How to improve metacognition

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In this post, we’ll have a discussion on how to improve metacognition.

Thinking is among the things we do almost non-stop from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to bed. Some might even argue that when we sleep we still think. Just a different kind of thinking.

The point is that we think a lot even when we’re not aware of it, and the quality of these thoughts can sooner or later have a different impact on our lives. It’s from bad decision to bad decision that we eventually tip the final domino that sends our lives down an unfortunate resolution. The good thing is that the exact opposite can be said about good decisions.

How to improve metacognition

First, to put simply metacognition is nothing more than our ability to “think about thinking”. Metacognition is about the understanding of our own inner thought processes, in the same way, that a psychologist/psychiatrist would try to understand the inner thought processes of his/her clients. The better you are at evaluating your own thought processes the better you are at improving the quality of your thinking, in the same way, that the greater the understanding the mechanic has about cars, the better he/she will be at not just fixing the problem, but also at identifying the problem in the first place.

Problems in metacognition

In order to improve your metacognition, the first and most important step is to know when and if there is a problem in the first place. Metacognition can be seen as an opinion we have about our own thinking. Just in the same way we might have an opinion about our own selves as people, we also have an opinion on our own thought processes. Just as metacognition itself, this is a difficult problem since the thing you’re trying to evaluate is also the tool you’re using to do the evaluation.

The first problem to look for is in your inability to understand what kind of protocol your mind uses to think about things. Our minds work by a set of rules when it thinks about things. Having a rough idea of what this “framework of thought” is, is probably one of the most important things to do in your metacognition process. When you know the framework you use you can tweak it, or replace it completely.

The second problem is that of an extremist mindset. This problem is often tied to the problem of not knowing how you think. Here you not only are unaware of your thought process but also either believe that the framework, whatever it is, is either completely broken or flawless. All frameworks for thinking have their own strengths and weaknesses, this is the reason why there hasn’t been a human being whose decision-making process always resulted in correct decisions. If by taking an extremist approach whichever the extreme you short-circuit the metacognition process. The question one would ask is: “If my thinking is always correct/wrong what is the point of thinking about it?”

So the first step towards an improvement in your metacognition is:

1)Get a grasp of how you think

2)Eliminate any extremist opinion with regard to your thought processes.

Metacognition and education

The tip on how to improve your metacognition is to read/study a variety of subjects. It’s known that being a life-long learner can improve your thinking, and the most cited reason for why this happens is that you gain more knowledge about facts and formulas. This is definitely true, but even more powerful than that is the fact that each discipline imposes on the reader/student its own framework of thought. Each discipline presents us with a new way of looking at the world and thinking about problems. This is why there it’s not uncommon for breakthroughs in one discipline to directly/indirectly inspire discipline in other seemingly unrelated disciplines. The reason for this is that the second breakthrough is sometimes caused by a novel way of thinking about things borrowed from another discipline.

The more subjects you learn about the more frameworks you inherit, and the more frameworks for thought you inherit the greater the number of experiments/improvements you can make on your own. Quickly switching from one to the other, and measuring the results of each experiment. Picking the one that helps you make the best decisions depending on the context. Or you might even take parts from each way of thinking, and creating your own philosophy of thought and decision making, tailor suited to your own life and problems.

What discipline should I study first to improve my metacognition?

If there is any discipline I would strongly advise anyone trying to improve their metacognition to focus on first, that would be the discipline of philosophy. The reason for that is based on my personal experience. Before I took a philosophy course in university, my thinking was much less s structured/formal. I was much less rigorous with my own arguments, and much less when deciding to accept/reject someone else’s. After my philosophy class, however, the difference was like night and day.

I became more rigorous when constructing my arguments. I started thinking about potential weaknesses in them before other people pointed them out and soon I found myself having debates with myself as a way to make sure my reasoning was sound. A philosophy class /book will teach you the flaws in reasoning we often make without noticing, and by listening to/reading philosophers constructing their own often robust arguments you will knowingly or unknowingly learn to build your own and sharpen your own thinking.

Metacognition and cognitive biases

The next tip is to become more aware of your own cognitive biases. As I said before, your mind always follows a predefined set of rules for thinking regardless of whether you’re aware of them or not. Some of these rules are what we call cognitive biases, which are in essence shortcuts in decision making the brain has to improve the speed of decision making, especially when for one reason or another there is not enough information to make the best decision. For the most part, these shortcuts in thinking do get us to the right decision, but there are instances in which they don’t especially when deliberate thinking is what’s called for. You can read more about it under the source section.

The point here is that being aware of your cognitive biases is important if you are to remove them from your thought/decision-making process. If during your metacognition process you notice a phenomenon you can’t explain the source, it might just be the case that cognitive bias is what’s at play.

Health and fitness

One thing we can easily overlook when looking for ways to improve our metacognition is the organ we use to do the thinking in the first place i.e. the brain. The health and fitness of your brain and body have a great effect on the quality of your thinking. The effect is so great that having a bad night of sleep can literally make the difference between arriving at the right conclusion and concluding the wrong thing in your thought process.

Here too, I have experienced/experience it in person. The days I don’t sleep well, or when I spend a long time exercising my decision making and problem-solving is measurably impacted. When I have a good night’s sleep and/or go for a  30 min run the difference in cognition is like night and day. With that alone I find myself arriving at the right conclusion much faster, and with it also comes along the sense that the conclusion I just arrived at is obvious. Almost like a no brainer. The point here is to do your best the be in as optimal health as you can because it does matter.

Benefits of metacognition

The benefits of metacognition are many. First, when you improve your thinking about your thinking you can more easily improve your thinking. Going back to the mechanic example, now you can see the faulty part, and decide whether that faulty part in your thinking should be fixed or removed completely.

Improvement in thinking translates into an improvement in decision making, which by itself can have an almost impossible to enumerate the number of child benefits.

Summary

If you paid attention to the tips on this post, you might have realized that they would be the same if you were to ask the question: “how to improve thinking?”. That would be an accurate observation, and the reason why the suggestions proposed here are still valid is that the application of each one of the tips is directed not at the thinking process itself, but on the way we reason about it. Metacognition is after all just thinking, so it follows that most of what you’d use to improve your thinking about anything else, like a problem in your profession will likely be useful when you reason about your thinking.

It is all about knowledge and experience 😉

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Sources:

What is a cognitive bias: https://twoscoopsofbusiness.com/what-is-a-cognitive-bias

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