In the introduction to the book, Dr. Langer references seven myths that “undermine true learning…stifle our creativity, silence our questions, and diminish our self-esteem” (p. 2). In this post, I am going over chapter 2, which addresses myth #2, “Paying attention means focusing on one thing at a time.” In this post, I will summarize Dr. Langer’s case, discuss a couple of her studies, give applications concerning religion and language learning, describe my own experience, and evaluate Langer’s argument.
Langer contends that, instead of focusing on one thing at a time, “the most effective way to pay attention is to look for the novelty within the stimulus situation” (p. 43). She starts by exploring the conventional meaning of “distraction” (wandering focus, p. 35) and suggesting an alternative definition of “otherwise attracted” (p. 36). She observes that there are many situations in which we have no problems paying attention (such as computer games, p. 37) and asks about times in which we have difficulty, “What is so attractive about the alternative stimulus? What can we learn from that attraction? Can we add the attractive elements to the stimulus to which we want to attend?” (p. 36). She uses studies in perception and the experiences of meditators to show the near impossibility of “holding an image still” (which is general meaning of “paying attention”, pp. 37-39). She concludes, “People naturally seek novelty in play have no difficulty paying attention in those situations” (p. 39) and “The idea that to pay attention means to act like a motionless camera is so ingrained in us that when we do pay attention successfully we are usually unintentionally changing the context or finding novel features in the subject” (p. 40). She backs this up with two studies (discussed below) that show the influence of mindfulness in paying attention (pp. 40-42).
Langer concludes by applying these principles to ADHD. She starts by describing ADHD’s symptoms, effects, theories of the cause, and the usual methods of treatment. She then turns to mindful approaches and describes situations in which increased attention was observed: the absence of toys, the presence of game format, listening to rock music, and color stimuli (pp. 45-46). She tells of an experiment she participated in involving a poster with fourteen landmarks, and the task was to remember where the landmarks were. There were three groups: a sit-still group, a feet-shuffle group, and a move-around group. The move-around group performed best, and the sit-still group worst (pp. 47-48). However, when the study was repeated in a Montessori school (where movement is expected), the findings were reversed (p. 48). Langer concludes, “The studies suggest that mindfully varying perspective helps us to pay attention” (p. 48) and ends by summarizing the chapter’s findings (p. 49).
Now, to discuss the two studies on novelty I previously referenced: one study involved a computer task and the other short stories. In the computer study, an image appeared on the computer screen and participants were supposed to click a button when it disappeared (the reaction time was measured). They were divided into three groups: one group was to “just pay attention” and hit the button, another was to “outline the target”, and a third was to think of the shapes in different ways and to notice differemt things about each one” (pp. 40-41). The mindful group outperformed the other two groups and found the task easier. There was no observable difference bewteen the outline group and the pay attention group (p. 41).
In the short story study, adults on a train were asked to read short stories and divided into three categories of groups. In one category, participants were told to vary 3-6 aspects of each story, read it from different perspectives, change the endings, etc.; in another category, participants were told to focus on three or six aspects of the stories; lastly, one category was told to just read the stories. They were all told they would be questioned afterwards (pp. 41-42). The result was that the mindful groups remembered more of the stories. Langer comcludes, “Varying the target of our attention, whether a visual object or an idea, apparently improves our memory of it” (p. 42).
Now, onto the applications in religion and language learning. First of all, religion. Langer herself references the difficulty of focusing in meditation (p. 39), and I personally know the difficulty of focusing in prayer, as do many others. I will offer suggestions based on Langer’s findings. First of all, for the liturgically-minded, I suggest reflection on the meanings of the prescribed prayers, and to view them from different perspectives. There is talk that the lectionary tells the story of God’s narrative of redemption and His work in redemption. I would suggest looking into how the liturgy reflects that narrative, how that works in the world and your personal life. Ask,”What is my role in God’s story?” I would also urge reflection the scriptures used in the lectionary. My advice is similar for those who don’t use liturgy (as I was raised). In this case, prayers are more spontaneous. I would suggest reflecting on the Names of God, as they reveal His character, and how they apply in your life and the world. I would also suggest looking at scripture in a different way, reflecting on differing perspectives, and using that in prayers. I would urge everyone (whether or not they use liturgy) to look at the world and reflect on how God may be working in it. In addition, I also recommend, since prayer is talking to God, to make prayers out of your wandering thoughts. (Since I am a Christian, I wrote this from a Christian perspective. I know a little about Judaism and have read that there is a narrative of God’s working in the world and our partnering with him there as well. I guess the applicability is there as well. For other religions, I am not knowledgeable enough to comment. However, I hope that all the Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, etc., who may be this will find transferable aspects to make it applicable. For those in Eastern religions, does any of this apply to meditation?)
Now, to discuss language learning. First of all, I will discuss how varying the image helps with vocabulary. One way (for those more advanced) is to think of various sentences in which new words can be used, or googling them to see images of what they represent or memes involving them. An easier method is tying the foreign word to a word in one’s native language. For example, consider север (syevir), the Russian word for “north”, which resembles the word “severe”. We could say that it is severely cold in the North Pole. As for grammar, when it comes to learning a new point of grammar, think of various ways new things can now be expressed. Describe personally relevant things that require that grammar.
I personally love this chapter, since I have, since childhood, often been told, sometimes angrily, to focus and/or to pay attention. (I was even, on occasion, spanked for unfocusedness, such as when my mind wandered while I spoke in tongues.) At the time, all I had was what Langer describes as “holding the image still” (p. 38). One comment of Langer’s I particularly like is as follows: “Since we are so successful most of the day at paying attention, perhaps we should look for the situations in which we find it difficult, rather than blame the problem on a lack of character or a mental deficient” (p. 37). This sticks out to me because it shows practically that there is a “how” to paying attention, that there is a better way. The prospect of passing on the message to others who have beat themselves up over an inability to pay attention sp that they, too, can find a better way makes it my pleasure to review this chapter.
Now, to evaluate Langer’s claims. I find, based on her research and experiences, as well as my own experiences, her claims to be valid amd helpful. I appreciate her out of the box perspective. However, Langer acknowledges that more research is needed (p. 49). Nevertheless, I think that what she says will help us all.
In conclusion, Langer claims to pay attention, we should “vary the image” instead of “holding the picture still”, and supports that with her research and experience. Her studies show that a mindful approach is more effective in maintaining attention, and this has application for subjects such as religion and language learning. In addition, my own experience supports her claims, which I find overall to be valid. I hppe that readers will find these ideas as helpful as I have found them.