too brief and pithy for their own good, while others seem padded. But I am (I confess) a very critical reader as regards style, and I suspect most people for whom this book would be useful will simply be focused on, and grateful for, the content. I’d regard the CDs not so much as being a complement to the book, but the book as being a complement to the CDs. Without the guided meditations, the written descriptions of practice would be interesting but not necessarily life-changing. The combination allows for both reflection, on reading the written word, and a living engagement with experience, through following the guided meditations that Rezek so skillfully leads. “Life Happens” (the book and CDs) could potentially benefit many people, and I hope Rezek’s work finds a wide audience.

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How meditation can help with “choking”

A star golfer misses a critical putt; a brilliant student fails to ace a test; a savvy salesperson blows a key presentation. Each of these people has suffered the same bump in mental processing: They have just choked under pressure.

It’s tempting to dismiss such failures as “just nerves.” But to University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock, they are preventable results of information logjams in the brain. By studying how the brain works when we are doing our best — and when we choke — Beilock has formulated practical ideas about how to overcome performance lapses at critical moments.

Beilock’s research is the basis of her new book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, published Sept. 21 by Simon and Schuster, Free Press.

“Choking is suboptimal performance, not just poor performance. It’s a performance that is inferior to what you can do and have done in the past and occurs when you feel pressure to get everything right,” said Beilock, an associate professor in psychology.

Fear of failure

Some of the most spectacular and memorable moments of choking occur in sports when the whole world is watching. Many remember golfer Greg Norman’s choke at the 1996 U.S. Masters. Norman had played brilliantly for the first three days of the tournament, taking a huge lead. But on the final day, his performance took a dive, and he ended the Masters five shots out of first place.

Choking in such cases happens when the polished programs executed by the brains of extremely accomplished athletes go awry. In Choke, Beilock recounts famous examples of these malfunctions in the context of brain science to tell the story of why people choke and what can be done to alleviate it.

Thinking too much about what you are doing, because you are worried about losing the lead (as in Norman’s case) or worrying about failing in general, can lead to “paralysis by analysis.” In a nutshell, paralysis by analysis occurs when people try to control every aspect of what they are doing in an attempt to ensure success. Unfortunately, this increased control can backfire, disrupting what was once a fluid, flawless performance.

“My research team and I have found that highly skilled golfers are more likely to hole a simple 3-foot putt when we give them the tools to stop analyzing their shot, to stop thinking,” Beilock said. “Highly practiced putts run better when you don’t try to control every aspect of performance.”

Even a simple trick of singing helps prevent portions of the brain that might interfere with performance from taking over, Beilock’s research shows. Whistling can help at work. “If the tasks are automatic and you have done them a thousand times in the past, a mild distraction such as whistling can help them run off more smoothly under pressure.”

Conforming to stereotypes

The brain also can work to sabotage performance in ways other than paralysis by analysis. For instance, pressure-filled situations can deplete a part of the brain’s processing power known as working memory, which is critical to many everyday activities.

Beilock’s work has shown the importance of working memory in helping people perform their best, in academics and in business. Working memory is lodged in the prefrontal cortex and is a sort of mental scratch pad that is temporary storage for information relevant to the task at hand, whether that task is doing a math problem at the board or responding to tough, on-the-spot questions from a client. Talented people often have the most working memory, but when worries creep up, the working memory they normally use to succeed becomes overburdened. People lose the brain power necessary to excel.

One example is the phenomenon of “stereotype threat.” This is when otherwise talented people don’t perform up to their abilities because they are worried about confirming popular cultural myths that contend, for instance, that boys and girls naturally perform differently in math or that a person’s race determines his or her test performance.

In Choke, Beilock describes research demonstrating that high-achieving people underperform when they are worried about confirming a stereotype about the racial group or gender to which they belong. These worries deplete the working memory necessary for success. The perceptions take hold early in schooling and can be either reinforced or abolished by powerful role models.

In one study, researchers gave standardized tests to black and white students, both before and after President Obama was elected. Black test takers performed worse than white test takers before the election. Immediately after Obama’s election, however, blacks’ performance improved so much that their scores were nearly equal with whites. When black students can overcome the worries brought on by stereotypes, because they see someone like President Obama who directly counters myths about racial variation in intelligence, their performance improves.

Beilock and her colleagues also have shown that when first-grade girls believe that boys are better than girls at math, they perform more poorly on math tests. One big source of this belief? The girls’ female teachers. It turns out that elementary school teachers are often highly anxious about their own math abilities, and this anxiety is modeled from teacher to student. When the teachers serve as positive role models in math, their male and female students perform equally well.

Meditation and practice can help

Even when a student is not a member of a stereotyped group, tests can be challenging for the brightest people, who can clutch if anxiety taps out their mental resources. In that instance, relaxation techniques can help.

