Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Making Meta-Cognition Explicit

Originally posted on February 10, 2013

One of the trends in the last century—still not apparent to most people, though—is the increasing interest in how we think. It’s an extension of the interest not in the content but the spirit of psychoanalysis. In other words, let’s wonder about the possibility that what is true in astronomy and microbiology is also true for psychology: Everything is not what it seems.

The psychology of optical illusions might then be applied to other kinds of illusions and the way stage magicians capitalize on them; the way movies use the 24 frames per second to give the illusion of live movement. Indeed, a good many books in the last two decades have addressed a number of different illusions that humans often experience. So, let’s take this in many directions:

Semantics: In the 1930s Alfred Korzybsky noted that many problems begin with the illusions generated from word, from the assumptions that others mean the same things as we do, from the realization that there is a great deal of non-rationality in this realm. Stuart Chase, S. I. Hyakawa, and many others have explored this field.

Semiotics: Like semantics, there is a great deal of emotional associations galvanized by this image rather than that, this angle, this kind of shadowing, association of image with caption. All these are used by advertising agencies. It’s the visual form of rhetoric.

Rhetoric: That classical study of how to be persuasive is not just about how to construct a logical argument, with the unspoken assumption that a well-structured argument will persuade. It’s also about the use of appeals to non-rational motivations, and thus includes propaganda analysis, the “spin-doctoring” of political consultants, the often-deceptive art of advertising, etc., and overlaps with the previous two categories.

Performance Studies: This has become an academic field looking at the unspoken dynamics of people noticing that they have an audience and often unconsciously playing to that audience in order to heighten their own status, persuade, etc. It overlaps then with the aforementioned, and weaves in drama as perhaps a sub-category. Political theatre would also fit here.

Sociology: What is going on with larger numbers of people and how they interact?

Social Psychology: This field has grown up as a bridge between psychology and sociology.

Sociometry—or as I call it, social depth psychology: This addresses a sub-category of social psychology that overlaps with how people feel about preferring some people more than others, and being preferred or not.

Social Role Theory: This might be a sub-set of sociology, but it actually operates at all levels, from psychosomatic medicine through general cultural world-views.

Mythology: Looking at the non-rational substrate of consciousness, the tendency to associate symbols, stories, words as whole complexes. Thus it partakes of the first three items on this list. Carl Jung’s theories fit here. It used to be that we didn’t think we had myths: we had beliefs. Myths, it seemed, were patently untrue and only indulged in by people in the past or of less-enlightened cultures. In the last half-century it’s become increasingly clear that what we call our beliefs are also myths and the whole subject of underlying assumptions and beliefs deserves to be more closely examined.

Comparative Religion: With the influx of teachers of Yoga, Zen, and other approaches, many people are digging into both the superficial practice and traditions and the deeper intents, the mystical core, the essential insights. These in turn suggest underlying variations of viewpoint.

Psychedelics: That some substances can significantly alter consciousness in ways that might be viewed as non-distorted (though others think this is a distortion) opens up interesting dimensions of consciousness studies. research

The Human Potential Movement: This unfolding cultural field had many, many sub-fields, overlapping with comparative religion, psychology, etc.

Transpersonal Philosophy & Psychology: As epitomized by the work of Ken Wilber, scores or even hundreds of others are seeking to address all this in interesting ways.

Transpersonal Psychology: Can meditation and other psycho-religious practices have value for people not raised in the culture of origin? What can Zen or Tibetan Buddhism say to people in our own time?

Neuro-Biology: What findings in neuroscience have implications in psychotherapy, group dynamics, and our thinking about the mind?

Psychology, beyond the realm of treatment for “dis-ease,” may also have implications for helping otherwise healthy people become even healthier. Goals of increased resilience, the psychology of meaning, many parts of positive psychology all fit here, as well as for coaching, self-help, etc.

Non-Clinical Psychoanalysis: Many writers in this field, such as Erich From, spoke to the general cultural elements that predispose not just to individual neurosis, but to the subtle “neurosis” of whole cultures, countries, eras.

Postmodernist Critique: Many academics coming from a variety of fields have come to critique many aspects of contemporary culture as illusions, world-views. If even some of them are right, it speaks to a collective meta-cognitive inquiry: That is, could common sense really reflect not truth but a consensus that perhaps should change?

This list is meant to be suggestive rather than definitive. You may have additions that I haven’t thought of. The point, though, is that there’s a field that includes all these—“meta-cognition,” which just means “thinking about thinking.”  In the olden days we thought about stuff, but with the exception of a few philosophers, seemed blind to the idea that our own assumptions—often not fully rational—might be biasing or limiting our capacity to see or think clearly about our world. This last century has seen the opening of many portals that aim at rectifying this blindness. All that is apparent may not be the way things are.

Finally, this mini-essay links to several other concepts. One is the expansion of complexity in the world, and the recognition that complexity is an important variable in thinking about everything. Also, it’s not as if it’s new: Things have always been complex, but now we are just beginning to get a handle on thinking about it.

A second concept is the use of action explorations, simulations, ways of approaching our understanding through action and in-process corrections, action research, learning by doing. Recognizing the complexity of everything—which also ties into the relatively new fields of chaos theory, fractals in mathematics, and complexity theory—, there is a shift in how we aim at coping with this. The goals of absolute precision and control give way to approximation and good-enough, with an opening to continued creativity and refinement. It’s a shift in the way we not only try to do things, but also in the way that we think about things.

We used to think we could figure things out. It turns out that many things, well, maybe we can figure them out, or at least find more. And some things, maybe this goal actually gets in the way of other ways to relate besides “figuring out.” Enough for now.

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