The Echoes of the Mind (71-1) Introspection


Doubt everything or believe everything: these are two equally convenient strategies. With either we dispense with the need for reflection. ~ Henri Poincaré

That psychology as a discipline exists testifies to the fact that the mind itself is subject to self-examination.

Mindfulness is ongoing awareness of one’s own mental states. More probing than self-witnessing is metacognition: the process of reflectively examining one’s own thoughts and feelings.

Our moment-to-moment judgments of the outside world are often subject to introspective interrogation. Insight into our own thoughts, or metacognition, is key to high achievement in all domains. ~ English cognitive scientist Stephen Fleming

How recent an evolutionary adaptation introspection is for hominins remains uncertain. We know next to nothing about the introspective abilities of other organisms beyond that animals and plants possess proprioception, which is the physiological analogue of introspection.

Aristotle pondered metacognition. Understanding that the conscious mind is the tip of the mental iceberg, Sigmund Freud found that excavational introspection could unearth hidden motivations.

Introspection provides an intimate look into the deepest parts of ourselves, apparently revealing truths about our mental processes that simply cannot be identified any other way. ~ Nicholas Epley & Adam Waytz

Introspection is useful for examining one’s knowledge shortcomings, and comprehending the bases for decisions, thereby improving decision-making. Metacognition can also be used to suss motivations, via honest inquiry into the nature of desires.

Witnessing is natural and no problem. The problem is excessive interest, leading to self-identification. Whatever you are engrossed in you take to be real. ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj

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That introspection is even possible is controversial.

People have no direct access to higher order mental processes. ~ American social psychologists Richard Nisbett & Timothy Wilson

One reason to deny that introspection is possible is that people are often unable to accurately report on the stimuli and factors that led to decision-based behaviors.

Ask someone why they did something, and a truthful response is seldom forthcoming. Rather than acknowledge a lack of insight – or worse, admitting socially-unacceptable motivations – confabulations that serve as plausible explanations are common. There are 2 reasons for everything: the reason people give, and the real reason. (This observation has been variously attributed to American financier J.P. Morgan, American president Teddy Roosevelt, and others.)

A causal theory is a guess about the thought process behind an act. Causal theories may serve to justify a behavior to avoid cognitive dissonance.

There is a strong motivation to believe in introspection, as it provides a sense of self-control and predictability. It is a frightening prospect to consider that one cannot know one’s own mind.

An unexamined life is not worth living. ~ Socrates

Many people do live unexamined lives: their motivations a mystery to themselves. But to conclude that introspection is impossible because some people are not practiced at it goes too far.

To regularly witness one’s one thinking – mindfulness – requires both will and skill, and a relatively quiet mind. A cluttered mind cannot hear itself, because there is too much ruckus. Most people have noisy minds; hence their discomfort with solitude.

Metacognition is non-trivial in its implications. People generally tend toward a degree of selfishness, self-indulgence, and cognitive dissonance that would be unsettling to discover. Only those willing to accept their foibles and change the concepts which control them are fruitful candidates for introspection when the need arises. (Mindfulness is not meditation and is ill-advised. The mind is full enough of itself without watching it run wild.)

The only thoughts worthy of introspection are those which lead to misunderstanding or bad behavior. Otherwise, awareness to the present moment, and actions which are life-affirming for all concerned, is all one needs.

Self-knowledge is less a matter of careful introspection than of becoming an excellent observer of oneself. ~ Timothy Wilson