Those Thoughts That Rumble Around In Our Heads

Teachers often demonstrate to students how to think about their thinking. It’s an interesting process known as metacognition that involves strategies for literally analyzing the ways that we individually process learning and decision making. It is meant to improve the ways that we interact with the world by removing the tendencies to operate with instant emotional reactions to the situations that I encounter.

Thinking about our own thinking is quite challenging because sometimes those thoughts that enter our heads like little whispers in our ears can overwhelm us. I know that there have been many times in my life when my inner voices were so loud and argumentative that I had to distract myself to keep from feeling anxious. Since I keep quite busy, I sometimes get the messages from my mind in the form of dreams that are not always so understandable. The process of metacognition challenges us to question even our own prejudices and beliefs in search of truths. 

Philosophers, writers, and teachers have been using different aspects of thinking about thinking for centuries. Socrates had a method that offered questions rather than answers, forcing his followers to consider that there are often many possibilities rather than a single correct answer. The key to finding solutions to problems lies in a willingness to consider differing points of view. 

As a mathematics teacher I knew that in many cases there was clearly on one right answer to a numerical problem, but I also understood that there were multiple ways of arriving at that answer. I taught my students certain algorithms and formulas but almost always encountered students who had arrived at a solution in unique but logical ways. I had one student named Robert who might have appeared to be lazy and unwilling to follow instructions to some because his mathematical mind was almost magical. Without putting a pencil to paper he imagined the numbers and computed them with vivid images that only he could see. He was brilliant and remarkable but often misunderstood by others who did not take the time to understand the processes of his thinking.

Right now my head is filled with thoughts that rattle constantly in my head. I wonder how I might convince my ninety four year old father-in-law to surrender his car keys and end his days of driving around town. I believe that his hands are too shaky, his mind is too prone to forgetfulness, and his reactions are too slow for him to be anything but a hazard to himself and others when he is behind the wheel of a car. He insists that he is perfectly capable of being a safer driver than most. I constantly debate myself about this situation in the confines of my own mind. I attempt to consider all of the possibilities, but I mostly realize that the biggest roadblock to any kind of mutual solution with my father-in-law has to include finding a way to convince him to think about his own thinking just as I am doing. Perhaps if we had a Socrates in our midst each of us might be guided to a reasonable agreement about what to do next. 

Most of the worst historical tragedies might have been averted if more people had learned how to think about their own thinking and that of others. We humans have tendencies to develop our own sets of beliefs and then attempt to force them on others. We descend into name calling and refusals to even consider another person’s point of view. We align ourselves in camps that sometimes end in small wars in our personal relationships or geopolitical battles that bring destruction and death to vast swaths of the world. 

In most cases such schisms occur because we have allowed those little voices in our heads to rule us without any analysis of what they seem to be telling us to do. Our old habits die hard and unless we are willing to be very honest with ourselves we push them forward without consideration that maybe we have been wrong in particular assumptions all along. We follow a pattern of instantly reacting, voicing our opinions and moving on without first questioning  or challenging ourselves. Particularly in the political arena we tend to label anyone who evolves in their thinking as a whimpy flip-flopper rather than viewing them as individuals who has taken the time to analyze and critique their own ways of thinking. Such persons tend to be shunned by both those with whom they once aligned and those whose views they are now ready to consider. Therein lies a terrible human tendency to force people to remain constant in their thinking even if changing situations require new considerations. 

It can take a great deal of time to engage in metacognition. The process can even be painful. It is not meant to brainwash or force change. It is only intended as a way of viewing all ideas critically with an eye on determining both the logic and the flaws of our beliefs. It generally demonstrates that there are rarely single answers to any question. It allows us to open our minds to new ways of thinking about any situation. 

We are in a critical moment of history as we slowly emerge from a devastating pandemic. Political forces are rattling sabers all over the world. Depression in both young and old appears to be at an all time high. Anxiety over so many issues is pushing us farther and farther apart. In the name of peace we would do well to adopt a willingness to think about how our own thinking may be contributing to the problems. How wonderful would it be if our leaders were able to sit together and attempt to begin to understand each other’s needs rather than making their differences a spectacle. 

Evolving in our thinking may be difficult and even a bit painful but it almost always results in better solutions. It’s not about giving in to pressure, it is about a willingness to find the flaws in our beliefs and repair them. Thinking should not be about blindly supporting gangs or tribes or political groups. Cults rarely accomplish anything. Real thinking almost always leads us to understand that there is greatness to be found in our differences.   


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