January 10, 2010

We Are What We Think

“We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts.” So opens the Dhammapadda, the collected sayings of the Buddha, more or less. The translations vary, but the gist is the same and this is how I remember it. Apparently, there is a lady at Harvard who’s been proving it since the 1970’s.

Ellen Langer is the subject of an article in “The Chronicle Review” January 8, 2010, edition, which I found laying on the newsroom floor. “Ellen Langer’s Psychology of Posibility,” the cover title read and inside on page B7, “The Art of Living Mindfully.” It’s dharma, pure Buddhist psychology, but without a single Sanskrit or Pali reference. Langer has been performing experiments based on passing “what if?” questions for the last thirty or so years.

In 1979 she encouraged old men to think and act as though it were twenty-years earlier over the course of several days. An unrelated group of test subjects then guessed the age of the men in before and after photos, ranking the after-shots as younger. In addition, the men acted younger – tested better in hearing and memory, increased grip strength, etc.

Women who were told their daily cleaning activities were the same as exercise lost more weight. An upside down eye chart led people to expect to get better as they moved down the chart and as a result they were able to read smaller letters than on a normal eye chart where they expect to do progressively worse. People who got to pick the numbers on a lottery ticket rather than have them chosen for them then refused to trade in that ticket for one in a different lottery with better odds. People fulfilled ridiculous requests just because an official looking memo asked them to.

Langer has published the books Mindfulness and Counterclockwise as well as many academic articles. “Mindful attending, noticing, is enlivening,” she told The Chronicle Review. “People who say they’re bored – with their relationships, for example, or their jobs – that’s just because they’re holding it still. They’ve confused the stability of their mind-set with the stability of the underlying phenomena. Things are always changing.” She talks about “how context-dependent evaluation is. There’s nothing I can’t reinterpret.”

An article in today’s New York Times Magazine seems to bear this out. “The Americanization of Mental Illness” describes the Westernization of mental illness symptoms in other parts of the world. The basic idea is that a culture comes with a certain “symptom repertoire” and when mental distress manifests it unconsciously chooses the symptoms which “should” be displayed. For example, in the 19th Century there was a spate of mental hysteria manifested a leg paralysis. Now we have anorexia and paralysis is almost never heard of, but both are believed to be caused by mental turmoil.

Cases of anorexia shot up several fold in Hong Kong after the widely reported 1994 death of a starved 14-year old girl on a public sidewalk. Moreover, while food refusal had been seen by Western-trained Chinese psychiatrists, the “cause” was most often reported as feeling a bloated stomach, whereas after the girl’s death and wide reporting on the modern Western version of anorexia by Chinese-language news outlets, patients began to cite fear of being fat far more often.

“When there is a cultural atmosphere in which professionals, the media, schools, doctors, psychologists all recognize and endorse and talk about and publicize eating disorders, then people can be triggered consciously or unconsciously pick eating-disorder pathology as a way to express conflict,” Dr. Sing Lee explained. In other words, we act the way we think conflicted people act. It’s not that mentally ill people are “choosing” mental illness or making up symptoms. Leg paralysis was as real and as well documented in its time as anorexia is now. We just are what we think.

Toward the end of the article about Ellen Langer, the author writes “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 assumption and automatic thinking.” Replace “struggle” with “suffer” and you’ve got Buddhism in a nutshell and a pretty good definition of nirvana. (Not to confuse suffering with pain or struggling with control.) “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 other arrangements, ‘then there wouldn’t be such a problem were the circumstances to change.’”

An almost random aside caught me as particularly interesting: “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.” I can see that. Every time I get angry, it is born out of a feeling of frustration and powerlessness, yet I never thought of anger in terms of a way of dealing with that frustration. As much as even I disliked anger, anger was just what happened, but I don’t have to think of it that way.

And if I am what I think…


Jarrod Homer said...

This is wonderful. I'm definitely going to have to check out some of Langer's stuff.

Jenny said...

You can read the full Chronicle Review article here: