Metacognition: Thinking About Thinking
Humans may not be the only animals that think about thinking–but they are probably the ONLY animals that overthink! Does metacognition help you or get in your way?
Hi Lisa Jo Rudy!
From my philosophical standpoint, metacognition is something that I call Higher-Order thinking, or in general: consciousness. The ability to think about our own thoughts! I think that at one point in early humans, metacognition was the driving factor to why we have succeeded so greatly as a species. It was that driving factor we needed to create culture! But as time inevitably went on, we haven’t needed our own metacognition in order to survive so well as a species. Anybody can survive with modern technology and medicine. We don’t use our metacognition in a helpful way anymore. Since it’s not being used in emergency or survival situations as much anymore I think that its start to almost get in our way everyday. I agree- we overthink too much now because that’s the only place our awareness is really put into! A once incredibly useful trait that us humans have developed has now created many problems for us. If I could be alive in 10,000 more years I am quite interested to see what happens to us as a species as a result of this.
I agree that metacognition may be causing more harm than good, but can you explain how it was more useful in the past, and how it relates to survival? It seems to me that LESS metacognition would be needed for an agrarian society, or for hunter-gatherers. In our contemporary society, it’s a helpful tool for, for example, selecting a career or deciding where to live, etc. — neither of which were relevant “back in the day!”
I think metacognition comes in fairly early, at least as early as religion. Religion invites the question “how do we know?” which is inherently metacognitive. I don’t mean to suggest that all religious observance is metacognitive, but once someone says “the gods are angry because …”, there is an invitation to think about the mental life of the gods.
Indeed, I think that the case that can be made that storytelling is often metacognitive. Once a story goes beyond merely recounting observable events and touches on the underlying reasons or motivations of the characters, there is opportunity for metacognition – thinking about how the characters thought/felt and how we might think/feel in their. Stories of heroes or scoundrels invite us to think about how we might become like them or avoid their fate. Our answers often include metacognitive components.
However, I think that metacognition has become more important over time. As we are exposed to more diverse viewpoints, the answer “that’s how it’s always been done” becomes less tenable and we need to think about how to choose between alternatives. Our lives have become less about doing and more about deciding between competing bits of information and lines of reasoning. To do this well, we need to think about how these decisions might go wrong just as our distant ancestors had to think about how a hunt might go wrong. But in this case, our thinking task is metacognitive, while there’s was merely cognitive.
Your observation offers an insightful intersection between philosophy and psychology. Metacognition! Its evolutionary benefits are evident: by reflecting on our thought processes, we can refine strategies, make decisions more judiciously, and assess our beliefs more critically. Indeed, as technological advances and medical innovations have mitigated many of the immediate survival challenges our ancestors faced, one might argue that our reflexive thought processes have been redirected. Instead of using metacognition for vital decision-making in life-threatening scenarios, we now often employ it in navigating complex social dynamics, existential contemplations, or even overanalyzing benign situations. This shift could indeed lead to the “paralysis by analysis” phenomenon, where overthinking hinders action.
However, one could also argue that metacognition still plays a crucial role in our advanced problem-solving, creativity, and ethical deliberations in this intricate world.