The power of thinking about thinking - RSA

The power of thinking about thinking


  • Social brain

Thinking about thinking appears to have special qualities. Reading Sue Gerhardt’s book ‘The Selfish Society’ (she is speaking at the RSA tomorrow) I am struck by the importance in child development of what Peter Fonagy calls learning to ‘mentalise’ - in other words to understand others’ behaviour in terms of their emotions and ways of thinking.

In turn Elizabeth Meins from Durham University has research suggesting that if parents talk to babies about their (the baby’s) feelings this seems to accelerate the development of empathy. Connecting to how we feel and think helps us to understand that other people also feel and think.

As part of our social brain project we have are testing out a set of simple rules of thumb about cognition with various public sector professionals. Although the evidence is at this stage only suggestive it does indicate that people find the process of thinking about thinking stimulating and powerful.

There is also evidence (sorry, too little time to check the source) that children’s learning is enhanced when they spend time thinking about how their brain learns.

There are various ways we might explain the power of thinking about thinking.

The prosaic explanation is simply that it is inherently interesting, in the way that, say, discussing the origins of the universe might be

A psychological explanation would be that thinking about thinking doesn’t just provide us with information but it encourages a deeper more powerful type of introspection. This, I guess, is the idea of ‘mindfulness’, as the practice of meditation is now often called.

I am also interested in the neurological processes. What is it that happens when the networks of our brain that are thinking reflect back on themselves? Is it something akin to what happens when we stand between two large mirrors and our image rebounds into the distance? When we think about thinking do our brainwaves (excuse the shorthand) rebound generating more neural connections than occur when we simply think about something outside us?

I realise that there is a wealth of literature on this topic, although I’m not sure I’ve seen anything on the neuroscience of thinking about thinking. This is an idea that Matt Grist is exploring in his latest RSA social brain pamphlet so I’m sure he – like me – will be interested in any comments.

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