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

This is the 3rd in a 6-lecture class
for the Fall, 2013 program of the Senior University Georgetown

October 14, 2013

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 “Puzzlement,” sings:
    "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.

Effective Thinking

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 accuracy.

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 thinking.

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 following happen:
   - 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 adequately differentiated.
   - 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, reminiscence, review.
   - 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 of thinking:
  - 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 by others
  - Remembering stuff, reminiscing, reviewing, re-constructing,  recalling—all feels like thinking to most folks
...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 results.

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 not.

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 confusing indeed!

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 quality.
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 often repressed.

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 varying degree.

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 their debates.

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 again.

Playing with, experimenting with, exploring—this is the frontier of innovation. Innovation in turn requires a laboratory, exploration, tentativeness.

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 I’m playing.

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 with.

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 back.

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 value.

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.

Paradigm Shifts

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.
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Other points:

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 influential forces.

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.

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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 series.

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.

Return to Top       For comments, suggestions for revision or additions, email me: adam@blatner.com