Ironic Thoughts

I know, I know, you're probably sick of me prattling on about metacognition. If so, then feel free to skip this post. I've got a new article in the latest Seed (it's a particularly good issue, I think, although it's not yet online) on the virtues and vices of thinking about thinking:

The game only has one rule, and it's a simple one: Don't think about white bears. You can think about anything else, but you can't think about that. Ready? Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and banish the animals from your head.

You just lost the game. Everyone loses the game. As Dostoevsky first observed, in Winter Notes on Summer Impressions: "Try to avoid thinking of a white bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." In fact, whenever we try to not think about something, be it white bears or a broken heart, that something gets trapped in the mind, stuck in the recursive loop of self-consciousness. The brain backfires; our attempt at repression turns into an odd fixation.

This human frailty has profound consequences. Dan Wegner, a psychologist at Harvard, refers to the failure as an "ironic" mental process. Whenever we establish a mental goalâ¯such as trying to not think about white bearsâ¯the goal is accompanied by an inevitable follow-up thought, as the brain checks to see if we're making progress. The end result, of course, is that we obsess over the one thing we're trying to avoid. Wegner argues that this ironic twitch is responsible for all sorts of afflictions, from anxiety disorder (we get anxious whenever we think about not getting anxious) to insomnia, which can occur when the drowsy brain checks to see if we've fallen asleep (and so we wake up). The mind is a disobedient machine.

Although these perverse thoughts can be irritatingâ¯â¯wouldn't it be nice to be able to fall asleep at will, like a cat?â¯they also reveal an essential feature of the human mind, which is that it doesn't just think: it constantly thinks about how it thinks. We're insufferably self-aware, like some post-modern novel, so that the brain can't go for more than a few seconds before it starts calling attention to itself, reflecting on its own contents, thoughts and feelings. This even applies to thoughts we're trying to avoid, which is why those white bears are so inescapable.

The technical term for this is metacognition, and it's a rather surreal skill. Imagine that M.C. Escher drawing of a hand drawing a hand, or a video camera making a movie of itself: The cortex is the same way, as it constantly transforms the subject at the center of consciousnessâ¯youâ¯into yet another object contemplated by consciousness. Of course, like all things meta, the process can quickly spiral out of control. When a mind thinks about metacognition, it's thinking about how it thinks about how it thinks. And so on.

I then go on to discuss the benefits of metacognition...

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you write "we're insufferably self-aware, like some post-modern novel..."

makes me wonder if metacognition is more endemic in our post-modern age (so, in this case, post-modern novels are a product of our post-modern brains -- and vice versa, and so on), or if its an enduring characterisitic of humanity throughout the ages. put another way: does the way one thinks about her self change, depending on the epoch she finds herself in? are we self-conscious by nature?

i should probably elaborate to explain myself - but hell this is only a comment. :)

is it wrong that my favorite part about your article was that you mentioned the state puff marshmallow man? kidding, i loved the rest too, but that made me laugh out loud - how many people do you think caught that? i love your writing. thanks for making science (especially neuroscience) accessible, not to mention entertaining, for the rest of us poor slobs (and hopelessly post-modern anthropologists).

Unless you've mastered the art of ignoring =]

By Martha Farag (not verified) on 22 Jan 2009 #permalink

This all sounds similar to a lot of what Douglas Hofstadter focussed on in his last book, "I Am A Strange Loop." -- I like Hofstadter a lot, and believe he is one of our most creative thinkers, but even he I think was unable to get a really good handle on this slippery quality of 'thinking about thinking' or rather, thinking about 'thinking about thinking.' It is possible we will never be able to turn the brain on itself in a fully self-disclosing manner.

This thinking about thinking about thinking loop gets activated in meditation practice if you approach meditation as a way of getting rid of thinking in order to be just present. Even if you decide to consciously not think and stick to just noticing the object of meditation with your senses, your mind on its own will come up with various thoughts to sabotage your aim. It's not even sabotage; it's what your mind habitually does when left to its own devices.
To get rid of this habit one uses the superior technique used to control the classroom behavior of unruly students or to train exotic animals,i.e. positive reinforcement. Thus one doesn't try to punish thinking or squelch it, rather one delights in noticing the thinking and at the time of noticing, drops the thought and returns to the object of meditation. So one is training in not buying into thoughts and over time, although thoughts may not stop, what will stop is being 'lost in thought' and being 'gone' for long periods of time without even being aware that that is what's happening in your mind.
With practice one can just be present or one can think consciouly about a topic of choice, metacognition, for example.

It's like the ghost image left inside the printer when the copying is done.

By Lee Pirozzi (not verified) on 27 Jan 2009 #permalink

I'm sure you know what Descarte's error was, so why the fuss?

Be mindful and forget about it.

By Pete Smillie (not verified) on 29 Jan 2009 #permalink

The person who described meditation as a way of not thinking of a white bear was entirely correct. Not that it's perfect, of course. You'll think for a moment of a white bear, but then you can just hold your concentration on something else. You can also, after regular practice, think of a white bear without being substantially distracted by anything else.

This skill seems to arise from metacognition, but a form of metacognition which is possibly differentiated from the type that Lehrer describes above. It helps to define thinking. If thinking is said to be a sort of phenomenal perception of an "internal" object which is analogous to external objects, then the sort of metacognition used in concentration meditation is quite different from "thinking." For example, when I think a thought I usually make "sounds" in my head which sound just like my voice. Sometimes, however, I "see" an image which shares almost all properties with real visual objects. And etc. Metacognition in the meditation traditions, however, seems to be more involved in the "cognition" of the object than in the "thinking" of it. More specifically, meditative metacognition seems to be a non-thinking sort of cognition of the act of thinking or concentrating (where concentrating also seems to be distinct from thinking). This means that you don't need to hold an image of a white bear before your mind in order to make sure that you're not thinking about one. Instead you can develop awareness of, and power over, your thinking and just make sure you are holding your mind on some other object.

The most amazing thing is that developing metacognitive awareness through concentration meditation really works. Thinking about thinking about thinking, however, seems rather futile compared to thinking about your aware experience of thinking. There needs to be some basis in experience of an object, after all, for us to get under our wrongly formulated conceptual thoughts about that object. And if thinking is already thought to be at the center of the earth we may as well give up trying to get under it, or at least reconsider our methodology. There's great hope in theories deriving from neuroscientific correlations between brain states and thoughts/emotions. But they're of questionable value, both as thoughts themselves and as attempts to understand thinking, until we can genuinely ground thinking in experience.

this (meta-cognition)is why the concept of the self is so valuable, often written in english with a capital S ..

and when it comes to mind, i go with the yogis .. cannot imagine a more neanderthal group of "scientists" than the neuro guys, standing around jabbing their sticks into a radio, thinking they know where the sound came from when it stopped ... yikes ..

Great job here. I really liked what you had to say. Keep going because you definitely bring a new voice to this subject. Not many folks would say what youve said and still make it interesting. Well, at least Im interested. Cant wait to see more of this from you.