Metacognition: Thinking About
Lecture 1: INTRODUCTORY COMMENTS
Adam Blatner, M.D.
This is a 6-lecture (6 or
more associated webpages) class
September 30, 2013 Go back to Papers to
see other Lectures
for the Fall, 2013 program of the Senior University Georgetown
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
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
I also invite you emailing me—just google my name.
email@example.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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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