In tests in her lab, Beilock and her research team gave people with no meditation experience 10 minutes of meditation training before they took a high-stakes test. Students with meditation preparation scored 87, or B+, versus the 82 or B- score of those without meditation training. This difference in performance occurred despite the fact that all students were of equal ability.

Stress can undermine performance in the world of business, where competition for sales, giving high-stakes presentations or even meeting your boss in the elevator are occasions when choking can squander opportunities.

Practice helps people navigate through these tosses on life’s ocean. But, more importantly, practicing under stress — even a moderate amount — helps a person feel comfortable when they find themselves standing in the line of fire, Beilock said. The experience of having dealt with stress makes those situations seem like old hat. The goal is to close the gap between practice and performance.

A person also can overcome anxiety by thinking about what to say, not what not to say, said Beilock, who added that staying positive is always a good idea.

“Think about the journey, not the outcome,” Beilock advised. “Remind yourself that you have the background to succeed and that you are in control of the situation. This can be the confidence boost you need to ace your pitch or to succeed in other ways when facing life’s challenges.”

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The Invisible Presence, by Michael Gurian

 The Invisible Presence: How a Man's Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with WomenAlthough it’s not clear until you begin reading the book, this is a new edition of a book published in 1994 as Mothers, Sons, and Lovers, and it includes a new preface and study questions. Michael Gurian has published twenty five books over the years, establishing his reputation as a leader in the world of gender studies, as well as founding the Gurian Institute, which conducts research and provides training and education for other professionals.

You may be asking yourselves, as I certainly did, why Shambhala Publications has put out a book on men’s studies and Jungian psychology. This esteemed press is best known for its Buddhism books, especially Chogyam Trungpa and Pema Chodron, among many, many others. It turns out that Shambhala published the original edition, back in an era where they did a lot more psychology and philosophy books, including most of Ken Wilber’s books.

* * * * *

Title: The Invisible Presence: How a Man’s Relationship with His Mother Affects All His Relationships with Women
Author: Michael Gurian
Publisher: Shambhala Books
ISBN: 978-1-59030-807-3
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk.

One of Gurian’s essential points in the book, and where he begins, is the lack of initiation for boys as they enter manhood. In tribal cultures, and even in the modern world until the previous century, boys were not intimately tied to their mothers the way they are now. Child-rearing was different, and separation from the mother and the family was not only expected, it was enforced. Primal cultures often had a series of initiation ceremonies that progressively removed the son from the family of origin and signaled his emergence as an adult. Sometimes this process even included a new name.

Until the last century or so, with the advent of much-needed child labor laws, boys from “middle class” families often were sent to work or to apprentice with a craftsman — a carpenter, a blacksmith, an accountant (if they were really well-off), and so on. This apprenticeship process, which often took years, was a form of initiation (separation from family, initiation into a trade guild, and his return as an adult — the classic model outlined by van Gennep more than a century ago), even though Gurian doesn’t mention it in the book.

Now boys live at home until college, and often they return when school is finished until they can find a job and their own apartment. Mothers make this separation process even more difficult in trying to maintain their early attachment to their child, which is the opposite of what a young man needs. An adolescent boy is beginning the individuation process, moving away from the mother and into the world of men, and going to college should finalize this separation. Yet this is not happening for a lot of young men.

So what happens to the son when the mother has been dismissing the role of the father, or dismissing the roles of men in general — or worse, disparaging the father with put-downs or insults? How is a boy to find his place in the male world when his mother has negated what he is destined to become, an adult man?

As Gurian demonstrates, that boy does not become an adult man — he remains stuck in an in-between place where he needs the approval of women and men to feel of value, in essence, because there has not been any internalized male ideal (since men are bad, abusive, or useless: “all men are pigs,” “men suck!” “all men want is sex,” or “men have ruined the world”). While this does not happen in the majority of young men’s lives, it does happen much more than we would like to believe.

The other possibility for this individuation failure is an absent father, either through abandonment, divorce, or death. My father died of a heart attack when I was 13-years-old — and there was no good male role models in my life. I was dismayed to see myself in one of Gurian’s lists of characteristics of uninitiated men (p. 38-39). While I have spent years working on this aspect of my life, it seems I still carry some of the scars.

* * * * *

In the third chapter, Gurian looks at how this initiation failure and the impingement relationship with the mother shapes a man’s adult romantic relationships. By impingement (a reference to the work of D.W. Winnicott, a pioneer in parent-child attachment theory) Gurian is referring to the ways that parents fill their own emotional needs through their children. This is a difficult thing to monitor in ourselves — Dr. Dan Siegel spends a whole book on how we can development this skill (Parenting from the Inside Out, 2003) — but we need to be aware of it because it puts the infant or child in the impossible position of taking care of the parent.

