Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Metacognition - thinking about thinking

Rendering of human brain.Image via Wikipedia
How to avoid temptation - impossible without practice in Metacognition - thinking about thinking; being aware of how your own mind works.

Sex Ed : Jonah Lehrer - The Frontal Cortex: "
The point is that we've been arming our kids with the wrong mental tools. Instead of giving them statistics, we need to provide them with the cognitive tools to deal with temptation. Instead of urging them to abstain, we need to show them how to abstain. There is no secret recipe for overcoming our 'hottest' urges, like sexual desire. But you could do worse than giving kids a short lesson in metacognition. I think Walter Mischel's work with four-year olds and marshmallows is relevant here:
At the time, psychologists assumed that children's ability to wait [to delay gratification for a second marshmallow] depended on how badly they wanted the marshmallow. But it soon became obvious that every child craved the extra treat. What, then, determined self-control? Mischel's conclusion, based on hundreds of hours of observation, was that the crucial skill was the 'strategic allocation of attention.' Instead of getting obsessed with the marshmallow--the 'hot stimulus'--the patient children distracted themselves by covering their eyes, pretending to play hide-and-seek underneath the desk, or singing songs from 'Sesame Street.' Their desire wasn't defeated--it was merely forgotten. 'If you're thinking about the marshmallow and how delicious it is, then you're going to eat it,' Mischel says. 'The key is to avoid thinking about it in the first place.'

Kurdish Children in SulaimaniaImage via Wikipedia

In adults, this skill is often referred to as metacognition, or thinking about thinking, and it's what allows people to outsmart their shortcomings. (When Odysseus had himself tied to the ship's mast, he was using some of the skills of metacognition: knowing he wouldn't be able to resist the Sirens' song, he made it impossible to give in.) Mischel's large data set from various studies allowed him to see that children with a more accurate understanding of the workings of self-control were better able to delay gratification. 'What's interesting about four-year-olds is that they're just figuring out the rules of thinking,' Mischel says. 'The kids who couldn't delay would often have the rules backwards. They would think that the best way to resist the marshmallow is to stare right at it, to keep a close eye on the goal. But that's a terrible idea. If you do that, you're going to ring the bell before I leave the room.'
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