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Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking
Adam Blatner, M.D.

This is a 6-lecture (6 or more associated webpages) class
for the Fall, 2013 program of the Senior University Georgetown

September 30, 2013   Go back to Papers to see other Lectures


I’m Adam Blatner, I helped start our Senior University Program. I’m a retired psychiatrist— that’s a physician MD who’s specialized in mental diseases, and I’ve turned my interest toward prevention through education. To that end since the late 1990s I’ve given talks here and elsewhere on what I call “psychological literacy”—and in a sense this series updates those.

Psychological literacy means becoming literate, acquainted with the issues and the skills of thinking about thinking. I make the point that achieving psychological literacy is as important for the 21st century as knowing how to be literate in the reading and writing sense of the word "literacy." Psychological literacy involves being familiar with basic principles of how we think and feel. Another term we might use is psychological-minded-ness, or most simply, what we’ll be talking about  in this class:  thinking about thinking.

Outline of the Class

In this series of lectures I’ll be sharing with you some of the more exciting developments in psychology since I went to school, and several have mushroomed up even in the last ten years! I’m eager to turn you on to these trends. (I think this is on the hand-out for the class.)

This first lecture in this series offers an overview, an introduction, some general comments that set the stage.

Next week we’ll have as a guest lecturer the new President of Southwestern University, Professor Edward Burger, who has co-written a small book now in the Southwestern University Library, “The Five Elements of Effective Thinking.” It’s close enough to my theme that I invited him over.

The third lecture will build on Dr. Burger’s talk and explore new ideas about creativity and playfulness.

The fourth week, I’ll address how we are embedded socially, the interface with social psychology. Much of psychology when we were in college focused on the individual, but lots of work has been done on interpersonal, group, and social psychologies.

The fifth week I’ll be talking about the slipperiness of language, semantics, and that way of viewing thinking. Hint: It’s not as simple as it seemed to be when I was growing up.

The final week I’ll finish by recognizing that thinking about spirituality also addresses an interesting mix of thinking, intuition, feeling, and other elements. This is also called transpersonal psychology. I realize that this angle brings together two fields that have been traditionally in different spheres—science and religion. Then I’ll wrap it up.

I welcome questions and I’ll be posting these lectures on my website.

I also invite you emailing me—just google my name.  adam@blatner.com   Ask questions. I’ll try to answer them and make our class more interactive.
      I’m also posting other webpages and I’ll tell you about them. This class has me so stoked that I find I have much more to share than can be said in six lectures. So browse and take what you like.

    For example, one part of this lecture that, had I gone into it, would have made our talk three lectures long and very possibly boring to many, is a listing of the many kinds of illusions we get caught up in, beginning with the illusion that other people may get seduced by illusions but not me!

So go to search blatner metacognition. Go and browse.  I find I’ve had far more to say that what I’ve been able to present here.

Why Thinking About Thinking is Relevant Now

So my first point is that I think it’s time for a much wider segment of the population to become a bit more introspective, to think about their own thinking, individually and collectively. I acknowledge that philosophers and intellectuals have been looking at the way we think for thousands of years—from Plato on—and one might even say that themes of illusion and life and death were alluded to by in the myths and legends of Babylonia, India and China.

But when I was a kid, we were more interested in thinking about the out-there and the in-here didn’t seem so relevant. For most folks, jobs were managed and obedience was a virtue. The unspoken rule was don’t ask questions or offer feedback, just do what I tell you. What was for the most part not heard were lines like, “Think for yourselves, give me feedback, decide what parts you want to do, work out who else will be on your team.” Note that such statements are not so strange in many workplaces today, but they were sort of unheard of back then.

The nature of work has changed, and one change has been that for many workers becoming more insightful and empowered is a bridge to becoming more creative and innovative. Mere obedience? If that were all it took it could be made into a machine who would do a better job. What we need machines can’t do.

So mind, the tool for being innovative, merits attention, just like science needed attention to build up a mechanized society a century ago. I call this shift not automation, but psychological-ization. Well, that’s a mouthful, and I don't think it's an official word you can use in a scrabble game. But the word tries to capture the idea that a whole culture is becoming more psychologically-minded. .

Another thing that delayed this is that psychology as it emerged was co-opted by medicine and applied as therapy. This was not Freud’s intention, please note. He sensed that this was bigger than just therapy. But professional power politics and economic led to that trend—a sort of “don’t try this at home.” Frankly, it was a bit monopolistic, though it was trying to stem a tide of amateurism in the '20s and '30s. Now, I’m trying to reverse that by making psychology more user-friendly.