For boys, growing up in this environment — which can continue into adulthood, especially when the father is absent due to emotional distancing, work, abandonment, or death, and shows up in comments such as, “Don’t ever leave me,” or “Be my little man” — symbolically forces him to be a surrogate “lover” or partner for his mother. And what little boy does not want to please his mother?

But this sets up the young man to remain more loyal to his mother than to his romantic partner when he begins that element of his life. This was classically known as the mother complex, and although it’s a near cliché, it’s also an accurate assessment of what can happen. The girlfriend or wife ends up feeling she comes second to the mother, and she is correct.

Other elements of this pattern can manifest as a need for approval from the romantic partner. A boy-man who grew up with a “smothering” mother (which is how I look at my own childhood with my mother) has no sense of self outside of that external approval. This man is “spineless” or “weak” or “hen-pecked” — all clichés that pathologize something the man had no control over in his life. He did not choose to be parented in that way.

In this respect, I would recommend this book for women as much as for men. Understanding how the man you love was raised will help you understand those aspects of his personality that you might find challenging. (Gurian offers study questions for women at the end of the book.)

* * * * *

In the second half of the book, which is more like two-thirds, Gurian offers a way out of this liminal space between boyhood and manhood, a series of initiation tasks that can help us toward a mature individuation.

In offering his outline and exercises for experiencing our own initiation, Gurian is men identify and move from the adolescent hero (seeking adventure and power, the traditional hero seeking his place in the world) into the mature, masculine hero (who seeks wholeness and wisdom, not ego trinkets). He actually makes this distinction early in the book:

The mature counterpart of the adolescent hero, the Mature Hero, gains his maturity when he makes the journey out of the survival mode, stepping out of the need for ego fixes and ego approval. (p. 37)

He presents the “Heroic Quest” in the second half of the book as a “search for information, understanding, inspiration, and recovery” (p. 119). He asks us to take the tasks he will present very seriously, as ritual, which includes creating a ritual space, some sacred objects, a notebook, and even a special pen devoted to just this project.

Wisely, he also suggests that some men will want to seek support from a therapist or a men’s group, and I would generally agree with this, especially the therapist part. I have found that working with a good, spiritually-inclined therapist is very helpful in sorting out family of origin issues.

Finally, I want to present abbreviated versions of the seven affirmations he presents in the introduction to Part II of the book, which I found supportive for men beginning such a journey:

  1. A man is a loving, wise, and powerful male adult.
  2. The human unconscious is a mythological story.
  3. My outward behavior and inward yearnings are guided by countless personal and family myths I rarely articulate.
  4. My personal myths are not written in stone, just as wounds are not permanently damaging.
  5. Not all damaging personal myths and wounds respond to personal odyssey work.
  6. There is no such thing as a perfect man.
  7. Because our culture has turned away from the magic of the inner story toward the radiant distractions of external stimulation, I must look inward toward the dark center of my being, where my sacred self lives. (p. 128-129)

* * * * *

While I can easily recommend this book with only minor reservations, I did find myself questioning several things as I read the book.

Gurian begins with his acknowledgments, a standard move, but I immediately became skeptical in seeing Carlos Castaneda in the list, a well-known fiction writer still sometimes thought of as an anthropologist. Also on the list are many authors who have made the complexity of Jungian psychology seem little more than the misappropriation of another culture’s mythology.

R.W. Connell, in Masculinities (2nd edition, 2005), is very critical of the archetypal move in mainstream Jungian psychology, by which he refers to the impulse to find archetypes nearly everywhere. In his later work, Jung did this as well, and his followers picked up where he left off.

This results in deeply confused texts such as Marshall Bethal’s The Mythic Male, an errant hunt through Greco-Roman myths, taken utterly out of context…. Iron John is a Jungian work in exactly this vein, except that Robert Bly finds his archetypes in a folk tale recast by the Brothers Grimm…. (p. 13)

I bring this up because Gurian also does this in his book. There are several instances that I marked early in the book, before I gave up due to the sheer number of them. At one point (page 74), he rattles off a series of examples of the devouring Goddess myth from various cultures. But what he does not mention is that these are all pre-rational (or pre-personal) myths, meaning that they come from a time in human history before we developed much of a rational sense of self, a time when humans showed very little compassion or empathy in raising their children (see Jeremy Rifkin’s The Empathic Civilization, Chapter Four). Those myths were appropriate to those times, but they bear little relevance to how we live now.

