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Metacognition is, in the words of the man who coined the term John H. Flavel, “cognition about cognitive phenomena”. The prefix meta means “beyond” or “above”, and metacognition happens anytime we have awareness about our learning, thinking, and other cognitive processes. But on a deeper level, metacognition involves meta-awareness—truly detaching from the mind to get the bird’s eye view from above.
Metacognition is a scientific term coined by the American developmental psychologist John H. Flavell in 1979. Since then, many scientists have researched how it works. They explored how to define it and ways to exploit it in education, therapy, and other areas of life.
For example, metacognitive therapy—similar to Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT)—uses metacognitive strategies to detach from thoughts and emotions. In one of the founders John D. Teasdale’s words, “thoughts are seen as passing events in the mind rather than as inherent aspects of self or as necessarily valid reflections of reality”.
But more generally, the metacognitive view of the mind is the ability to step back and watch your mind with curiosity. Mathematician Eric Weinstein calls this view from above the metacognitive perch, revealing our minds to be more like a collection of modules rather than a unified and consistent operation. In this sense, metacognition plays in the same ballpark as meditation and mindfulness.
And as a mental framework, metacognition will be one of the more crucial concepts for Exploring Kodawari. On the practical level, metacognitive thinking makes us better learners and teachers. But on a deeper level, it gives us the chance to more honestly understand ourselves so that we can lead better lives.
In its most encompassing definition, metacognition is the ability to think about thinking. One need not have a zoomed-out awareness of the entire mind to be metacognitive, and they can still be lost in thought. Metacognition is, therefore, any level of cognition above other cognitive processes. It can even occur subconsciously when you implicitly strategize about how to learn, think, or solve a problem.
In this sense, metacognitive knowledge refers to all of the data points and patterns that we learn about the workings of our minds. It can be in the moment or a reflection about how the mind worked in the past. But as an umbrella term, metacognition is having thoughts about thoughts. And metacognitive skills allow us to strategize based on this information.
But there are levels to metacognition, and as you build more awareness, you get into the territory of mindfulness and meta-awareness. While metacognition is in many cases synonymous with self-awareness—something like knowing you are a good visual learner—meta-awareness is the explicit and conscious monitoring of the contents and processes of your mind in the present moment.
So metacognition can involve meta-awareness, but it isn’t strictly necessary. But before getting into meta-awareness, let’s first explore the relationship between metacognition and learning.
Metacognition And Learning
Through metacognition, you can evaluate your thinking and learning processes. You can develop insight and awareness into the strategies that foster optimal learning and use it to your advantage. But without metacognition, many people reflexively use popular learning strategies and assume they will work.
But the famous Dunning-Kruger Effect shows that people who perform most poorly on exams tend to have the most confidence in their knowledge. Put differently, the most incompetent people paradoxically feel the most competent—they lack the metacognitive ability to see their incompetence. But metacognition allows you to take a more honest inventory of your mind, and you will learn to feel the difference between shallow knowledge and deep knowledge—you will have a more accurate awareness of what you know.
And this skill is also critical for teachers. When teaching, you can get your students to use metacognitive strategies with self-reflective questions. You can ask them to explain how they solved a problem or give them a survey to assess how well they know something.
Metacognition And Language Learning
As one personal and basic example, I always thought I was horrible at learning new languages. Five years of Spanish throughout middle and high school left me with almost no ability to speak the language. I got high scores on the exams, but they only proved that I could hack the memorization process. But I couldn’t hold a conversation in Spanish, and the knowledge quickly disappeared.
But eight years later, when I first met my now wife Yankı, I began learning her native language of Turkish. Coming from English, learning Turkish is significantly harder than learning Spanish. But I was extremely successful in learning Turkish. And I think the biggest factor was having a deeper understanding of metacognition.
On top of having eight years to become more self-aware, I was also more conscious about learning processes. My younger learning was more implicit. But years later, I could more consciously strategize from the metacognitive perch.
So I did research and tried many different methods, watching my mind as it attempted to absorb the language. I used Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Babel, Pimsleur, and found pdfs of old textbooks.
And being metacognitive during this process revealed to me that the textbook “school” approach to language learning did not work for me—at least not if I wanted to use the language in the real world. Instead of spending the majority of my time on grammar rules, I let my brain learn the rules more implicitly through conversations and audio methods like Pimsleur. And I could feel the structure of Turkish forming in my brain.
And for me, once I have a structure/framework for something, I can add new information to it quickly. Specifics aside, the point is that I used metacognitive awareness to design a learning method for myself. Everyone learns differently, and with metacognition, you can find your ideal approach.