So anyway, it seemed that psychology became dominated by psychoanalysis and that in turn became dominated by medicine--- the sociology here is interesting--- and the point is that thinking about thinking got derailed from being a mainstream development to being rather professionalized. It came to involve people who were imagined as neurotic---and the semantic sense was weak and / or self-indulgent. But imagined as is sort of seeming like which, as I will be noting, is the operative word for the dynamic of building or latching onto an illusion. And illusion is simply taking the world not as it is but as it seems to be.

Psychoanalysis has been de-throned and folks are beginning to see that normal healthy people can use good psychology to enhance their effectiveness and vitality. So practical psychology, thinking about thinking, is now being used more in business, education, community development, peace-making, and many other contexts.

One part of this is social skills and sensitivity training. In other words, it’s not okay to be a jerk. Just as it’s not okay to smoke in many workplaces any more, consciousness has risen: It’s not okay to be emotionally incontinent, to let go with anger and meanness. It’s not okay to grab at women—or men—and you can get fired for such shenanigans. All this requires a shifting of gears from your guts and genitals up to your brains.

A third truth is that industrially we are losing in international competition, and that is really different from 50 years ago when we were still post-war winners. What managers are investing in in the USA is know-how, and a big part of that is creativity and innovation, which requires again psychological sophistication. There are other factors too, but let’s move on.


Going back to the idea of illusion: The main point of this whole lecture series is that the main thing about the mind, the main take-away from this class on thinking about thinking, is that we get seduced into illusions, conned, scammed, manipulated, and influenced from many sources and it happens to everyone! Every one! Some of these illusions arise from within, hold-overs of childish thinking. By thinking about thinking, we can detect some illusions that might be at the root of problems and through recognizing them explicitly, analyzing them, thereby reduce their power.

I spoke about Illusions in June 2011 and have some notes on my website about that: Illusion and Illusion notes, and I added another essay for this lecture.

I approach the game of illusion-detecting the way some docs try to detect and neutralize germs, or the way computer virus detectives similarly operate. So it's useful to a point to imagine that illusions are like germs. They don't just go away by themselves. They need to be consciously identified and disputed.

If one illusion doesn’t get you, the illusion that you’ve triumphed over illusion will get you. Because like germs, one hand washing doesn’t end the story.

I’ve posted on the website a mess of illusions, and I hope you skim that webpage. It would take too long to go over them.

I want to acknowledge that many types of  illusion can be in many situations rather healthy; and I allow myself a fair amount of self-deception as normal. Indeed, I play some unofficial roles in which I pretend a lot, on purpose, cartoon, make up characters—all illusions.

In other words, illusion is not a bad thing in itself. Stage magicians make a living from entertaining us with the ways we can be fooled. It’s a little funny in many contexts.

But illusion in some contexts where there should be less illusion, or less useful illusion, is something you want to know can and should happen. How can we play with our minds to deal with this ever-present dynamic?  So this is a core theme in thinking about thinking.

A related finding has been that much actual mental illness is not a product mainly of a disturbed mind—in the sense of the software—but of the brain—the hardware. That idea contributed to the decline of psychoanalysis as a force in psychiatry. More about this on the website.

Role as a Tool

Now I’m going to shift into another angle, “role as a tool.” As a psychiatrist, I was a bit of a maverick. I wasn’t a shrink, I was an expander. I didn’t focus on what’s wrong—well, I did a little—but more I helped people build on what works. And I used role playing techniques, enactment, instead of relying only on talk. From this came an appreciation that role and the dramaturgical metaphor could be a good tool for thinking about thinking. Actors are in role, in their parts, pretty immersed, if they’re to be effective, but then not totally immersed, and that little bit of not total immersion is the key.

There’s a part of actors who know they’re not really the part they’re in, and in that comes a kind of freedom. They can change the way they think and respond and behave. Meditation also offers that awareness that you are not fully the roles you play.

We build on that key difference in mind, being in the role, and also being beyond the role. There’s even a little bit that takes in the role of the actor—not the part played—and how the actor can not only re-think and try different ways, but can be helped to do so, and can ask for help, the better to advance the play. That’s the part where we use the therapist or consultant or friends, where we can help each other.

The role concept then becomes a mental tool for suggesting this multi-level capacity of involvement, being pretty fully in role, or moving out a bit and being identified with the actor who can change how you define and act in role, and moving out a bit more and being the person who plays many roles, the act in role being only one. Some people opt out of a role, others redefine their roles. Many of you have re-defined what it means to be engaged in life beyond your familiar work or family roles.

