How Does Mindfulness Work?

In the summer of 1978, Ellen Langer published a radical sentence in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It’s a line that’s easy to overlook, as it appears in the middle of the first page, sandwiched between a few dense paragraphs about the nature of information processing. But the sentence is actually a sly attack on one of the pillars of Western thought. “Social psychology is replete with theories that take for granted the ‘fact’ that people think,” Langer wrote. With her usual audacity, Langer then went on to suggest that most of those theories were false, and that much of our behavior is “accomplished…without paying attention.” The “fact” of our thinking is not really a fact at all.

Langer backed up these bold claims with a series of clever studies. In one experiment, she approached a student at a copy machine in the CUNY library. As the subject was about to insert his coins into the copier, Langer asked if she could use the machine first. The question came in three different forms. The first was a simple request: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine?” The second was a request that included a meaningless reason, or what Langer called “placebic information”: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I have to make copies?” Finally, there was a condition that contained an actual excuse, if not an explanation: “Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine, because I’m in a rush?”

If people were thoughtful creatures, then we’d be far more likely to let a person with a valid reason (“I’m in a rush”) cut in line. But that’s not what Langer found. Instead, she discovered that offering people any reason at all, even an utterly meaningless one (“I have to make copies”) led to near universal submission. It’s not that people aren’t listening, Langer says – it’s that they’re not thinking. While mindlessness had previously been studied in situations of “overlearned motoric behavior,” such as typing on a keyboard, Langer showed that the same logic applied to many other situations.

After mapping out the epidemic of mindlessness, Langer decided to devote the rest of her career to its antidote, which she refers to as mindfulness. In essence, mindfulness is about learning how to control the one thing in this world that we can control: our attention. But this isn’t the sterile control of the classroom, in which being attentive means “holding something still.” Instead, Langer came to see mindfulness as a way to realize that reality is never still, and that what we perceive is only a small sliver of what there is. “When you notice new things, that puts you in the present, but it also reminds you that you don’t know nearly as much as you think you know,” Langer told me. “We tend to confuse the stability of our attitudes and mindsets with the stability of the world. But the world outside isn’t stable – it’s always changing.” Mindfulness helps us see the change. 

This probably sounds obvious. But then the best advice usually is. In recent years, Langer and others have documented the far-reaching benefits of mindfulness, showing how teaching people basic mindfulness techniques can help them live longer, improve eyesight, alleviate stress, lose weight, increase happiness and empathy, decrease cognitive biases and even enhance memory in old age. Most recently, Langer has showed, along with her Harvard colleagues, that mindfulness can attenuate the progress of ALS, a disease that is believed to be “almost solely biologically driven.”

However, it’s one thing to know that mindfulness can work. It’s something else to know how it works, to understand the fundamental mechanisms by which mindfulness training can alter the ways we engage with the world. That’s where a recent paper by Esther Papies, Mike Keesman, Tila Pronk and Lawrence Barsalou in JPSP can provide some important insights. The researchers developed a short form of mindfulness training for amateurs; it takes roughly twelve minutes to complete. Participants view a series of pictures and are told to “simply observe” their reactions, which are just “passing mental events.” These reactions might include liking a picture, disliking it, and so on. The goal is to go meta, to notice what you notice, and to do all this without judging yourself.  

At first glance, such training can seem rather impractical. Unlike most programs that aim to improve our behavior, there is no mention of goals or health benefits or self-improvement. The scientists don’t tell people which thoughts to avoid, or how to avoid them; they offer no useful tips for becoming a better person.

Nevertheless, these short training sessions altered a basic engine of behavior, which is the relationship between motivational states – I want that and I want it now – and our ensuing choices.  At any given moment, people are besieged with sundry desires: for donuts, gossip, naps, sex. It’s easy to mindlessly submit to these urges. But a little mindfulness training (12 minutes!) seems to help us say no. We have more control over the self because we realize the self is a fickle ghost, and that it’s craving for donuts will disappear soon enough. We can wait it out.