On the other hand, Gurian also makes reference to literature, poetry, and film, and in these instances, his point is carried more clearly and makes more sense to the educated contemporary reader. For example, in one short section of the book, he references Hamlet, Don Juan, and a poem by Robert Duncan. When he makes these references, he is giving the reader a modern, accessible correlate to the point his is trying to make and it works better.

Gurian is not alone in this issue — it’s endemic in popular Jungian psychology, as Connell pointed out. In this respect, Jungian psychology fails as a useful tool for men’s studies. And yet, as I also pointed out, when the author avoids primitive myths and uses modern literature and film, he offers us a mirror of our own struggles raised to the level of art, which is both instructive and comforting (we are not alone).

Later in the book, when he is outlining his initiation program, I found myself referring to some of the things Gurian suggests (as I often do when I see them in New Age books) as “woo.” If you are less rational than I am, it probably won’t bother you.

If you come to this book as a Buddhist, you might also be put off by all the talk about the self. On the other hand, what he is seeking in men is openness to experience and a reduction of ego drives. Both of these allow men to experience and express greater love and compassion — and that can only be a good thing.

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Have less, give more

I’m fascinated by the psychology of giving and/or financial exchanges. Just this morning I was noticing my hesitation in committing to pay 99¢ for an iPhone app without having tried it first. But when I go into a coffee shop I happily plonk down $1.50 or so for a cup of Joe, without hesitating or asking for a free trial. The coffee will last me for 20 minutes, while I might end up using the app on a daily basis for an indefinite period of time. There’s no guarantee I’m going to find the coffee pleasant. Screwy, but normal.

One peculiarity regarding money is that people who have less of it are more willing to give it to another person in need. The following is from an article in today’s Boston Globe:

Given the opportunity to share money with an anonymous person, people who considered themselves lower in socioeconomic status shared more. When asked how much of one’s salary should be donated to charity, they designated a higher percentage. And, when confronted with a distressed person in need, they offered more help. These differences don’t seem to be innate. For example, after simply asking people to contemplate their socioeconomic status relative to those with higher socioeconomic status, people became more charitable. The authors theorize that people in the lower strata of society are particularly motivated by a greater dependence on — and, thus, concern for — social relationships, though affluent individuals may be more inclined to abstract charity (e.g., the environment).

The research is from, Piff, P. et al., “Having Less, Giving More: The Influence of Social Class on Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (forthcoming).

Isn’t that interesting? It’s not a simple case, as I would have assumed, of “the rich” getting that way by being tight with their money. It seems more that poorer people are more tied into social networks and value the support they give. In my experience, many people who are better off are unable or unwilling to empathize with the difficulties of those who are less well off. In the US it’s common to blame people for being poor, even though it’s impossible for every single person to accumulate wealth, given how our society operates, with the people who have wealth setting the wages and conditions for those who don’t, often making it very difficult indeed to escape poverty.

It’s encouraging that reflecting on one’s relative lack of wealth compared to others boosts empathy and generosity. At least these attitudes are not fixed, and reflection, self-awareness, and social awareness are tools for change.

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The art of living mindfully

Nothing is ever certain, says the psychologist Ellen Langer. We should make the most of that.

Last summer Ellen J. Langer posted an entry on her Psychology Today blog that caused a minor uproar. A friend had just described a group trip taken to India, many years earlier. “They met a guru and asked a bystander to take a picture of them with him,” wrote Langer, a prominent social psychologist and a professor at Harvard University. “Two pictures were taken, using two different cameras.” Yet when the film was developed, the guru—who had been standing in the middle—was missing from both photographs.

Langer didn’t speculate why—she didn’t propose, say, that the guru had reached a state of such spiritual purity that light passed through him. Her point was this: No amount of evidence would be enough to persuade most scientists of paranormal phenomena, because too many of them were “stuck in soon-to-be-outdated theories.” Rather than ignore data that don’t fit those theories, she said, “we need to open our minds to possibility.”

Commenters scoffed. A fellow Psychology Today blogger, Stanton Peele, was moved to write a long post of his own, headlined, “Ellen, we don’t need more irrationality (you must be a sought-after guest at seances!).” While acknowledging Langer’s “brilliant” career, he urged psychologists to protect their discipline as “a beacon for a commitment to empiricism and reasoning.”

Langer’s response, the next day, was mild: “My last post seems to have upset people,” she wrote. “My intention was to suggest that we keep our minds open to the possibility of new phenomena, but perhaps the example I gave was too far from current beliefs to do the trick.” She sounded a lot like a teacher realizing that she was going too fast for the class.

That’s not unusual. In the course of her 35-year career, Langer has repeatedly flouted convention, confident that (or indifferent to whether) other researchers will eventually catch up with her. A petite, kinetic woman with a turned-up nose and a voice like Lauren Bacall’s, Langer does not tend to ruminate, and her immediate response when told “No,” about anything, is to ask, “Why not?”