Meta-Awareness And Mindfulness
If a proper metacognition definition needs multiple layers of awareness, the higher levels would include meta-awareness. With meta-awareness, we aren’t just implicitly aware of thoughts, sounds, sensations, etc—we consciously notice our awareness in the present moment.
If you imagine arriving at meta-awareness in layers, the first layer is to get control of your attention—to no longer be lost in thought all the time. Mindfulness practices like focusing on the breath can help you to stabilize your attention.
But this kind of awareness, while focused, is not yet meta-awareness. Focusing on the breath or another meditation anchor is the metaphorical flashlight of our attention. It is narrow and focused on one thing. But true meta-awareness is switching our attention from a flashlight into a floodlight. We open up our awareness to be above awareness itself, to light up, with attention, all aspects of present moment awareness.
In this state, which is synonymous with many definitions of mindfulness, we can explicitly note the current contents of consciousness. When you notice that you might be lost in thought or swept up in a chain reaction of emotions, you can become meta-aware by taking a short mindful pause. You can even do this when you are overly focused on one thing—being deep in focus is not the same as being meta-aware.
With meta-awareness, you can regularly check in with yourself by asking a question like “is my attention where it needs to be right now?”.
Metacognitive therapy, which is similar to mindfulness-based therapies, relies on the concept of cognitive detachment to change how a client relates to their thoughts and emotions. Someone who is suffering from depression, for example, would learn to shift from thinking “I am depressed” to thinking “I am aware of my depressive thoughts”.
Like mindfulness, the first stage is to step back a layer to become aware of our minds. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who developed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in the 1970s, defined mindfulness as “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment”. So besides being aware of the mind, one must also find a way to view it without judgment.
And both metacognitive therapy and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) rely on a similar shift in cognition. By being aware of thought patterns as they arise—instead of lost in them—you can interrupt the automatic processes that usually lead to negative states like depressive episodes.
Such a shift is not a magical cure, but it can make a world of difference in how severely negative thoughts affect us.
Modular Model of Mind
In our article on the modular model of the mind, we explored the idea that the unified feeling of our minds is an illusion. We might feel like one personality—especially when we’re not paying attention—but it is more like we have multiple subpersonalities. These modules are not clear-cut and physical like a computer but are, instead, domain-specific cognitive systems that evolved through natural selection. Evolutionary psychologist Douglas Kenrick says:
“A key assumption of the evolutionary perspective is that the human brain contains not one monolithic ‘rational decision-making device’, but rather a number of different decision-systems, each operating according to different rules.”DOUGLAS KENRICK, THE EVOLUTIONARY ECONOMICS OF DECISION MAKING
The science of mental modules is fascinating, and knowing it can help with metacognitively recognizing thought patterns. But from the perspective of self-awareness and self-improvement, you don’t have to study your modules as precisely as a cognitive scientist or evolutionary psychologist does. Applying the evolutionary lens of adaptation and domain-specific motivations will certainly help, but a less strict model of messy modules is sufficient.
When you detach into metacognitive space, you can watch your mind from the bird’s eye view and develop a personalized system for naming modules. Like metacognitive therapy, you relinquish identification with these modules—these patterns of thoughts and motivations—and learn to just watch them.
Our inner modules can be selfish, dishonest, and contradictory to other modules, and if we are lost in their thought patterns, we risk blindly acting them out. And without metacognition and self-awareness, we will find ourselves lying and misleading others to explain away our behavior—after all, we are more like the press secretary of our minds than the president.
So taking evolution by natural selection seriously should make us more humble towards the workings of the mind. When we have humility and curiosity towards systems within our bodies and minds, we can assume that we are supposed to have competing modules in our brains that try to bid for our attention. The bird’s eye view allows us to become familiar with our modules so we are not ruled by them as much.
There is a concept in cybersecurity and software testing known as a sandbox, and it syncs up well with metacognition. A software sandbox is an isolated environment where you can safely open a file or run a program without affecting the system. Even malicious code can safely execute in the confines of a sandbox, avoiding damage to the host device or network.
Similarly, there is a metacognitive strategy of building a mental sandbox as a testing environment for ideas. You can maintain your beliefs, values, and opinions while still genuinely giving other ideas—even contradictory ones—the chance to be correct. You can even steel-man your opposition (the opposite of a straw man) by making the ideas stronger than when they arrived.
When we identify too strongly with our thoughts and opinions, emotion takes over, and we reflexively reject opposing ideas. But with metacognition and a mental sandbox, we can learn how to more gracefully play with ideas. With this approach, intellectual honesty and curiosity are more important than being right or avoiding embarrassment. And a bonus to absorbing opposing ideas is that you more quickly realize when you are wrong.
