Meta-Cognitive Awareness

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on February 1, 2018 at 7:42am | General
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You can fool some of the people all of the time.

– Abe Lincoln

Children are not born with knowledge of the world; they tend to believe what you tell them. For example, many believe that Santa is real; the cartoons and ads they see depicting Santa reify the concept. Children are unaware that their interpretation of events is a creation of their nervous systems and not necessarily accurate depictions of objective reality.

They label their beliefs in ways that crystallize their subjective phenomena into abstractions such as stories and character traits that they assume are real and permanent. For example: “Mommy is bad,” carries with it the tacit premise that “she really is bad and it’s not just that I’m cranky.” The dispassionate observer understands that the child’s cranky state influences his current appraisals, and mommy won’t always seem bad. Later, when the child is in a different emotional state, his appraisal will be distorted differently by a different state-dependent filter.  Naturally, the child is unaware of the The Soul Illusion, and in each situation the child accepts his/her current appraisals as valid not just for now but for always.

Having de-reified the concept, most adults view Santa as a light-hearted fiction and so continue to reify it to children who seem to get more joy from the concept when they take it seriously. The down side of the joy and magic that comes from reification are the consequences of believing in something that is false. While there is not much harm in believing in Santa, children’s tendency to blindly accept what they are told make them vulnerable to predators. To influence a child to give up something of genuine value by getting them to accept a false belief is so easy that to do so is considered immoral and, in many cases, illegal. Some adults remain as vulnerable to external sources of control as they were when they were children. The naive belief in a 72 virgin payoff in the after-life is sufficient to motivate believers to murder themselves as well as innocent bystanders.

Meta-Cognitive Awareness offers protection from illusions that result from the reification of beliefs. An important developmental milestone, that not all adults achieve, is the understanding that one’s thoughts, emotions, and perceptions are the creations of their own nervous systems not valid and complete reflections of objective reality.

For example, when Barry appraises himself as a ‘social failure’ he has created within himself a concept from his own biased observations. Each time he acts as if this appraisal was valid he reifies it. Believing that he really is a social failure promotes distortions of perception, motivation, and response tendencies in ways that end up confirming the validity of the handicapping conception of himself.

The Meta-Cognitive Perspective

The Meta-Cognitive Perspective allows you to escape this trap by stepping outside of your current state-dependent biases.

For example, by shifting observer’s perspective of, say, your biographer you can observe how previous episodes of fear, anger, or shame distorted state-dependent phenomena in ways that promoted bad outcomes for you. The character your biographer is writing about is bound to follow the path of least resistance. However, the biographer, after so many observations, may have some recommendations about some simple changes that would benefit you.

In fact, you are the autobiographer, and you are responsible to follow the path that you, when you are in your right mind, appraise as the most advantageous. To do the right thing despite encounters with local conditions that would motivate you to defect requires the faculty of will. You are currently in the process of enhancing this faculty by exploring and developing your ability to work with the important cause-and-effect principles that determine the reactions of bio-psycho-social creatures such as yourself.

Phenomenology and Personal Research

As you read this text about subjective experience you are engaged in a meta-cognitive activity — thinking about thinking. The text describes some of the important cause and effect principles that pertain to subjective experience, so that you can have a mindful influence on it.

Meta-Cognitive Awareness enables you to mindfully influence subjective phenomena.  By shifting to the perspective of the dispassionate researcher, you can observe the phenomenological consequences of trying on different perspectives and beliefs.

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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

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