Early on she took psychology’s prevailing wisdom about decision-making and turned it on its head, setting the stage for later work by researchers in cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics. She is best known for her concept of “mindfulness”—a term that most researchers use in the context of meditation, but by which Langer means paying attention: consciously looking for what is new and different, and questioning preconceived ideas.

Doing that is more difficult, and more significant, than it sounds. Most of our actions, Langer has shown, are mindless. Mindfulness requires reconsidering everything we think we know. If we did that, she says, all of us could be more effective, more creative, and healthier.

Her research on the effects of mindfulness on physical health, in particular, has had such surprising results that, she acknowledges herself, it “teeters on the edge of believability for some.”

This year the actress Jennifer Aniston will produce and star as Langer in a movie about what is perhaps the most startling of those experiments. It is known as the “counterclockwise study” and lends its name to Langer’s most recent book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility (Ballantine Books).

In 1979, Langer and her students invited two groups of eight men in their late 70s and early 80s to go on a retreat for a week and spend time reminiscing about life 20 years earlier. “When they first showed up at the office, their daughters usually brought them,” remembers Langer, who was in her early 30s at the time. “They were walking down the hall to my office, and they looked like they were just about to keel over. I remember thinking, What am I getting myself into?”

The researchers took each group of eight for a week at a time to an old monastery in Peterborough, N.H., which they had filled with props to make it look as it might have two decades before. The men watched Sgt. Bilko and The Ed Sullivan Show on a black-and-white television and listened to Rosemary Clooney and Nat King Cole on the radio. All the men (who were used to being taken care of) were encouraged to be active—for example, to help serve meals and clean up.

The first group was instructed to behave as if it really were 1959. Ahead of time, they had written autobiographical statements that stopped in that year. During the week, they spoke in the present tense as they discussed the threat of communism, the Baltimore Colts’ 31-16 defeat of the New York Giants in the NFL championship game, and recently published books.

Men in the control group, which went on a separate retreat, followed a similar program but were permitted to speak of the past as the past. They spent time reflecting on their younger days, while the first group in effect tried to take themselves back in time.

What happened? After just one week, both groups tested better on hearing and memory. The men gained an average of three pounds each, and their grips were stronger. “At the end of all this, I was playing touch football with some of them,” says Langer.

But the changes were especially striking in the first group: Their joints became more flexible and their hands more nimble. Sixty-three percent of them improved on intelligence tests, compared with 44 percent of the control group. And people unaware of the purpose of the study rated every member of the first group younger in photos taken after the retreat than in photos taken before.

“When I first described the study, I was hesitant to spell out just how big the changes were,” says Langer, who wrote about it in her 1989 book, Mindfulness (Addison-Wesley), but did not publish the study in a psychology journal. In a field experiment like this one, lacking the controls of the lab, many factors might have explained the results.

“The most important part of the study,” she says, “was that people who are only supposed to get more debilitated over time showed great improvement—regardless of the reason.”

Langer has come to question whether any medical knowledge—about aging, about diagnosis, about the natural course of diseases—is necessarily true. Medical science is imperfect. Probabilities—that cells are cancerous, for example, or that a person with those cells will survive—are abstract mathematical constructs, she points out: They do not account for outliers, and they are based on a limited number of cases, which are analyzed by fallible human beings, who are making judgment calls.

“I am not arguing against medical tests,” she writes in Counterclockwise. “I am arguing against mindless reliance on them and the mindless state they lead to.”

She is now emboldened to offer an explanation for the results of the counterclockwise study: that the subjects’ mental states had direct, physical effects, an explanation that has been borne out in her subsequent, peer-reviewed research.

Take eye tests. In a group of studies soon to be published in the journal Psychological Science, Langer and her colleagues showed that people’s vision improved when they expected to see better. In one strikingly simple experiment, the researchers reversed the standard eye chart so that the letters became progressively larger rather than smaller. “Now, rather than expecting as they went down the chart that pretty soon they were not going to be able to read the letters,” Langer says, “people expected that pretty soon they were going to be able to read the letters.” The result: They could read letters that had been too small for them on the standard chart.

Take another scientific given: that to lose weight you must exercise more or eat less. In a recent study, Langer and Alia J. Crum, now a doctoral student at Yale University, got hotel housekeepers who reported doing little or no exercise to recognize the physical nature of their jobs: telling half of a group of 84 that their days spent bending, stretching, and lifting were similar to workouts at a gym. Four weeks later, those 42 chambermaids had lost an average of two pounds each, reduced their percentage of body fat, and lowered their blood pressure—all while reporting no changes in eating habits, even less physical activity during their off hours, and (according to their bosses) the same level of work.

