The Art of Self-Overhearing: Metacognition and Decision Making

In response to my last post A Morning of Self-Consciousness, a reader pointed me to Jonah Lehrer's excellent blog on neuroscience. There, he links to an article about Obama's self-awareness that he wrote for the Boston Globe which includes this relevant paragraph:

The crucial skill [to making good decisions], scientists are now saying, is the ability to think about your own thinking, or metacognition, as it is known. Unless people vigilantly reflect on how they are making an important decision, they won't be able to properly use their instincts, or know when their gut should be ignored. Indeed, according to this emerging new vision of decision-making, the best predictor of good judgment isn't intuition or experience or intelligence. Rather, it's the willingness to engage in introspection, to cultivate what Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls "the art of self-overhearing."

In another post, Lehrer elaborates on metacognition:

The game only has one rule, and it's a simple one: Don't think about white bears. You can think about anything else, but you can't think about that. Ready? Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and banish the animals from your head.

You just lost the game. Everyone loses the game. As Dostoevsky first observed, in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: "Try to avoid thinking of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." In fact, whenever we try to not think about something, be it white bears or a broken heart, that something gets trapped in the mind, stuck in the recursive loop of self-consciousness. The brain backfires; our attempt at repression turns into an odd fixation.

This human frailty has profound consequences. Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, refers to the failure as an "ironic" mental process. Whenever we establish a mental goal⎯such as trying to not think about white bears⎯the goal is accompanied by an inevitable follow-up thought, as the brain checks to see if we're making progress. The end result, of course, is that we obsess over the one thing we're trying to avoid. Wegner argues that this ironic twitch is responsible for all sorts of afflictions, from anxiety disorder (we get anxious whenever we think about not getting anxious) to insomnia, which can occur when the drowsy brain checks to see if we've fallen asleep (and so we wake up). The mind is a disobedient machine.

Although these perverse thoughts can be irritating⎯⎯wouldn't it be nice to be able to fall asleep at will, like a cat?⎯they also reveal an essential feature of the human mind, which is that it doesn't just think: it constantly thinks about how it thinks. We're insufferably self-aware, like some post-modern novel, so that the brain can't go for more than a few seconds before it starts calling attention to itself, reflecting on its own contents, thoughts and feelings. This even applies to thoughts we're trying to avoid, which is why those white bears are so inescapable.

The technical term for this is metacognition, and it's a rather surreal skill. Imagine that M.C. Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand, or a video camera making a movie of itself: The cortex is the same way, as it constantly transforms the subject at the center of consciousness⎯you⎯into yet another object contemplated by consciousness. Of course, like all things meta, the process can quickly spiral out of control. When a mind thinks about metacognition, it's thinking about how it thinks about how it thinks. And so on.

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