Metacognition: Thinking About
Lecture 3: CREATIVITY & PLAY
Adam Blatner, M.D.
This is the 3rd in a
October 14, 2013
for the Fall, 2013 program of the Senior University Georgetown
There’s a song from
the 1950s Broadway musical, “The King and I” in which Yul
Brinner in the role of the King of Siam, in a song titled
"There are times I almost think I am not sure
of what I absolutely know! Very often find confusion in
conclusion I concluded long ago."
Bless his heart, he's almost on the brink of intellectual
humility, in a role in which that is confused with non-kingly
indecisiveness. We have that problem of pride and role
definition in politics today. Can a leader dare to re-evaluate a
position without being called weak?
On another level, this verse is a commentary on the reality that
what is known, what is believed, is thrown again into question
more frequently and in more ways than ever before. Hence it is
worth attending to such phenomena as belief and thinking,
thinking about thinking, also known by the technical term, metacognition.
In this series of lectures, this trend---which in a way is also
just psychology---has been progressing in the last 40 years, and
my purpose is to offer you a bit of an overview. Next time we’ll
talk about social embedded-ness; the time after that, the
slipperiness of language; and finish with reflections on
spirituality. Again, I invite your emailing me with questions.
Last week Professor Burger’s talked about his book titled
effective thinking, but I'd dare say what he was talking about
might better be called creative thinking. It was flexible and
open. Indeed, one thing that impressed me in his talk is that he
went so far as to suggest that we dare to make mistakes, to be
imprecise, to perhaps be flat wrong! This is so different from
fifty years ago. But Professor Burger was drawing on a theme I
had raised in the earlier session—cybernetics—a process that
actively uses the feedback from being mistaken to sharpen your
I’ll say again that daring to make a mistake diverges from what
was considered smart a half-century ago when we were in school.
Then it was a matter of studying and knowing how to get the
right answer, but we’ve learned since then that these right
versus wrong answers involve only a small fraction of the
questions rather than the mainstream. They reflect reductionist
thinking, that complex problems are just extensions of simple
problems. But that's not so: The kind of complexity we've become
aware of is multi-perspectival, they involve many perspectives,
frames of reference. So the ideal of "right answer" has for the
most part been surpassed by the search for a good enough answer,
a creative answer. So we'll look today at creativity and play in
Other Types of Not-So Effective Thinking
First, I want to point out that the feeling of thinking
happens even when the thinking is of poor quality. (There's some
parallel with the illusion of
being a self.).
One can feel that one is indeed thinking when any of the
- Just noticing that you are awake, alert, not
dreaming, offers a slight hint? If asked if you’re awake, you’d
say yes. And it seems that what we do when awake is think.
In fact, we don’t think most of the time, but any form of
directed attention feels like thinking—the words haven’t been
- Thinking means to most people, awake, not
dreaming. Most folks as they recall on purpose, say they’re
thinking about.whatever. This is true also of recall,
- Thinking can be not particularly effective. One
word for much of thinking is “heuristic,” which suggests a rule
of thumb, a fairly practical synthesis. The problem with
heuristics is that although they offer short cuts that work in
many situations, there’s no backup that says: “This might not
work in every case. If there are problems, think again.”
- We think we’re thinking even as kids trying to
figure out what’s going on—maybe from two on. We register and
respond before that. Later we do a number of non-effective types
- We prepare and deliver our opinions.
- We ruminate on supporting arguments.
- Generally chat and draw from our memory banks. Did you
see that show last night.
- We daydream
- We buy into the slogans of political leaders and think
we’re thinking them
- We play word-games
- Some few analyze critically something written or spoken
- Remembering stuff, reminiscing, reviewing,
re-constructing, recalling—all feels like thinking to most
...and so forth.
We also get into problems by asking the kind of questions that
we may not be able to ever answer meaningfully, such as whether
we live beyond death or, on the other hand, whether we lived
before in a past life. I have yet to see this yield fruitful
Another fruitless question asks how good we are. Answer, good
enough. The lure of such question pretends to be intellectual,
but it rides on the fantasy that if we can get an answer, that
would in turn lead to something useful in this life. It does
The goodness question really asks if one should try harder or
contrariwise, if one can stop trying and coast, and these
questions are far too general for practical investigation. They
offer a more symbolic promise: If I know the right answer I get
a lollypop—or something good. Not so.
So there are a lot of types of thinking that disguise as good
thinking but they are not. Let me note that thinking quality
operates along a continuum, from its rudimentary emergence from
dreaming, daydreaming, blank unconsciousness, to the most
creative and coherent philosophy and science. A funny thing to
note about thinking is that even fairly rudimentary forms of
thinking feel like thinking. I’m thinking. Versus not thinking.