As in the men’s retreat and the eyesight study, it seemed that people’s states of mind were changing their bodies. “The main idea for all these studies is very simple,” Langer says. “We take the mind and the body and we put them back together, so that wherever we’re putting the mind, we’re necessarily putting the body.”

When she started to explore the mind-body connection, most psychologists had long accepted the Cartesian split between the two. (So had doctors, although a cardiologist named Herbert Benson had published research just a few years before on what he called “the relaxation response,” showing that meditation could lower metabolism and slow heart rate and brainwaves.) Today Langer is not alone in her field. The discovery, in the 1990s, of “mirror neurons” in primates, which fire when animals perform an action and when they see someone performing it, has led neuroscientists to postulate the same structure in human brains. The idea has influenced psychological research on, for example, empathy and social cognition. Others have written about the spirit and consciousness as products of the body—notably Antonio Damasio in his 1994 book, Descartes’ Error. And, of course, the placebo effect in medicine is well established.

But while a placebo causes your mind to act on your body without your knowing about it, Langer is interested in how people might consciously create physical effects—including some that they never would have expected.

Langer grew up in Yonkers, N.Y., the younger of two daughters in what she describes as a loving middle-class family. As a teenager, she says, she made friends with the popular kids and with the “brains.” Because kids from both groups came to her with their problems, she saw how differently two people might see the same situation. “It showed me how context-dependent evaluation is,” she says. “There’s nothing that I can’t reinterpret.”

She married while still an undergraduate at New York University, where she majored in chemistry with plans to become a doctor. Neither the marriage, which didn’t last, nor the major was a good match. “Every day I’d emerge from lab a different color,” she jokes. “I was doing Jewish chemistry: A little is good, a little more may be better.” She switched to psychology.

While in graduate school at Yale in the early 1970s, she got licensed as a clinician. “But when I was doing clinical work, I’d see that the client could do what needed to be done,” she remembers. “I’d find myself tempted to say, ‘Just do it.’ That’s not good advice.” She decided to pursue research instead.

The work she did for her dissertation is still cited by scholars today. Langer looked at what factors led people to expect success in games of chance. She found that people were less likely to recognize chance for what it was if they were prompted to do things they usually did in games of skill, such as assessing an opponent’s competence or making decisions—like which lottery ticket to choose. In fact, when they had chosen a “lottery ticket” created by Langer’s research team—based on whatever personal associations they had made with the letters on the ticket—they clung to it even when invited to trade it for a ticket in a different lottery, with better odds. Langer dubbed their illogical confidence in winning with the first ticket the “illusion of control.”

Most psychologists at the time worked on the premise that people’s cognitions led them to act in certain ways; Langer flipped that around, showing that people’s cognitions were often based on their behaviors.

She followed that up with a study in which she and two colleagues showed that framing a silly request in a familiar way led people to comply with it. In one of a set of experiments, the researchers sent an interdepartmental memo around the Graduate Center at the City University of New York that contained nothing but the request that it be returned to a designated room. When the memo was designed differently from the typical interdepartmental memo, 60 percent of the recipients returned it; when it looked like a typical memo, 90 percent returned it, in spite of how absurd the request was. In other words, they acted mindlessly, responding to the structure of the memo rather than its content.

“The dominant view of social cognition now is that people behave unthinkingly,” says Anthony G. Greenwald, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who studies unconscious cognition. “The tide has rather dramatically reversed.”

“Ellen was the harbinger of a later, full-scale effort to understand the unconscious mind,” writes a fellow Harvard psychologist, Mahzarin R. Banaji, in an e-mail message. Banaji says Langer’s work influenced her own well-known research on people’s implicit bias—stereotypes that they are unaware of—and has made waves beyond the field: The mindless clinging of Langer’s subjects to their lottery tickets is an early example of the “endowment effect” posited by behavioral economists, notably Richard H. Thaler, who in the early 1980s challenged standard economics with findings that people place a higher value on an object they own than on one they do not.

Langer’s interest in mindlessness soon led her to ask what its opposite might look like. In the mid-1970s she published two important studies with Judith Rodin, then a professor at Yale and now president of the Rockefeller Foundation. They showed that nursing-home residents who were encouraged to make more choices—such as whether to eat in their rooms or in the dining hall—and were given responsibility for watering a plant became more active, reported being happier, and even lived longer: 18 months later the death rate among the subjects was significantly lower than that of the residents over all.