So I may come back to this role concept as a tool, and I might use it to make this lecture series a bit more user-friendly.

Saying it again: Thinking about thinking needs a language, and I’ve found one—speaking and even thinking in terms of the roles being played—thatt works for our purposes. Role. We play many roles.

We can also play with the word and notice that, since the role as a concept means a unified complex of attitudes and behaviors, we can then play with the way we play-perform those roles. We can review them.

I’ve written a lot and done a lot with role playing, applying it to many activities beyond therapy. Really, another way to think about it is that it’s a way to learn by doing rather than just talking about whatever is to be learned.

What I discovered is that this word, role is an evocative metaphor, meaning that the word “role” draws you toward thinking—and imagining is a kind of thinking---in certain ways.

Role implies a metaphor of life as an ongoing improvised role playing. This is called the “dramaturgical metaphor,” treating situations from the perspective of theatre. Shakespeare uses this metaphor when he has one of his characters give the speech with the line, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women in it, merely players.”

But with meta-cognition, thinking about thinking, we stop being MERELY players, and instead  become co-playwrights, co-directors! We even shift roles an at times become audience and critic, appreciating this, disliking that part, and further improvising, correcting, fixing. It’s not as if there’s any script that has to be followed.

Role then becomes a way to suggest the following: 
   We play a set of behaviors as defined by society, parents, culture.
   But we can recognize this and not be completely caught up in the play.
   In a changing culture, we can play in the sense of explore, try out different solutions, not just play in the sense of performance, doing what’s expected.
    Role playing is interesting: We can know we’re exploring, playing, and we become free in our knowing that so we can re-negotiate the play.
   We can take the situation apart and realize that while others may be seeing you in one role, you  may be working from another role, or wanting to redefine that role they think you should play a  certain way. You introduce creativity into the system.

Role is to life what note is to music, and as a verse frm the song Do Re Mi in the Sound of Music says, “when you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything.”

Role amplifies your flexibility and supports your capacity to review, develop insight, and renegotiate with others.

We play many roles: Begin with thinking of role as not just a word or concept, but a tool for thinking about the way  we can be involved in a role and yet also playing a role. Actors can be pretty involved and yet able to stop on a dime if the director says, “hold it.”

We can all be a bit of actor this way, pause, replay a scene, vary it, vary even how we think about the scene.

A User-Friendly Language

One of the major developments in computers is the way in the 1970s they shifted from being something you had to be a computer scientists to use to being an ordinary person who could use not a mainframe million dollar system but a home computer. Ths in our lifetime! And part of that was the way Apple and Microsoft Windows created point-and-click and less complex coding, and that has also progressed.

Psychology has similarly been burdened by a system of language that made it full of jargon and obscure. I want so suggest that there are now languages that can cover not all but most of the operations you need to know in psychology. Just talk about issues and situations in terms of the roles people play and how they play them.  This takes a bit of practice, and some belief that it will help, can be done, and not a whole lot of know-how.

I call this approach role dynamics—if you have to name it—but as I say, no fancy words are really needed. We play roles. Here’s what makes it thinking about thinking, meta-cognition. We don’t have to play a role in the way the role was given to us. We can step back and be the co-playwright, re-define your roles. A large percentage of you are already doing this regarding your sex roles—women in the kitchen? Not always—and work roles and how you play being a grandparent and so forth. I’m just saying keep doing it and now you can talk about the way you’re revising your role, re-negotiating your role, re-defining how you want to play it.

This language helps you see that some of the roles you’ve played in your life were defined by your culture—how women should behave, what a real man is, how parents should relate to kids, all that stuff. Role dynamics is a great language also for thinking about how things have been changing in the last fifty years.

The Need to Revise and Clean Up Our Act

Another major illusion is that when we’re grown-up we don’t need to keep on learning.  That is like saying that if you have a computer you never need to upgrade. The world is going so fast that growing older now is far from what was involved in growing older 50 years ago. So let’s just shatter that illusion that one can be finished with learning when one is (as a child might put it) “all growed up.”

In a way this is like teaching computer users about anti-virus programs clean-up tools, it just comes with the new technology, or in the case of psychology, we’re learning more about the many, many ways people fool themselves.

So that’s the first lesson: People—everyone—operates in part based on the illusions they are entertaining—also known as their beliefs. Many are just part of human nature, like the illusion that you are a unified self; many are useful and even healthy, like our instinctive tendency to love and nurture babies and children.