Either or. And if you don’t know how to think more clearly and
effectively, the peculiarity of mind is that you don’t realize
it! The mind, not knowing any better, thinks it’s it, the
top, the acme, they’ve gone as far as they can go.
H. L. Mencken, an intellectual and publisher of the American
Mercury magazine that was somewhat popular in the 1920s was a
bit of an intellectual snob, contemptuous of what he called the
common man, “boobus americanus.” He said that what many call
thinking is simply rearranging one’s prejudices. This is
indeed the problem of the word—and we’ll talk more about the
slipperiness of words in the 5th lecture.
Also masquerading as thinking are certain types of
imponderables, asking questions that have no meaningful answers.
Why are we here? The why word seems to be legitimate, but often
leads into a blind alley. What would we do differently if we got
an answer? What possible answer would make a difference. Of
course we can ask it of people we want to get rid of—genocide,
killing off—by saying that for whatever manufactured reason,
they don’t deserve to be here. But a philosopher would carefully
examine the hidden biases in the word deserve.
Related to that is an assessment of not-enough, which is
always relative to winning the prize as the best. To be
mediocre—and most of us are, if we think of it—just about the
same as most others—and how you draw the lines for what is good,
good enough, exceptional, and okay to rest on one’s laurels—may
all be crucial for certain roles, a tiny number of roles, such
as the score keeper of the Olympics. But for most folks,
worrying about how good or bad you are is a waste of time, and
it’s time we all admitted this more openly.
My point here is that all of this slips under the tent as if it
were thinking, but unless you notice that there are some forms
of thinking that just rationalize fantasy, it’ll become very
Noting that much that passes for thinking is not real thinking,
or high level thinking, may seem like elitism. Many people don’t
like to be accused of not thinking when it is clear that they
are to a mild degree, expressing preferences. This last weekend
I was reading an article in a San Antonio paper—I was just down
there for my wife’s high school 50th reunion—and the paper
talked about the recent fad in zombies. One person observed that
zombies are so popular because they strike a chord in the
gradient of alertness that gets cut off when there is a lot of
mass media, video games, television, texting, etc. going on.
Again, my point is that thinking that one is thinking is a very
pervasive illusion, a very damaging illusion, because with few
exceptions it doesn’t draw distinctions between better and worse
thinking. As I suggested, it’s almost snooty and discourteous or
arrogant to do this. So it’s repressed; people don’t go there;
it’s unthinkable. But it is nevertheless so.
Sex is not the only thing that’s repressed. Not that sex is all
that repressed any more. But other things are mentally avoided
too, such as noticing that unless it is flagrant, many people’s
thinking, and not infrequently one’s own, is not of that high of
A major take-away is this new approach to thinking, probing,
playing with, daring to be wrong. I talked about this in the
first lecture too: cybernetics, a big word, part of many complex
systems, including computers, self-correcting systems that work
off of the general theme of getting feedback and making
corrections based on that, which leads to improvement in
accuracy. This principle of cybernetics was used by the rocket
ship to the moon. It’s also a principle in artillery known as
bracketing, aiming, but adjusting your aim depending on where
the shell actually lands. So you need an observer with
binoculars who calls back and says a little to the right or left
or forward or backward....
In everyday life it has to do with being willing to be mistaken,
almost assuming you are mistaken, and asking for feedback. This
is a far cry from the sense that we learned in school of having
to be exactly right. What came of these classes with right and
wrong answers was a misleading idea: That idea is that in most
things there are right and wrong answers, exactly. It’s true,
there are, but not in most things, in only some things; in fact,
in not that many things. Most things in marriages and raising
kids and politics are more compromises and adjustments and
creative alternatives which are not the top preference of
everyone but bring peace and are okay.
This is a deep shift in our culture from reductionism, in which
it’s thought that if we can only get the basics right then the
more complex systems will fall into place. It works for some
mechanical systems like clocks, but it doesn’t apply to another
level of complexity beyond that, or even more complex systems,
where reductionism is like analyzing symphonies in terms of the
statistical representations of the numbers of different notes.
Saying it another way, reductionism is a fallacy in most cases.
More complex phenomena cannot be fully explained in terms of the
less complex dynamics that make them up. Each level of
complexity requires its own perspectives, and one might even ask
for explanations to include one or two levels of the system that
is even more complex and inclusive to add to this.