Langer began to look at how people in all kinds of circumstances, including young, healthy people, could benefit by being more mindful. She has done studies showing that students prompted to question categories think more creatively: Those presented with an object in conditional language (“This could be a dog’s chew toy”) instead of imperative language (“This is a dog’s chew toy”) were likelier to find new uses for it to solve a problem (the chew toy makes a handy eraser). Her research in business has shown that managers who express confidence but admit uncertainty are evaluated more highly by employees. Recently she found that orchestral musicians who played mindfully, focusing on making subtle variations in their performance, were rated more highly than when they tried to recreate their best performance ever.

“Mindful attending, noticing, is enlivening,” says Langer. “People who say they’re bored—with their relationships, for example, or their jobs—that’s because they’re holding it still. They’re confusing the stability of their mind-set with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing.”

The research, much of it gathered in Mindfulness, is considered a precedent for what is now known as positive psychology, a turn in the discipline toward helping already healthy people flourish.

“Her initial work on mindfulness made it possible for scientifically minded researchers to take on that question,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and one of the leaders of positive psychology. “She was bold enough to take it on.”

“The applicability of the counterclockwise study is mind-boggling,” says Jack Demick, a developmental psychologist who teaches at Brown University. He has written about Langer’s concept of mindfulness as a “grand theory” with implications for all branches of psychology.

In the same vein, the psychologist Jerome Bruner compared the boldness of Mindfulness to that of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil.

But a reviewer for The Independent, of London, found it less impressive. “If the brain’s function is to filter out a mass of impressions rather than to think them up, perhaps we avoid going mad by sometime being bored and boring,” she wrote.

Wouldn’t following Langer’s instructions to notice everything, and question everything, lead to paralysis? Research by Sian L. Beilock at the University of Chicago, for example, has shown that talented athletes perform worse when they start analyzing every part of their particular skills.

“That’s not mindfulness, that’s evaluating,” Langer says. She is very much against overthinking and has written widely about the ways an “evaluative mind-set” can impede creativity and happiness, particularly in her book On Becoming an Artist: Reinventing Yourself Through Mindful Creativity (Ballantine, 2005). Langer took up painting when she was already in her 50s—she describes hearing herself tell an acquaintance that she was going to paint, before she had really given it any thought—and her artworks now command thousands of dollars.

When she began, she had no interest in taking art classes or trying to learn the proper techniques. Instead she focused on doing what interested her, and found that she got great pleasure from the act of painting itself. She says she paints where the strokes lead her, mindfully attentive to the experience rather than worried about how her work will turn out, and is often surprised by the pictures that result. (Many of her paintings depict friends or her beloved dogs in humorous poses.)

The first time one of her artworks was accepted by a juried show, she writes, “I was thrilled.” But she decided later that she would have been better off realizing that the achievement was not a mark of the painting’s inherent value: That way she wouldn’t have worried so much about repeating her success. (Yes, in spite of herself, she does sometimes care what people think.)

“Studies show that people form evaluations based on their own needs,” Langer writes, “but we tend to accept other people’s evaluations as though they were objective.”

That they are not gives her no little grief when it comes to the end of the semester. “When I have to grade students, it’s torture,” she says. “Grading doesn’t make sense.”

When talking with her Harvard students and lab assistants, Langer comes off as both supremely confident and playful. One day last semester, dressed in dark jeans, sandals, a red shirt, and a fleece vest, she strode into her first lab meeting with a stack of notes, some of them scribbled on Post-its, about the experiments she wanted to start that fall. She had at least a half-dozen, and more occurred to her during the meeting.

“The first one is a study we need to do right away,” she said, taking a chocolate cookie from the package that was being passed around the table. The idea was to photograph people entering and leaving an exhibit that Langer’s partner, Nancy Hemenway, had helped produce of early-1970s style—Marimekko maxidresses, boldly patterned dishes. Langer’s hypothesis: Observers would perceive the exhibitgoers in the “after” photos as younger, because the blast from the past would have literally turned back the clock for them. “Who wants to do it? Come on, it’ll be fun,” she exhorted.

“But it has so many flaws,” said Emily Kroshus, a second-year graduate student in the School of Public Health who wanted to know what mechanism the study would measure—stress hormones? blood pressure? After a few minutes of back and forth, Langer said it was just a “quick and dirty” study they could attach to her next idea: What if they took people with some condition, say, a rash, and got half of them to reconstruct what life was like the week before the rash. Would it go away? Again, Kroshus was skeptical. “I know you don’t like to think in terms of mechanisms,” she said, “but there are so many factors that could affect this.” She raised the same objection to a third study and suggested something narrower. “Let’s do both,” replied Langer. Repeatedly she urged her team to think big, to be dramatic. Told by another lab member that a contact in the medical school was reluctant to let Langer’s team add some research to a sleep study, she rolled her eyes. “I’ll talk to him,” she said. “You make sure I talk to him.”

