How often do you think about what you’re thinking?
Probably not very often, if at all?
I suspect thinking about thinking or metacognition, to provide the scientific nomenclature, won’t be very high on many people’s list of things they need to understand, or learn about. Most of us are fairly happy bouncing between the minor Hiccups of life. If you’re one of those who doesn’t think much about how you think, don’t worry, I’m sure you’re not alone!
A good thing about cognitive science, (at least for me) is that it supports my greater understanding of the minds of others and importantly, can help to provide me with an indication of why somebody thinks the way they do. The study of our thinking and learning processes or cognition, is actually a fascinating subject… no it is, it really is. Or perhaps it’s the latent geek in me.
You see I’ve always been interested in why someone does something, particularly if it was something unexpected, by you or them. Or, when a person behaves in a particular way, and then blames everything and everyone for that specific behaviour… except themselves. But our brains are prone to making decisions that we don’t necessarily understand.
Often, we can and do make decisions around doing things in a certain way, even when we don’t want to and then ask ourselves… why the hell did I do that? Perhaps our brain is our own worst enemy?
A good example of this are those habitual and addictive behaviours humans are impacted by. Despite knowing all the negative aspects of the behaviour in question, often people carry on. We actually live our live’s continually making choices which aren’t conducive to our individual well-being but what the hell? We still make them regardless.
But are we making our choices, regardless of the negative outcomes or, could it be that in reality, our thought process and decision making capability are actually beyond our individual control?
Perhaps we are also biased to accept given outcomes in our decisions, simply due to our inherent expectations already ingrained in the machinery of our thought making process?
Or simply, all our thinking is warped by our previous memory and our experiences of life. All of which dictate our current perceptions of reality?
Cognitive bias: a systematic pattern of deviation from norm or rationality in judgement. Individuals create their own “subjective social reality” from their perception of the input. (Wikipedia)
Additionally, it’s worth noting that our mind can play tricks on us. It can make us accept and highlight ‘evidence’ to confirm things we already believe in, or accept to be true or factual. We call this ‘confirmation bias‘ and the more you understand about this common mental habit, the more you will see evidence of it all around you. Non more so than in the constant efficacy ‘battles’ about recovery pathway choices which I’ve written about in the past (see example).
This matters when we want to make better decisions. Confirmation bias is OK as long as we’re right, but all too often we’re wrong, and we only pay attention to the deciding evidence when it’s too late… Dr Tom Stafford BSc, PhD
This difference between our beliefs (thought process) and reality (the facts) creates cognitive dissonance; a situation involving conflicting attitudes, beliefs or behaviours. For example, when people smoke (behaviour) and they know that smoking causes cancer (cognition), they are in a state of denial or cognitive dissonance, when somebody suggests they give up the smokes.
In the field of psychology, cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort (psychological stress) experienced by a person who simultaneously holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. (Wikipedia)
As Mr Spock, the eminent intergalactic fictional advocate of logic, would hasten to succinctly point out, that whilst fascinating… humans are often irrational creatures. We are easily swayed by our emotions and beliefs that too often, are formed and entrenched in bias.
Modern psychology and neuroscience suggest that often, we can’t overcome our prejudices and selfish motivations because of our ingrained inherent thinking – we ‘see’ and believe what we want to ‘see’ or believe.
But this commonly held scientific viewpoint has also been challenged by other psychologists. People like Dr Tom Stafford from the University of Sheffield who highlights the evidence that reason can change minds. By re-analysing classic experiments on persuasion, as well as summarising more recent research into how arguments change minds, Stafford shows why persuasion by reason alone can actually be (or become) a powerful force for change.
By taking a more in-depth view about our thinking process, we can often get a better handle on why it is we think the way we do. We can get to a point where we are more able to better understand and manage our thoughts; especially those that are presenting negative impacts for our daily life. That has to be a good thing, surely?