The second lesson is to become aware of this dynamic—not to stop doing it, but to notice when doing it in the wrong way might be what’s making trouble! And to notice this, people have to be aware that illusion or self-deception can and often is happening, and when and how to take steps to correct it.

The third pont to make is that in general we don’t get rid of these tendencies—they’re too built-in nd connected with useful functions. So the illusion that one can get rid of problematic illusions is again mistaken: Instead, it’s better to learn how to become more aware of these so they don’t run your life, so you can counter them, knowing that they still have a tug on you. That in-between state is sort of the way you raise teenagers, whom you love, you believe in, but my, they can be so trying. This working it through gradually is a more realistic attitude than wanting to indulge in the fantasy of fixing it once and for all.

We can become more aware of these patterns, and that may be life-long. Like computer viruses, new ones come along that we hadn’t known about. But knowing that this will be part of life itself can help. Indeed, looking back on your life, you might review it as the dissolution of a variety of illusions.

Some of these you put in place as little kids and some you picked up as teens. Some reflect the tendencies to believe what people tell you, so let me state right now one major illusion that I’ve been chipping away on for much of my life: People know what they’re doing, especially authority figures, parents, teachers, priests, so called wise men. When I was young such people were to be respected. As the world has evolved this has reversed somewhat: Various authorities have turned out to be mistaken. Lots of knowledge is getting revised.

Sometimes our teachers and their teachers really meant well—the truth is that the quest for useful knowledge is perilous, full of blind alleys. A dean reportedly spoke to a graduating class of medical students and said, People, I have a confession to make: Half the things we have taught you are wrong; furthermore, we don’t know which half.

There’s also the disillusionment of those in power, from high political office to major business executives to televangelists and priests to everyone: Some not so few lie, and major business empires come crashing down.

More frequent are a middle group where if they’re not lying there are desperately self-deceptive,  caught up in an everybody’s doing it rationalization so they are protected from guilty. And so forth.

The point is not to blame others, though, so much as to educate, so that caveat emptor, let the buyer beware, is given more empowerment about how to detect and neutralize the more problematical illusions.

The idea that we can know fairly easily what is right and wrong is another problematical illusion and must be countered—just know it’s not so easily worked out. It’s often not at all easy! Sometimes it’s all okay except for a small part, but that small part is crucial. Yet folks may be ready to overlook the error in order to go along with the good parts. This may be wise, but the key thing is not to do it automatically or habitually!  Know about illusion.

Other variations of illusion is political propaganda, advertising, publicity, half truths, being honest but also holding back, consciously or unconsciously.

So what I’m getting at is an attitude of mild skepticism, that can kick in and also be withheld. Chronic cynicism is life-depleting. It’s really seeking a short cut from needing to assess and decide, dismissing much of what comes to one’s attention with a facade of knowing covering mere grumpiness.

Getting that balance is tricky and that’s part of the game.

First of all, we don’t just think, but much of what we do is drift, half asleep, get caught up in media programs and sports and all, review our prejudices, feel, imagine, intuit, stuff like that. When it seems to come together more we have more of sense of having thought about it. On occasion we weigh alternatives, and talking further reinforces the illusion of thinking.

But thinking rigorously operates on a spectrum, from hardly at all to very strongly, and even the very strong thinkers have to watch out lest they become so hypnotized by their words that they overlook obvious categories like love, mercy, forgiveness, humor, tenderness, poetry, and other more mushy ways of sort-of-thinking.

Indeed, we’ve come to over-value thinking, although part of me thinks we don’t do enough critical thinking, and we should teach this in school. Another part of me thinks that some academics get caught in the illusions of thickness of their thinking and need to come down to earth. So I go back and forth.

I mentioned that I was a psychiatrist and in the 1950s that was more associated with psychoanalysis, Freudian stuff, and my beard hasn’t helped the stereotype. But I’m very far from  a Freudian, a shrink. I’m an expander, and I use a variety of other metaphors to go beyond the language and theories of psychoanalysis. So please don’t stereotype me.

- - -

Next week Professor Edward Burger will talk about elements of effective thinking. The key is the phrase “effective” thinking, because much thinking is just ruminating, or low grade gossip, wondering where you mislaid your glasses, and so forth. But this is like exercising your muscles. There are ways of thinking more effectively. Wow. We’ve been taught to do math and composition—not that we learned it all that well—but actual attention given to thinking effectively? That’s why this is a bit new and important.  


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