We tend to confuse thoughtfulness with a capacity to remember,
for example. It’s a muddy area. Next week I’ll talk about how
the feeling of not being liked or not preferring others is also
So this is a platform for going back to thinking, and thinking
out of the box, thinking creatively.
By the way, the phrase, “thinking out of the box” is related to
a problem of making four lines, one continuous line of not more
than four segments, to cover all the dots in a three-by-three
box of squares—the box one has to think out of. The lines must
go outside the box to solve the problem. Now let’s turn to the
problem of creativity.
Creativity and Play
First of all, I don’t think we are anywhere near fully
explaining creativity, though it has been increasingly explored
in the last several decades. I suspect that creativity may be
like electricity in that we may well discover more and more
about it and what goes into it as time passes. There’s a book by
David Bodanis on the history of electricity in the Georgetown
library and the point is that over the last few hundred years
we’ve been discovering more and more about this dynamic, other
features not anticipated by those who saw it as a current. At
first, for example, they thought of electricity as a current but
not as evoking a magnetic field.
Similarly, creativity wasn’t at first viewed as a product of
play, nor play as the lubricant that made it possible to think
outside of the box.
In the last several decades creativity has become a far more
prevalent value. As automation has advanced, the work-force has
been shifting towards human services and innovation. Creativity
was the job of artists, to amuse us with novelty, or inventors,
who were ingenious, but clearly not a role for ordinary people.
That’s shifting, rather gradually. There are departments that
focus on creativity nowadays, books, national organizations,
business consultants. It’s a popular theme.
The point I want to make is that the emergence of this theme is
associated also with a re-valuation of play. Play used to
be that which was done in contrast to work, time away from
serious problem-solving. A major point I’m introducing today is
something not so unfamiliar to you, but re-framed: Many
scientists and engineers on the cutting edge are playing to some
So first, play is an introduction of a measure of mental
flexibility and safety, very close to what is needed in
imagining an experiment. It’s a groping around. Making a mistake
is not a big deal if it’s set up right—there’s the laboratory or
experiment element. Indeed, a mistake may be necessary.
Part of Thomas Edison’s work was building on his mistakes. When
he said invention is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration he was
talking about trying it again and again. Here’s the point — or
one point: Edison did not like his results most of the time. But
rather than being disheartened, he used these results, that such
and so does not work, to wonder why, and to try agan taking this
line of thinking into consideration.
Another corollary is that we teach science all wrong. What we’re
teaching is the results discovered by science, and think of that
as science. But the scientific method often is ignored. As the
University of Texas department of physics professor Archibald
Wheeler noted, “Science proceeds only by making all possible
mistakes—and recognizing that they are mistakes.
What’s at stake here is a type of intellectual humility not
widely modeled enough in our culture, the humility of admitting
the possibility of being mistaken. Too many are addicted to the
illusion of being right, as if that entitles you to something
that being mistaken denies you. It’s illusory. The truth is that
we can make lots of mistakes in lots of situations and if it’s
set up right, learn a lot from those mistakes.
This brings us to role play, setting up a situation, maybe for
medical students using many-thousand-dollar specially designed
mannequins; or for trial lawyers, setting up mock trials and
practicing different approaches. Politicians do it in advance of
Play generates room to maneuver, get a feel for the situation by
doing, by being in the situation. Yet it isn’t for keeps; one
can probe, explore, try out stuff. If it doesn’t work or even
backfires, you can say to others and to oneself that it wasn’t
supposed to count. It’s okay.
Even in ordinary human relations you can try things on. Asking
questions helps. That rising tone at the end of a
sentence—that’s an example of an implied “What do you think of
this.” It implies also that I may need to take it over, try
Playing with, experimenting with, exploring—this is the frontier
of innovation. Innovation in turn requires a laboratory,
So the rehabilitation of play is what I am talking about, the
elevation of this category to a sort of waste or negative
quality, acknowledged as necessary to keep the masses content,
but basically useless, shifting this to the category of an
integral part of moving forward.
Play is being promoted among child advocates, to correct an
over-emphasis on grades and schooling and work that’s happening
as international competition heats up. But I want to promote
playfulness for you, for middle adults and elders, because a
sense of the proper use of recreation as re-creation is an
important re-alignment in our culture. It’s one of my personal
missions, too. Don’t be put off by my professionalism, look at
the mickey mouse in the tie. See past the image of the college
professor to the big kid, and for me, intellectually
coordinating why play is good and important is one of the games
Other Aspects of Play
Empathy-Building I was a psychiatrist
back when we talked with people and listened too, and I was a
maverick even back then—not so much as to get kicked out—I’ve
been awarded Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric
Association, so I can play the game—but my approach was not so
much psychoanalytic as psychodramatic. I wasn’t a shrink, but
rather an expander. Basically I was helping people to approach
their problems by becoming more creative, spontaneous,
improvisational, collaborative—meaning saying yes, and instead
of “no, but,” and so forth. Don’t get me started, I’ve written
whole books on this.