The mind is not a book, to be opened at will and examined at leisure. Thoughts are not etched on the inside of skulls, to be perused by an invader. The mind is a complex and many-layered thing. (J. K. Rowling)
There are many advantages to be gained from understanding our thought processes, and trying to change them. Not least the possibility of developing some new optimism in our thinking.
By developing a warm coat of stoicism in our thinking, we start to gain some comforting protection from any deluge of negativity that’s (too often) drowning us. By applying this ‘new’ positive thinking, we start to develop helpful and rational thoughts that are (usually) more conducive to effective change.
I’m not suggesting everyone should run around trying to constantly fill their heads with ‘happy’ thoughts. That’s way too simplistic. It’s also an unrealistic expectation, especially for those who are struggling with painful memories of past trauma and other mental-health impacts or perhaps even simply, where daily it feels like every impact upon your life is just another pile of crap.
The way we perceive things (and think about them) often doesn’t actually match the reality. Our irrational thoughts or beliefs around incidents, or life events, can create distorted perceptions about the facts of the situation and often, some unrealistic expectations about eventual outcomes.
The thoughts and beliefs that we’re dealing with are only part of the situation. You will have (or should have) additional questions in you mind such as; How much of this dung-heap was actually created by me? And most importantly… how much of it should I rationally take responsibility for and how much of it can I realistically clear-up or change?
In reality, much of what has already occurred can’t then be undone after the event. Again, much of what has happened in the past, can’t be revisited and done differently, unless similar circumstances happen to arise again in the future.
- How to Stop Worrying About Things You Can’t Change (psychologytoday.com)
- Worrying: A Waste of Time and Energy (psychologytoday.com)
- 6 Ways to Stop Worrying About Things You Can’t Control (Inc.com)
Too many of us constantly search for ‘happiness’ and yes, we all have a right to be happy but, whose version of happiness are we chasing? And importantly, what does this state of happiness actually look like or include? Being happy is subjective and clearly relative to the individual; one person’s happiness can be another’s antipathy of anything joyous.
Personally, I’d struggle to appreciate many things that others gain their ‘happiness’ from; shopping, computer games, football (soccer), garage/grunge/grime music, to randomly name but a few. In reality, many of the ‘things’ that supposedly make us ‘happy’ are simple materialistic entities, commercially marketed to us as joy providers. Most are probably as far removed from Nirvana as you could physically go, assuming that place actually exists.
One person’s Nirvana is possibly another’s shit-hole. This irrational perception of a perfect peace and continuous unabated happiness doesn’t (in reality) exist, at least not in this world. It’s a search for something that is (and should be) confined to religious doctrine and belief. Nirvana for some is; the highest state that someone can attain, a state of enlightenment, a place where a person’s individual desires and suffering have gone away. In short and to my mind, you’re dead, your life has come to an end.
I don’t follow any religious teaching or belief however; for me I will always be happy appreciating and being grateful for all that I have, irrespective of how little that may be at any time. Enjoying the simple things in life with those that mean something to me, for as long as I can, has always been my priority. Strive to maximise upon your available opportunities, whilst you still can.
Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment. (Buddha)
In today’s society, we appear to be increasingly unable to accept (let alone enjoy) the often mundane normality and realities of life. We are (in many ways) conditioned to expect and demand hyper normality.
Consequently, some seek the support synthetically provided by substances or activities. This process helps to (irrationally) disguise issues arising from being unable to (unrealistically) realise many individual expectations and desires.
We search for happiness via escapism, protectionism or hedonism, all of which are powerful drivers for addictive behaviours. But instead of craving that crutch of support, in a fluffy cloud of make-believe continual happiness, try thinking differently about the issues that impact upon you.
If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid. (Epictetus)
To quote Bob Marley, a bard and musical philosopher on many of the fundamental social issues that form the cloth of life’s rich tapestry; “Don’t bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality” because we have choices and “None but ourselves can free our minds!”