People who do not know how to play with ideas like this—who cannot entertain multiple opinions at once—risk becoming ideological puppets, lacking the metacognition to see what is pulling the strings. As Carl Jung said:
“People don’t have ideas. Ideas have people.”CARL JUNG
Camping And De-Camping
Once we learn that we can safely and gracefully test out ideas in the mind, we can embrace the metacognitive strategy of camping and de-camping. I first heard the concept from mathematician Eric Weinstein, and for me, it takes the concept of the sandbox one step further. In addition to entertaining another idea or opinion, we also camp in that perspective.
In politics, for example, we can camp in the opposing perspective for enough time to truly see the world from that viewpoint. Camping in a different perspective temporarily changes our values, prior assumptions, and what information we consider relevant. It also helps cancel out bias, which is not just bad thinking—bias is how the brain processes too much information. We cannot see without ignoring, and where we camp determines what we highlight and ignore.
So the metacognitive strategy of camping and de-camping between multiple perspectives is crucial for maintaining intellectual honesty. It will give you a greater understanding of other people and a more skillful approach to communicating ideas. It also makes me more humble—I have fewer opinions and make sure to test any strong ones from opposing camps.
Gooey vs. Prickly
We tend to be strict about other people being intellectually consistent. We easily spot their flaws and contradictions—especially in political topics—with a “gotcha” type of motivation and pleasure. But when someone points out our hypocrisy—or that of someone on our “team”—we flinch away and deny or excuse it. We allow more gooey thinking in our blind spots while being prickly about other people’s blind spots.
But practicing metacognition with an emphasis on intellectual honesty and flexible thinking induces humility. You are more graceful towards inconsistencies in other people’s thinking because you regularly see them in yourself.
So metacognition has taught me to value gooey and prickly thinking. Prickly thinking means that we make sure our thoughts and opinions are logical and consistent. It helps us build accurate models of the world and have opinions that make sense, fit together, and stand the test of time.
But a gooey thinker embraces tension and inconsistencies in the mind. Valuing gooey thinking means that we don’t view our mind’s ability to contradict itself purely as a design flaw—perhaps it is a feature. Being gooey and embracing contradictions might be the key to how we can solve problems, be creative, empathize with others, and camp/de-camp.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind and still retain the ability to function.”F. SCOTT FITZGERALD
Gooey Prickles And Prickly Goo
Of course, this concept depends on the situation. I tend to be stricter about logical consistency for simple truths. But it is often with the deepest truths in life that we have to embrace a more gooey approach to thinking. It also brings to mind a quote by the famous physicist Neils Bohr:
“ There are trivial truths and there are great truths. The opposite of a trivial truth is plainly false. The opposite of a great truth is also true.”NEILS BOHR
Watching your mind will show you when you are being prickly and when you are being gooey. And you will spot the same shifts in other people, hopefully in a less judgemental way.
Prickly philosophy is intellectually rigorous and likes everything chopped up into neat categories. It readily reduces phenomena into smaller components hates logical contradictions. But gooey philosophy embraces vagueness and does not mind blurring categories together. And the truth is that we all contain and need both of these approaches.
As Alan Watts says, in talking about how both prickles and goo are mutually dependent: “life is not either prickles or goo—it is gooey prickles and prickly goo.”
And when we shift our awareness to watch the mind from the metacognitive perch—the bird’s eye view—it is much easier to embrace and work with our messy minds.
Metacognition: Final Thoughts
Hopefully, this article gave you a solid introduction to the psychology of metacognition and how it can be useful. On the scientific side of this topic, there is much to learn about the brain’s attention systems, self-awareness, and optimal learning. It also shows more rigorously the existence of metacognitive levels. As psychologist Tomasz Jankowski puts it, “one meta-level can become object level for a higher next level and so on”.
And on the meditation side of things, the topic intersects well with mindfulness and self-improvement. When we spend more time observing from the bird’s eye view, we become familiar with our mind and its messy way of functioning—as Susan Greenland puts it, “minds are a bundle of multifaceted and sometimes contradictory, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs”. Metacognitively recognizing this truth of the mind makes us more graceful towards ourselves and others.
And finally, if we use metacognitive strategies to cultivate meta-awareness, we will more often align our actions with our values and goals.
- Metacognitive Model of Mindfulness (Tomasz Jankowski)
- Meta-Cognition in Mindfulness: A Conceptual Analysis (Dilwar Hussain)
- Metacognitive Awareness and Prevention of Relapse in Depression: Empirical Evidence (Teasdale, J. D. et al.)
- Peak Mind: Find Your Focus, Own Your Attention, Invest 12 Minutes a Day by Amishi P. Jha
- Mindful Games by Susan Kaiser Greenland