The power of “I don’t know”

In this podcast (episode #553) and blog, I speak with psychologist, Harvard professor and bestselling author Dr. Ellen Langer about what mindfulness is, how our minds affect our mental and physical wellbeing, what mind over matter really means, and so much more! 

Dr. Langer is an American professor of psychology at Harvard University. In 1981, she became the first woman ever to be tenured in psychology at Harvard. She studies the illusion of control, decision-making, aging, and mindfulness theory. She is often called the “mother of mindfulness” for her pioneering work and research in this field of psychology.  

When people hear the word “mindfulness”, they often think of meditation, but, as Dr. Langer points out, it is so much more than that. Meditation is a practice that you engage in that results in post-meditative mindfulness. The mindfulness that Dr. Langer studies is immediate; it is a way of being that comes about when you recognize that “you don’t know”. It is when you realize that everything is always changing, and everything looks different from different perspectives, so you can’t really “know”. This also makes everything new - everything is possible.  

However, we are taught from youth that the world is full of absolutes, which makes us think that we do “know” in the fullest sense of the word, and makes us pay less attention to what is within us and around us. 

When you recognize you don’t know, then you sit up and pay attention. One way to practice this is to take things that you think you know, walk outside your house and notice new things. You then realize that the things you thought you knew you didn’t know very well—you become more mindful. Certainty, on the other hand, tends to keep us mindless.  

Through her research, Dr. Langer has found that almost all of us are mindless almost all the time. The problem with this state is that when you are mindless, you are mindless to know that you are not mindful—you do not know that you need to think differently. And this state of mind - being mindless - is hurting you. Research shows that we are not as happy, healthy or effective as we could be when we are mindful. 

Active noticing, or realizing you don’t know and need to pay attention, is the essence of engagement: it feels good, it makes us happy, and it can improve our relationships. We are doing what the mind and brain are designed to do—actively engaging with our senses. It is something that is readily available to all of us. 

This way of looking at ourselves and the world does not mean that we cannot be confident. Our confidence comes from recognizing that no one truly knows—we are all in the same boat. We can be confident and open to seeing ourselves and the world in many different ways to always learn, grow and see more. 

Indeed, what we think is incredibly powerful. The mind-body connection is real, but it is so much more than a “connection”. Anything that is happening on one level is simultaneously happening on all levels in the mind, brain and body. Dr. Langer’s own research (which she discusses in her amazing books) that almost everything is a function of our perceptions or beliefs. The body doesn’t do whatever it does on its own—it is intactly related to the mind and what we think and perceive.   

Dr. Langer notes in her incredible book The Mindful Body, “When it comes to our health, we tend to live our lives as though our ailments—our stiff knees or frayed nerves or diminished eyesight—can change only in one direction: for the worse.” But this doesn’t have to be the case. We can change, heal and live better lives. Dr. Langer’s work and research shows “how our thoughts and perspectives have the potential to profoundly shape our well-being. This mindset “returns the control over our bodies back to us and reveals that a true understanding of health begins with our minds!” 

For more on the true power of mindfulness, listen to my podcast with Ellen Langer (episode #553) and check out her incredible work. If you enjoy listening to my podcast, please consider leaving a 5-star review and subscribing. And keep sharing episodes with friends and family and on social media. (Don’t forget to tag me so I can see your posts!).    

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Podcast Highlights

2:15 The difference between meditation & mindfulness  

2:50 The power of “I don’t know” 

6:15 The danger of too much certainty 

7:00 How mindfulness makes us healthier  

10:15, 15:50 The truth about the mind-body connection  

26:00 Our expectations affect what we see & experience 

28:20 Mindfulness, fatigue & chronic illness 

44:00 Deconstructing absolutes mindfully 

53:30 The power of looking at things differently 

Switch On Your Brain LLC. is providing this podcast as a public service. Reference to any specific viewpoint or entity does not constitute an endorsement or recommendation by our organization. The views expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the program does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. If you have any questions about this disclaimer, please contact     

This podcast and blog are for educational purposes only and are not intended as medical advice. We always encourage each person to make the decision that seems best for their situation with the guidance of a medical professional.  


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