As with the counterclockwise study, it is more difficult in any field experiment than in the lab to control for the many variables that may affect people’s health. “But there’s a trade-off between rigor and artificiality,” says Greenwald, the psychologist at the University of Washington. “Laboratory experiments have their virtues, and I’m in favor of them. But you don’t compellingly persuade people that you have a phenomenon.”

“If I can make one monkey talk,” says Langer, “then it can be said, ‘Monkeys are capable of speech.'” She calls her approach “the psychology of possibility.”

These days Langer’s lack of interest in the mechanisms underlying behavior is what pushes against the tide of the discipline, which in recent years has been keen to identify the biological activity behind thought processes.

“I see the human being as a seven-layer cake,” she says. “The sixth layer doesn’t cause the fourth layer; they just coexist. That’s not to say neuroscientific approaches are not worthwhile, but even if we know all of Johnny’s neurochemistry and brain circuitry, we don’t know if he’s going to read, rape, or run for office.”

Students say it’s not uncommon for Langer to create experiments out of her everyday life. “She tends to come in with a set of ideas and just throw them out there and see what people think,” says Laura M. Hsu, a lab member and a graduate student in Harvard’s School of Education. “A lot of her work is out of curiosity. She’s so generous—she gives grad students a lot of opportunities to research and publish.”

Hsu is listed as the first author on new research about how cues of age affect people’s health and longevity. In a series of studies, she, Langer, and Jaewoo Chung, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, found that women who think they look younger after having their hair colored or cut show a decrease in blood pressure and are rated younger in photos, even when the pictures do not show their hair; that people who wear work uniforms (rather than clothes that might indicate their age) are healthier than people in the same income bracket who don’t wear uniforms; that being married to someone younger tends to lengthen life, and being married to someone older tends to shorten it; and that prematurely bald men see themselves as older and therefore age faster. All this adds up to evidence, the researchers assert, that the body may age partly in reaction to “younger” or “older” cues in the environment.

The research will be published this year in Perspectives on Psychological Science but was met with some skepticism by reviewers. Hsu says the journal’s editor, Ed Diener, asked the authors to revise the article to make it more speculative.

“We do recognize that there are probably other explanations,” she says. Bald men, for example, may age faster because of genetic differences that also cause their baldness. “But we’re just trying to germinate this idea.”

Langer is one of the “great social psychologists who do demonstration experiments that ignite a field,” says Martin E.P. Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “They’re the hypothesis generators rather than the verificationists.”

Still, Langer’s penchant for sweeping statements, whether about science or life, can sometimes strike a careless note. She can appear to believe that people would never struggle—with learning something new, with making a choice, with finding happiness—if they simply broke free of assumptions and automatic thinking. On the subject of divorce, she has written that if children were taught that families can be composed of a mother, a father, and a child but also of other arrangements, “then there wouldn’t be such a problem were the circumstances to change.”

Pressed, she acknowledges that her own life has had its share of challenges—much greater than trying to grade students. “I was divorced before most people are married,” she says. “I lost my mother [to breast cancer] when I was 29. I had a major fire in ’97 and lost 80 percent of what I owned. I slipped on the ice a few years later and smashed my ankle badly; it’s full of metal pins. The difference is, I don’t like throwing good money after bad.”

And so, she claims, she never experiences regret. “Regret is an illogical emotion. Whatever decisions you made, you made them for a reason, and so you just go from there.” Though she can betray impatience, she very rarely gets angry (her students confirm this). Anger is a tactic of the powerless, Langer believes, and she decided a long time ago that she had the power to do anything she set her mind to. That also takes care of envy: “If you have something, it doesn’t mean I can’t have it, if I learn how.”

She likes to argue that, given enough information and enough practice, she could even learn to control the toss of a coin.

So, does Langer suffer from “the illusion of control” she identified so many years ago? She says she looks at that phenomenon differently today: “When I was at Yale, I was young,” she told a classroom of undergraduates last fall. “I had what is called an observer’s perspective, which is the same perspective psychology had: the assumption that we’re all seeing the same thing. The illusion-of-control study is basically saying that people don’t see that chance is chance.”

“Then I got older and I said, Wait a second, who says that people can’t control things?”

She draws an analogy to Pascal’s wager, substituting “control” for “God”: If you believe you have no control and you truly don’t, “no big deal.” If you believe you have control and it turns out you do, “that’s the big win.” And if you don’t have control but you believe you do, you are actively engaged in something, feeling alive and effective—and you may just be successful someday. “You can’t prove that something is uncontrollable,” Langer says, “All you can show is that things are indeterminate.” The best gamble, then, is to act as if you have control.

She rephrases it with typical bravado: “Nothing is uncontrollable. We just don’t yet know how to control it.”

[Jennifer Ruark, The Chronicle]
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