For our purposes, though, I integrated a kind of play, role
play, as a new way to think. To think as if you were the
co-playwright, and co-director as well as actors in scenes.
Shakespeare had one of his characters say the well known phrase,
“All the worlds a stage and all the men and women in it merely
players.” Yes and know. It is useful to use the dramaturgical
metaphor—that’s the technical term for working from the image of
life as theatre. But the no part is that we’re not merely
players. There is no tight script. And even the loose script
about general role expectations? We can change those, and
many of you are doing just that: I don’t care what wives in the
1960s did, I’m not doing that! I don’t care what men aren’t
supposed to do, I like doing it! These role re-negotiations are
common in our age group and in the culture. There are hundreds
of such role expectations and social norms that we’re
challenging and, I would suggest, playing with, experimenting
And this isn’t just therapy, this is the way we need to become
in all areas in the 21st century. This reflects the
circumstances, the acceleration of change, the breakdown of old
social role definitions and structures.
Playing and Creativity as Subversive
The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1865-1947) wrote:
"The major advances in civilization are processes which all but
wreck the societies in which they occur." What he was referring
to is today called “disruptive technology,” and a number of
computer-based technologies have this quality. Looking back,
much of progress often competes successfully with old forms and
thereby wrecks them. Gunpowder destroyed much of the institution
of specialized warrior fighting—also known as knighthood—the
truth of which is that these brutes practices swordfighting and
other weapons for hours each day. The movies and stories don’t
show you that grunt work any more than they showed you the
really hard work of servants to prepare a feast.
Similarly, the creation of automobiles destroyed the horse and
buggy industry, and the transportation industry in general was
revolutionized. These are called disruptive technologies and
thousands of people are put out of work while other types of
jobs are created. Nowadays we talk of retraining, but it often
isn’t easy when the new job requires very different talents than
the old job, which at times required nothing more than a strong
Creativity is subversive and folks sense it. New forms of
television teaching are changing the way education is done, the
homework parts being in the classroom with supervisors. Really,
why lecture in person when you can better create a lecture and
audiovisual effects on tape. The class then becomes a place to
learn what can only be learned in a new kind of class—i.e, role
playing, getting the knack, experiential learning,
individualized learning, stuff that’s the opposite of sitting
and listening and watching. This is a disruptive
technology we may yet get into.
Creativity challenges established authority and the basis for
that authority, since the basis may be obsolete when considering
the new paradigm.
Here’s another thing about creativity: 84.3% of it isn’t that
good. A third of it will be great if one sticks with it and
refines it, but for the first two or ten or twenty
experiments—play again—it doesn’t work.
I’m meaning that just because one is working creatively doesn’t
mean that it’s good creativity. Lots of what’s created is not
good. Some is garbage. But that’s what laboratories are for. The
new paradigm expects mistakes. Notices! “Nope, not that.”
Now another paradigm shift is the whole mental, personal
tendency to get ego-attached, prideful, defensive: I don’t make
mistakes. I won’t admit it. I will find reasons to feel
righteous and courageous in my course of action. I will be
persistent not only in pursuing the goal, but also in pursuing
the goal in the same way with more force. Also known as banging
my head against the wall instead of backing off and looking for
a way around or over or under the wall.
This is a tough tendency to break. It is subversive, and it
means challenging some authorities who believe in firmness and
helping them —or not—to see that some firmness is
bullheaded-ness, and a vice rather than a virtue. But this
requires a learning to enjoy being more middle-of-the-road,
flexible, able to negotiate, unclear as to what the final answer
must be. It’s peacemaking rather than war-making.
Creativity is also a part of peacemaking, and you’ve experienced
this if you’ve stayed married for more than a couple of years.
So play and creativity are part of an ethos of mental
flexibility. Up-tight, self-righteous types might perceive this
as flabby, but it’s not. It’s a paradigm change into a more
out-of-control-by-authority, postmodern, multi-cultural,
multi-perspectival culture. It’s what’s happening, dude. It’s
not right or wrong so much as a product of the growing
complexity of culture. It’s an inevitable part of
technologization and a shift in our perceptions of what we
Like, slavery isn’t good. And then enslaving women isn’t okay.
