Thinking About Thinking

Thinking About Thinking


Today’s discussion takes a look at how we can look at the thoughts going on in our brain– noticing our thoughts.  The general term is “metacognition”, which refers to thinking about our thinking *1.


In general, “meta-X” is X that refers to class X.  

Here’s a brief example: Say we have a set of readings from electricity smart meters across our neighborhood.  We can see snapshots of how much energy people are using, what times they’re using it at, and what it’s being used on.  Let’s call that our standard “data”.  


Our “metadata” in this case would be information about the information we have about how electricity is used in our neighborhoods.  This could be data like what percentage of the snapshots were taken during the nighttime or what the most popular times for peak energy usage are.


We’re going one level up, in a sense.


In our case, though, the goal is to notice what we are thinking, and develop a separate awareness of our ideas outside of our thoughts.  Cultivating this type of awareness can be very helpful, and I’ll try to outline the exercises I’ve used:


  1. Know that recognizing your thoughts is possible.  If you can recognize when you are aware of the implications of a thought, give yourself a mental thumbs-up, a smile, or something that signals to yourself “good job”.  The sooner the better *2.
  2. Writing down your thoughts also helps; you get a better understanding of what you are thinking about.


Example: When I notice myself going through any “odd” mindstate, I’ll try to break down

my thoughts, piece by piece, to see where the problem lies.  


Also, I keep a journal everyday, detailing my beliefs on things, at the time of writing.  This also becomes handy later on when I change my mind *3


  1. Remind yourself you are trying to practice metacognition:


Example: For a while, I wore a blue wristband that served as a trigger for me to remember

I was trying to actively think about my thoughts.  Every time I saw the flash of blue on my arm, I’d remember to actively perceive my thoughts.  The more I kept it on my mind, the easier the habit became to internalize.  


Additionally, I found reading Gödel, Escher, Bach *4 to be a great introduction to metalevels and consciousness, and it really started the internal dialogue for me with my thoughts.


In the field of psychology, there is another phenomenon known as “mindfulness” *5, which has roots in Buddhism *6.  


It’s associated with a host of benefits *7, but our focus here is on the awareness it helps train.  There are a lot of great guides out there, and the main idea is very simple.  (I would recommend Mindfulness in Plain English *8).


The ten-second summary is that mindfulness consists of being aware of your own body’s actions/sensations.  For example, you can focus solely on your breathing– the feel of the air travelling in, travelling out, and how your chest responds.  That’s it; the more you do this, the better awareness you can develop, and stronger your focus becomes.


By combining an understanding of metalevels, writing down your own thoughts, and some basic mindfulness practice, it hopefully becomes easier to see your thoughts as they appear.


I know it’s hard to describe an abstract process like this, so I hope the below examples I’ve taken from my own recent experiences help better illustrate my point:


<When reading/typing online>

I’m bored; let’s check out what’s on Facebook?


<Realizing I thought this>


I’m just thinking this because my focus is waning.  I just checked Facebook an hour ago!  Chances are, there’ll be no notifications.  Plus, I might see an article that grabs my attention and further hijacks my attention from what I’m doing here, which is far more important.  

Instead, I’ll get up/walk around for a few minutes and then get back to work– I’ll save time and won’t get distracted.


<After waking up>

I’m tired and want to go back to sleep.  It’s more comfortable in bed. 


<Realizing I thought this>


I’m just being lazy because the lights aren’t on.  Once I power through and flip the light switch, I’ll be much more awake.  And when I’m awake, I like staying awake– I can do lots of fun things and get stuff done.  So I’ll turn on the lights, ignore my fatigue, and that should help put me on the right track.

<When I have to do something I don’t want to do>

Why do I have to do this?  This is ridiculous!  I’m feeling very angry!


<Realizing I thought this>

Slow down.  You’re getting angry, which won’t help things.  Breathe in/out.  Can you convince them to not have you do this?  If yes, then try convincing them.  If no, then smile *9 and do it without any hard feelings– you’ll optimize this way.


So this week is just about familiarizing yourself with the idea that you can think about what you are thinking about, from a conceptual and technique-based mindset.











Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s