The first experiment by Papies, et al. involved pictures of opposite-sex strangers. The subjects were asked to rate the attractiveness of each person and whether or not he or she was a potential partner.  In addition, they were asked questions about their “sexual motivation,” such as “How often do you fantasize about sex?” and “How many sexual partners have you had in the last year?” In the control condition – these people were given no mindfulness training – those who were more sexually motivated were also more likely to see strangers as attractive and as suitable partners. That’s not very surprising: if you’re in a randy mood, motivated to seek out casual sex, then you see the world through a very particular lens. (To quote Woody Allen: “My brain? That’s my second favorite organ.”) Mindfulness training, however, all but erased the correlation between sexual motivation and the tendency to see other people as sexual objects. “As one learns to perceive spontaneous pleasurable reactions to opposite-sex others as mere mental events,” write the scientists, “their effect on choice behavior…no longer occurs.” One might be in the mood, but the mood doesn’t win.

And it’s not just sex: the same logic can be applied to every appetite. In another experiment, the scientists showed how mindfulness training can help people make better eating choices in the real world. Subjects were recruited as they walked into a university cafeteria. A third of subjects were assigned to a short training session in mindful attention; everyone else was part of a control group. Then, they were allowed to choose their lunch as usual, selecting food from a large buffet.  Some of the meal options were healthy (leafy salads and other green things) and some were not (cheese puff pastries, sweet muffins, etc.)

The brief mindfulness training generated impressive results, especially among students who were very hungry. Although the training only lasted a few minutes, it led them to choose a meal with roughly 30 percent fewer calories. They were also much more likely to choose a healthy salad, at least when compared to those in the control groups (76 percent versus 49 percent), and less likely to choose an unhealthy snack (45 percent versus 63 percent).

What makes this research important is that it begins to reveal the mechanisms of mindfulness, how an appreciation for the transitory nature of consciousness can lead to practical changes in behavior. When subjects were trained to see their desires as passing thoughts, squirts of chemistry inside the head, the stimuli became less alluring. A new fMRI study from Papies and colleagues reveals the neural roots of this change. After being given a little mindfulness training, subjects showed reduced activity in brain areas associated with bodily states and increased activity in areas associated with "perspective shifting and effortful attention." In short, they were better able to tune their flesh out. Because really: how happy will a donut make us? How long will the sugary pleasure last? Not long enough. We might as well get the salad.

The Buddhist literature makes an important distinction between “responding” and “reacting.” Too often, we are locked in loops of reaction, the puppets of our most primal parts. This is obviously a mistake. Instead, we should try to respond to the body and the mind, inserting a brief pause between emotion and action, the itch and the scratch. Do I want to obey this impulse? What are its causes? What are the consequences? Mindfulness doesn’t give us the answers. It just helps us ask the questions.

This doesn’t mean we should all take up meditation or get a mantra; there are many paths to mindfulness. Langer herself no longer meditates: “The people I know won’t sit still for five minutes, let alone forty,” she told Harvard Magazine in 2010. Instead, Langer credits her art – she’s a successful painter in her spare time – with helping her maintain a more mindful attitude. “It’s not until you try to make a painting that you’re forced to really figure out what you’re looking at,” she says. “I see a tree and I say that tree is green. Fine. It is green. But then when I go to paint it, I have to figure out exactly what shade of green. And then I realize that these greens are always changing, and that as the sun moves across the sky the colors change, too. So here I am, trying to make a picture of a tree, and all of a sudden I’m thinking about how nothing is certain and everything changes. I don’t even know what a tree looks like.” That’s a mindful epiphany, and for Langer it’s built into the artistic process.

The beauty of mindfulness is that it’s ultimately an attitude towards the world that anyone can adopt. Pay attention to your thoughts and experiences. Notice their transient nature. Don’t be so mindless. These are simple ideas, which is why they can be taught to nearly anyone in a few minutes. They are also powerful ideas, which is why they can change your life.

Langer, Ellen J., Arthur Blank, and Benzion Chanowitz. "The mindlessness of ostensibly thoughtful action: The role of" placebic" information in interpersonal interaction." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 36.6 (1978): 635.

Papies, E. K., Pronk, T. M., Keesman, M., & Barsalou, L. W. (2015). The benefits of simply observing: Mindful attention modulates the link between motivation and behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 108(1), 148.