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Meta-Cognition: One Skill To Rule Them All
Wisdom Letter #45 | Mind Your Brain
What is your favorite song?
Or your most memorable song from your teenage years.
What comes to your mind when you think about it?
Does it evoke a visual memory along with it? Or a familiar fragrance comes to mind maybe? Or a particular person?
Maybe it brings to mind a phase in your life, the song represents a particular period of your history.
Every song that is memorable to you is like a page out of the the book of your life. There are multiple sensory impressions on each page. And thinking about one impression, brings everything else along with it to the mind as well.
But why does that happen? My question was intended to evoke an auditory memory, but your brain also invoked all the other sensory memories associated with that time and place.
Why did it happen?
Have you ever examined the roots of your thoughts?
Neurons that Fire Together, Wire Together!
Do you think about thinking?
That’s kind of recursive, I know.
What I mean is, do you think about the thoughts that come in your head?
Where do they come from? What is the root of the thoughts and ideas that seem to pop up in your head at random?
Around 12000 -15000 thoughts populate our mind during an average day. (95% of them are repetitive)
That’s a lot of thoughts!
We can follow any one of them and go down a rabbit hole that can prevent us from getting any actual work done. It can prevent us from being able to focus on the things that matter the most. It can prevent us from staying ‘in the moment’ and living our life to the fullest.
At its mildest, it can make us absent minded during a conversation, or it can prevent us from going to sleep after a long and tiring day.
At its worst, it can lead to anxiety, depression and hyper-tension.
It makes sense then, to investigate how these thoughts emerge in our consciousness. What causes certain thoughts to come and go, while others stick around and make life hell for us.
It makes sense to run your mind in Debug Mode.
Its a concept of programming that has direct application to many other areas of life.
Programmers run their programs in debug mode to observe how information flows through their code. They are then able to track down annoying bugs, identify their root causes and fix them.
We can use this model to observe our own thoughts and track down annoying bugs in our own mind.
We can follow the ideas that appear in our mind back to their roots and determine how they must have originated.
The Birth Of A Thought
Every thought or idea in our mind is a single link in a long chain of many thoughts.
Our brain is like a moist computer made up of billions of neurons interconnected with each other. These neural connections are like electrical circuits.
When two neurons fire together they produce a spark — An idea, a new thought, or even a memory. This thought is added to the endless stream of ideas on the canvas of our mind.
Neurons usually fire because of some external sensory input.
It can be anything, from the food you eat, to the weather outside, or a strong smell that hits you, or a coworker making a stray comment.
Our brain processes these external inputs with the help of neurons. And the neurons hold on to this sensory information long after it has happened.
Fun Fact : This is exactly what gives rise to our dreams as well.
Our dreams are just random neurons firing together when we sleep. (Think about the last dream you remember and what sensory inputs might have caused your neurons to fire in that manner.)
Tracing The Chain
Thoughts in our brain run in a chain. One thought leads to another, which in turn leads to another and so on.
But these connections are more orthogonal than linear.
So the chain is not like a straight line, instead its like a free hand trace on a blank canvas.
It becomes hard to find out how exactly we came up on an idea or a thought.
In our own heads, we go back and forth in time and space through the day. We play movies of the past or of the future and keep watching them on repeat, we get stuck like a broken record. (As I said earlier 95% of our thoughts in a day are repeated.)
The only way to untangle this mesh of jumbled thoughts is to debug our mind.
We must go back up the chain of a thought and try to find out exactly which sensory input might be at its root.
We must trace the orthogonal connections our neurons are making and try to study how those connections might have formed. Its a difficult, but fascinating exercise.
Once we are able to do that, we gain valuable insights about why we think what we think.
These insights are vital in being able to navigate our mind to the kind of thoughts we want to have and avoid the ones which don’t add any value to our life.
And that, my friend, is a superpower.
“A person can make himself happy or miserable, regardless of what is happening ‘outside’, just by changing the content of his consciousness”
— Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
This super power is called Meta-Cognition. Which literally means thinking about thinking.
There are very few people in the world who can practice meta-cognition effectively. It takes years of practice and perseverance to get it right.
But once it starts to work, its super charges your thinking and puts you at the top of your field.
The best performers in any field use it to navigate their mind on the path they want it to follow. They are able to control the content of their consciousness, stay in the moment and enjoy life like its meant to be.
How do you practice meta-cognition? What tool will you use to master this super-power?
The brain of course!
The same brain that houses all those neurons. You will use some of those neurons to go trace back up chains of thoughts and run your mind in debug mode.
You own those neurons, you are their master. Might as well use them to make your life better.
And if you don’t, they will keep wreaking havoc to your mind. You will become their slave.
Habits for Meta-Cognition
Meditation gets a bad rap because it often gets associated with mysticism and transcendence. Its thought of as a way to attain nirvana by quitting the active life and going to the Himalayas and living like a hermit.
But mindfulness is a kind of a practical meditation. It can help us observe our thoughts through the day and make real impact to the quality of our lives.
And that, without even having to go even on a spa retreat.
But its one of those concepts that are very simple but not easy.
It can be practiced like a conventional meditation, where we just close our eyes and shut the world out, and focus on our breath. We observe each thought that comes up dispassionately, just examine it and let it go.
We don’t dwell on any particular thought.
Mindfulness can also be practiced in a lighter version throughout the day. Where we just observe the thoughts popping in our mind, and examine the ones that take up most of our attention.
We don’t attach ourselves to any particular thought deeply. We remain objective and trace the chain up to the root of any thought.
Its a meaningful exercise that will helps us put things in perspective and make sense of our thinking.
Free form journal writing is the kind of writing where you just put your thoughts out on paper without any filters, as fast as you can.
This is a daily habit that has helped us immensely over the past few years.
Every morning, the first thing we do is sit in front of a screen with a keyboard and write whatever comes in our minds. We do this continuously for 10-15 minutes every morning, as we witness our stream of thoughts come out in front of our eyes.
This is writing that we can just throw away, this is not supposed to be read by anyone, and many a times not even by us.
But this helps us get a lot of junk from our minds out on the screen. And by doing this over a long period of time we are able to discover fascinating patterns in our own thinking.
This is an excellent way to debug our mind and go down rabbit holes in our own heads we didn’t know even existed.
Building these habits over a long period of time will help you think clearly and practice meta-cognition. You will be able to control the flow of thoughts in your mind and make better sense of your own opinions and ideas.
Most of all, both these habits will give you the mind space you need to come up with fresh new ideas and the get the ability to make better decisions.
Why It Matters
Meta-Cognition is the ultimate meta skill.
It can help us build other skills like learning, reading, listening, and most of all, critical thinking.
Meta-Cognition lies as the bedrock of the pursuit of wisdom that we strive for day in and day out.
Through Meta-Cognition we make sense of the world around us, we appreciate our place in this world.
And most of all, it helps us recognize and cope with the biases and limitations of our brains.
Indeed, it is the One Skill To Rule Them All.
Think about it.
This post is part of a series where we explore the complex love-hate relationship between our minds and brain, find out more about the series— Mind Your Brain
Find out more about how the brain functions, read The Brain by David Eagleman. Its a science book written for non-scientists like us.
Checkout Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky. Its the seminal book on the workings of our minds and systems of thinking.
Also checkout Flow, The Psychology of Happiness by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the study of happiness and finding joy in living ‘in the moment’ doing the things you love doing most.
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This was Wisdom Letter #45. In case you want to revisit any of the previous 44 letters, checkout our entire archive.
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Aditi & Ayush
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