A key aspect of being human is that we can observe, evaluate and reflect upon our own thinking; we can think about our own thinking. This is called “Metacognition” and according to Scientific American it “is an internal tribunal that rules on the soundness of our mental representations, such as memory or judgment.”
Metacognition is what gives us the ability to make judgments about our own thoughts.
- What was the address of the home you lived in as a child? Your brain will pull up the address from your memory (maybe). That’s just regular thinking in the form of memory retrieval. Then you brain will think “is that correct – is 2052 Parasol – the correct answer?” That checking of your thinking is metacognition.
- You think an impolite thought about a friend such as “wow, that was a really stupid question Fred just asked” and then you have another thought, seemingly from another part of your brain that says “that is not very nice, you shouldn’t think that.” That judgment about your thinking is metacognition.
- Example from Scientific American – a contestant is playing Who Wants to be a Millionaire and gives her response to an the answer. The host asks “are you sure, is that your final answer?” The contestant thinks about her answer, judges it correct, and says “yes, that is my final answer.” The evaluation of the answer and the knowledge that it is correct is metacognition.
- Knowing that learning that mathematics comes easily to oneself but that learning foreign languages is much harder is also a type of metacognition as it is awareness of how one learns and thinks.
- Another example we’ve all experienced – we see someone we know we have met. We know that their name is stored in our memory, but can’t retrieve it. This thinking about whether we have a fact stored in memory or not is metacognition.
Metacognition is very important because it gives us perspective about our thoughts and the way we think. It is a key aspect to critical thinking and reasoning as it is the mechanism by which we judge our cognitive abilities.
Interestingly, metacognition can be developed and can be helpful in a number of areas:
- Metacognitive therapy (“MCT”) can assist those with mood and anxiety disorders. These therapies train the patients to separate themselves from their negative or anxious thoughts and to observe them. They don’t challenge the thoughts but rather engage in detached mindfulness of observing the thoughts as being separate from the person.Try this yourself – if you have a stressful, worrisome or anxious thought step away from it, observe it from a distance without judgment and think something like “that is my thought where I worried about ___________, I’m going to let it just pass into the future.”
- Research has also found that teaching metacognitive skills can assist in learning and teachers are being taught metacognitive techniques to use when teaching students. More on metacognitive strategies in learning: https://lincs.ed.gov/state-resources/federal-initiatives/teal/guide/metacognitive
Finally, humans may not be the only mammals with the ability to think about thinking. Research suggests that dolphins and chimps may also have this ability.