Then marginalizing whole sub-categories of culture—well, that’s
being argued—but it’s happening.
You’ve heard this phrase, and it refers to a deep shift in
the way we think. Now we see pictures before the Renaissance,
the 14th century, as flat. That was before they recognized and
worked with perspective in art, along with rules for drawing
that generated that illusion. It was a change of paradigm that
affected perception. That slavery is bad—that’s a paradigm
shift, folks. It’s a broadening of our circle of caring. We’re
doing it today with certain kinds of animals as well as whole
categories of people.
These shift deep thinking patterns in humans, and thinking about
how we think may facilitate the rough and conflictual emergence
of new paradigms in place of the old.
Not that I’m against conflict: Some new ideas and trends don’t
deserve to catch on because I think they’re evil and/or stupid.
But maybe I’m mistaken. Not everything that’s created needs to
be embraced just because it was a product of creativity. On the
other hand, neither should an idea be rejected simply because
it’s new rather than established or traditional. It’s a fizzing
vital boundary and that goes on. I’m just saying that we
shouldn’t reject an idea because it is new. Rather, we should
evaluate each proposal anew and in terms of its own pros and
cons. It doesn’t need to be easy, it’s just what has to be done.
A lot of progress in psychology, as we think about
thinking, continues about the nature of creativity, and on
play, and on play as a positive, exploratory dynamic rather than
an escape from work.
My own hunch is that our present theories of psychology don’t
adequately deal with creativity because of a metaphysical
assumption—namely, that all consciousness is in the brain, and
that there’s nothing possible that hasn’t been learned. This
idea may be true but I personally doubt it. I think there’s a
field hinted at by Plato, a vast field that if we open to,
expect to access through dreams and inspirations, never fails to
reward us with something—an idea, an image. We then need to work
with it and it isn’t always immediately –or ever–useful. But the
expectation of inspiration from beyond tends to be a useful
attitude, more than wracking your brains—what you already
know—to come up with something new.
It’ll take some time to test this, but I think it’s a useful
direction. Just an idea. But it harkens back to the idea that
there’s yet more to creativity than we know, just like in the
early 19th century there was a lot more to electricity than was
at first known.
- - - -
Speaking of fads, I think one that is seducing a lot of people
has been a degree of over-romanticizing advances in brain
science. Some of these I’ve found useful, others not.
For example, in contemporary science, the new technology of
brain imaging has caught on so much that some journals want to
have pictures. That there is as yet little evidence that in most
cases these pretty pictures mean a whole lot is obscured by the
fantasy-hope that some day they’ll mean a lot. But optimism
needs to be balanced with skepticism. Yes, and it may be true in
some cases; but no, it may not unlock the mysteries of mind.
It’s a new tool and it may only give us rather general
information that on occasion is useful, such as for the presence
or finer location of a tumor or abnormality; but as for
telling us more about consciousness itself? I have doubts.
Perhaps I’m wrong. I’m pretty sure this skepticism is mistaken
on a few situations, but I can’t say which yet; and I suspect
I’m on the whole right about saying, “Whoa, this isn’t the final
key to all the great mysteries.”
A major problem is this: What if the brain is a high-power
receiver of thoughts or images whose basic source is beyond the
brain? Showing that distortions of the brain can distort
thoughts doesn’t prove that the source of the thoughts are in
the brain. There’s lots of evidence that stimulating or
inhibiting or cutting out or otherwise compromising the brain
generates considerable distortion of thinking, I’m not about to
argue with you. It’s just that this information only counts if
it’s assumed without much proof that there are no outside
Okay, what I’m getting at regarding creativity is that it may be
originating beyond the physical brain. Now I might be wrong, but
there is a positive implication:
If we expect that there is a source of wisdom
and insight beyond what we know, we open our minds to creative
imaginings, and that seems to generate both folly and
inspiration. It’s not as if every creative breakthrough is
guaranteed to work. But at least it goes in the right direction.
- - - -
In summary, please go to my website and read about
meta-cognition, under M, where these lectures are. I also
have a number of supplementary lectures or links. The realm of
mind is far too vast for me to adequately treat in this lecture
Next week (the 4th lecture) I will talk about a variety of
aspects of social psychology and one part of that is
communications studies and one part of that is nonverbal
communication. That in turn involves scores of
sub-components, some of which, technically, are verbal—sounds we
make, the way we speak—but not words with meanings. Technically
this is called non-lexical communications, but let’s just
acknowledge that the pace, loudness, pitch, intonation, and the
like can affect the meaning of the words used. Of course, facial
expression, context, and so forth also affects meaning.
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