One thing that makes the human mind quite unique is our ability to think about thinking. Think about it (if that's not too confusing), we're brilliant at reflecting, pondering, and recognising our thoughts. Try not to think about a pink elephant right now. Are you thinking about a pink elephant and berating yourself for being unable to NOT think about it? That right there, you considering your thoughts, is thinking about thinking.
Well, Aristotle famously said:
"Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom."
Our ability to monitor, plan, review, and reflect
It's a very useful skill to be able to think about the potential result of what we say and do and imagine the outcome before we take the action. Maybe that's thinking about having a courageous (aka challenging) conversation with a colleague, or how our bestie might react to bad news we're delivering.
We asked Martina Ratto, Beingwell's cognitive scientist, what this seemingly magical ability is, and she told us:
This range of high-level cognitive abilities is known as metacognition, which means cognition of cognition, or, in other words, our ability to be aware of our own thought processes.
It’s brilliant for monitoring our strategies, planning our actions and thinking about past mistakes, and what we might learn from them. Mastering metacognition means being able to stay in control of ourselves, be aware of our strengths (and weaknesses) and be able to grow, learn, and develop.
Is it just all about ourselves?
Our mind is able to do much more than just thinking about itself - we can shift our 'thinking about thinking' to thinking about what others might be thinking (get your head around that!). In a nutshell, that means considering others. Considering what other people might be thinking and how they might be feeling. This is called the “theory of mind”, responsible for our ability to empathise with others.
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another.” Alfred Adler
Perhaps most importantly, this allows us to see perspectives different from our own and to look at things from another point of view.
This doesn't only help us to build better relationships and collaborate with others, but is great for thinking creatively and stretching our minds to new ideas.
So, how can I improve my ability to think about thinking?
We're glad you asked. Martina has some top tips for improving and developing our metacognition and empathy:
1. Take a moment to reflect
Think about the steps and the choices that have led you to make a mistake or to have success, and note them down for future use.
2. Make a list of strengths and weaknesses
How can you improve on areas for development and get the most out of your strengths? It's useful to get feedback if you're not sure.
3. Take part in group activities
Playing games and team sports that involve others help to improve our understanding of others’ strategies and collaborate towards shared goals. Great for empathy too.
4. Get a second opinion
Walk through your thinking behind a decision with a friend and get their view. Consider whether any of your thought processes differ from theirs.
5. Practice empathy
Use any and all opportunities to put yourself (cognitively speaking) in someone else's shoes.
Final thoughts from Martina: Understanding what our thinking is, its limits, potential, and how to improve it, is what will allow us to develop our brainpower. Taking a step back and thinking about the way we think, behave and make everyday decisions will have positive effects on all aspects of our life, both in the short and in the long term.