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

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

Draft October 21, 2013  (For other lectures, go back to Papers and Look under Meta-cognition.)

People are "herd animals," generally not loners, but yet with far more individuality than bees. One of the major findings of psychological research in the last 40 years is that humans are exquisitely sensitive to social cues. They intuitively read subtle gradations of status and who is in versus who is out. We are profoundly socially embedded.
   (I suspect there was no Adam and Eve, but rather that we evolved over thousands of generations as tribes. We gradually became capable of speech and symbolic thinking as well as communication.)

Neurophysiologically, in the 1990s scientists discovered the "mirror neurons"---clusters of cells that not only enabled us to imitate, but to empathize. We unconsciously mirror what people say and do and also feel it a little, so we have more of a sense of what they're trying to say. These "mirror" neurons are a major discovery that reinforce how socially bonded we are, because we are intuitively aware of subtle non-verbal signals of dominance, submission, and so forth.

(Ethology is the word for the study of the comparative behavior of animals, how wolves live in packs, the pecking order of chickens, why chimpanzees groom each other, and so forth. We may well partake of these patterns a little, and while it is unwise to overstate the case, neither should we dismiss these clues to our instinctual heritage.)

Many Fields

Alas, I've discovered that advances in psychology have far outstripped my ability to present them in any but the most rudimentary fashion. These facets exist and are worth looking at. Perhaps in another series I'll go into them.

Social Class: One is the power of social class, the unspoken privileges that people expect due to their status. Paul was a Roman Citizen and as such enjoyed certain rights and privileges not given to other people who lived in the Roman Empire---i.e. the right to not be arbitrarily bound or beaten. So class and other categories entitle people and they expect those entitlements. The theme of what people do and do not feel entitled to is profound. Many other dynamics are also associated with class and the psychology of oppression.

Non-Verbal Communication: Another related field is the study of nonverbal communications---very rich, overlapping with inter-cultural psychology, linguistics---but the point is that people are very sensitive to slight nonverbal cues and much of this is unconscious! That's the point here. We are much more sensitive to nonverbal cues than we know. Non-lexical communication has to do with voiced sounds---dialects, accents, slang, jargon, how fast or slow someone speaks, how well they pronounce the words and how understandable their talk is, loudness, shrillness, intonation, and so forth. There are many aspects. You can read about some of these variables elsewhere on my website about "nonverbal communication."

Mirror Neurons: Let’s introduce something you may have heard of, or maybe not. About twenty years ago some Italian neuroscientists noted that when monkeys watched other monkeys do stuff parts of their own motor cortex registered being stimulated. To cut to the chase, we now recognize a very sensitve innate system in primates and humans called the mirror neuron system. This is the basis of imitative learning and empathy. When your spouse bumps her toe, you say “ooo” and maybe you even feel it a bit. What’s with that?

People with autism don’t have as many of these neurons, they aren’t naturally as empathic. My own hunch is that this sensitivity varies as does every other talent, just about, so that some folks are very sensitive, some folks hardly, most folks in-between.

But this mirror neuron system just gives weight to the whole business of subtle sensitivity, so let’s go on

Social Depth Psychology: Around 1935 Jacob Moreno developed a system for representing interpersonal preferences on paper, a sort of social microscopy. He called this method "sociometry." The field of study it examines I call "social depth psychology." I've written a number of papers on this on my website---about "tele" and "sociometry" and "social depth psychology."
a method that approaches this rich dynamic realm of phenomena that combines many aspects---social role, interpersonal preferences, variables of character, attractiveness, reciprocity, and so forth. It is a depth psychology insofar as people get quite caught up in feeling good or bad depending on how they think they are received by others. Often these perceptions are accurate, but some are also not accurate. The method involves making clear your preferences based on certain criteria---whom you'd like to date, with whom you'd like to work on a math problem, go to the mall, etc. This mixes several actions that generally stay near the unconscious. When you can see on a piece of paper that for x role you prefer a but not b, but for y role you prefer b but not a! 

Tele is the original word for a kind of mutually reciprocal feeling. I sometimes use the word "rapport," though it should be noted that with some folks you don't like, they don't like you either. Sometimes they pick up your dislike, and sometimes without meaning to, or occasionally with your conscious intent, you bug them.

The point is that it's important to become explicitly aware of these often awkward feelings and talk about them. It's hard because a number of deep dynamics get stirred up, such as:
   - You can't make yourself warm up to someone just because you think you should, that mother wants you to, or they're popular, etc.
   - You can't be popular with everyone. In fact, you can't be popular with lots of folks with whom you don't have a lot of rapport. Some folks seem popular, but not infrequently you will not really be inspired or turn on to what "everyone" things is great.

Many Levels of Mind

The mind operates at many levels simultaneously. It is too complex to be fully grasped. It’s frustrating to those who want to know what’s really going on, but there it is. It’s too complex. Nor does reductionism help—that’s the belief that if we can understand one aspect then we can apply what we’ve learned to other aspects—but the problem is that the way the other aspects work is different enough so the model for the first aspect doesn’t apply.

The first level to be mentioned is in some ways the most basic, having to do with brain mind and basic instincts. This is the bio-psychic level, which includes temperament and ability. It may include interests to varying degree. It includes any physical strengths or weaknesses. Alfred Adler made a point of noting way back around Freud’s time that significant weaknesses in any way significantly affect personality.

The second level is what most psychoanalytic psychology deals with----the relationships of the various parts of the mind to each other—especially the motives and anxieties about the motives.  There is a great deal of complexity here, the intra-psychic dynamics.

You don’t just have a you, however you construct and re-construct it; you have many parts, an internalized mother, father, siblings, close others, influential others like teachers or preachers. They’re all in there, often repeating the kinds of things they said and you took to heart. Maybe even more than you realized!  Encouragement and scolding, these “injunctions” made a deep imprint. Sorting this stuff out is part of what psychoanalysis and most psychologies that led to psychotherapy had in common.

 But also there is the realm of interpersonal relations. You and others, both how they are, how they change, how they feed into and reinforce or influence your behavior.

Now things get complicated even more: Small group and medium group dynamics: Do you tend to placate, dominate, mediate? Factors of innate social intelligence operate more vibrantly here, as well as innate cluelessness. Some of this alertness also emerges from the nature of the reinforcement—does it pay off to attend to others or to shut them out? All sorts of triangular dynamics come up, and we’ll talk about this realm of social depth psychology in a minute.

I want to give a nod to l
arger group dynamics. We should never underestimate the degree hat dynamics at greater levels of complexity, plots of television shows, political controversies, and so forth affect individuals. Sometimes, hardly; sometimes a bit; often a whole lot.

Finally, there are dynamics also that are shared with all life on earth, and some that are shared just with primates. The point is that the mind is infinitely complex, and two minds in relationship, or many minds, is that infinity times that number. But we need not grasp it all, every nuance, in order to allow for many levels of subtlety.

The point to make is that on occasion, such as in wartime, demands of roles related to national or religious themes become more compelling than the needs of relationships or of parts of the self. 

Social Embedded-ness

Over the last few decades our social embedded-ness has been brought to the fore. Psychology in  the mid-century was mainly viewed as intra-psychic—what was going on in the mind of the individual. There were a few people who noted the inter-personal and even fewer group mind. But gradually these latter dynamics have been getting more attention, and so to cut to the chase,  a great deal of thinking significantly involves a good deal of social input, perception, and proper interpretatoon. We’ll be talking about that interface today.

Non-Verbal Communications

We live in a logocentric culture, a big word that means that words and their technical meanings are what counts, and how they are to be weighed—i.e., mainly. But ordinary folks in most cultures weigh the other factors, context, non-verbal communications, cues, tone, facial expression, context, etc.—all are taken into consideration. These variables are not taught much in our culture and are marginalized—forced to the margins, so to speak.

But there have been many books and papers written on this topic, some in our georgetown library. 

Sorting Yourself Out

That which is mentionable becomes manageable—so said Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, speaking to young children and their parents of the many confusions that little kids and not so little ones, adults even, struggle with.

Freud mentioned sex as the big taboo and for him and back then it was, and for him and back then it was courageous to talk about. Now, still a bit, not so much.

But Freud didn’t notice a number of psychological problems. I don’t fault him. That would like be like faulting Ben Franklin for not having discovered radio. I do want to bring y’all up to date, though: We continue to discover new aspects of mind and thinking, and one of those has to do with how do we sort ourselves out.

Have you noticed that when you’re with a group in which the rapport is good it gets more done and often is more flexible and congenial than other groups in which the rapport is, shall we say, sticky?  There are a lot of reasons for what makes an interpersonal relationship sticky, awkward, and they are not always the fault of one person. Sometimes people who don’t click with one group click fine in another group. That’s the story of the ugly duckling.

The point here is to pursue that obvious lead. But it’s almost taboo, repressed, shoved into the category of unmentionable, which makes it unmanageable.

Who prefers whom and why? Now let’s not get anyone’s feelings hurt, now, shall we? Let’s all tiptoe around these elephants in the room, swept under the carpet, all those mixed metaphors.

We’re all friends here, right?. Everyone is equal, right? The answer isn’t wrong so much as somewhere in between! That’s part of the problem, getting away from black and white either-or thinking. Some of the people in my community are not experienced by me as the friends I’d prefer to hang out with. Horrors! I admit it. Hey, I notice that some folks don’t necessarily prefer me as their first choice for a game of golf. Maybe it’s because I can’t play golf at all.

In fact, 90% of people don’t particularly like me. 50% or more tolerate me okay, and it turns out that’s okay with me, it’s true for me too. But as a little kid I wanted everyone to like me, and even as a teen I hadn’t worked it out and wanted to be popular, not knowing then that most of the popular kids might not be really the folks I’d prefer, knowing what I know now.

We’re talking about sorting ourselves out, finding the kinds of folks with whom we naturally feel a positive rapport.  And we feel rapport sort of along the lines of distribution of a bell-shaped curve—a few strongly positive, some moderatly positive, most neutral, a few sort of negative. This nobody told me. I was told not to take it personally, but I had no idea what that meant. Of course I took it personally. Why, after all, did people like you? Personality. Personable. Nice. These qualities are obvious—but in fact they account for maybe only half of why people like you.

We like each other more based on whether we have anything in common, any interests, background, do you show you’re interested in me, do I have anything to offer you, do we share certain causes, are we against the same things? These set the stage. Then there’s whether we click, and that’s mysterious. Sometimes I like you because we started off on the right foot and you like me even though and perhaps even because other folks don’t like you. It’s a funny and complex business. What it is not is the way I thought it was back when I was learning what was what social wise.

So sorting yourself out is a very important challenge, but can we do it without hurting your feelings or mine. Let’s avoid the whole thing and not mention it. It’s very deep, it’s part of family, it’s part of childhood, and the whole thing revolves around feeling hurt, when in fact you don’t really know or care about those who hurt you. It has to do with reciprocity and the pain—not overwhelming, but pain—at not being given back at about the same level that you gave. Variations include the other’s not disclosing a secret or at the same level that you disclosed.

I’m sorry this is so complex but that’s what adds to its unmentionability. Few folks talk about all this mess and it’s disguised in many many ways.

book on empahty
 the bond, social intelligence, etc.
 ---is .of

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