by Barry Chudakov on July 28th, 2010

The Mind That Thinks About Itself

“… many scientists now argue that the best predictor of good judgment isn’t intuition or intelligence or even experience. Rather, it’s the willingness to engage in introspection, to cultivate what Philip Tetlock, a psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, calls ‘the art of self-overhearing.’ The mind that thinks about itself thinks better.”


Buddha in my Mind, Flickr, h. koppdelaney.


It could not be more ironic. In the midst of widespread (largely) digital connectivity via various gadgets and social media, these same tools create disconnections in other areas of our lives.

Social networks are not only a preferred way of getting to know significant others, 81 percent of divorce attorneys use evidence found on networking sites and Facebook is mentioned in about 20 percent of divorce cases, according to a survey of more than 5,000 attorneys.

Half of teens send 50 or more text messages a day, or 1,500 texts a month, and one in three send more than 100 texts a day, or more than 3,000 texts a month. Yet Dr. Phil reported recently on Capitol Hill that “42 percent of kids say they have been bullied on the internet, 35 percent of kids say they have been threatened.”

We tether our waking moments to Blackberrys and then come to a state where we say ‘my Blackberry ate my life.’ In Canada, labor leaders have pushed to make employers pay for the hours workers spend on their Blackberrys out of the office, and in the United States, lawsuits to recoup overtime pay for time spent on hand-held devices are piling up.

Surrounded by computers and handheld devices at work and at home, people are finding it hard to shift gears on vacation, says the director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center.

A cyber threat analyst amasses nearly 300 social-network connections including security specialists, military personnel and staff at intelligence agencies and defense contractors—but doesn’t exist as a real person.


Gadget, Flickr, DavyRocket.


These examples describe the inherent contradictions in our use of communication tools. Amanda Lenhart, senior researcher at the Pew Internet and American Life Project, surveyed 800 pairs of teens and parents, and organized focus groups with children in four different cities. During the focus groups she was amazed to discover the teens were secretly texting under the tables as they talked with researchers. Yet adults are more likely to text and drive: 49% of adults say they have been passengers in a car when the driver was sending or reading text messages on their cell phone, and one in six (17%) cell-owning adults say they have physically bumped into another person or an object because they were distracted by talking or texting on their phone. We see another self-defeating contradiction in the increasing number of teens who have suffered injuries—burns, broken bones, and more—in the quest for viral video fame. One doctor says he’s seen a fourfold increase in injuries suffered by kids attempting to pull off “outrageous acts”—stunts they’ve seen on YouTube and hope to recreate.

Like Trojan horses that we welcome past the gates of our perceptions, our communication tools soon start wars within ourselves as they reveal a different agenda than we first realized and then become our default thinking tools. But if we step aside for a moment and consider these examples as a way of seeing how our minds think, we may find clarity.


Trojan Horse, Flickr, cemagraphics, all rights reserved.


Seeing Thinking

If tools can be said to have agendas, the mindful imperative of using communication tools is to understand how these tools transform our thinking — and then our behavior. In other words, once I have a tool in hand, it is useful to ask myself how using this tool enables my mind to think about itself. The contradictions that arise when we use our tools are telling us something: in our hands these tools challenge, distract, sometimes even eliminate our intention, blur our focus and confound our values.

Understanding this is seeing our minds in action; it is seeing our thinking as we’re thinking. Without tools in-hand, these contradictions might not be as evident, but now we can scarcely act or react in our daily lives without some manner of tool in our midst and so the evidence literally surrounds us. Of course, seeing our thinking using such an approach will demand a new kind of education as we hear in this exchange between David Pogue of the New York Times and John Palfrey, a professor of law and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School about using the tool of the Internet as a reliable source of information:

DP: Right. I just don’t know how much emphasis is being put on how kids should filter, process, and learn to judge what they read.

JP: I think almost no emphasis is being put on giving kids the skills that they need to sort credible from non-credible information. Schools have to wake up and have to give those skills to our kids. It’s the critical thinking skill of the 21st century that they’re going to need, sorting credible from not credible information. And I think we’re asleep at the switch.


Thinking Out Loud

Out of our tool-inspired disconnects and contradictions can come a new awareness: the new skills we need to think better will come from exploring the ways we change when we use our tools and then start to think and act differently.

We are facing new challenges as communication tools embed in other technologies and become more pervasive in our lives, even situated beyond our notice as they connect to CCTV cameras and face recognition software or finger-vein reading biometric touchpad devices. Becoming aware of how we think through these challenges–becoming aware of our thinking out loud–is the “art of self-overhearing.”

What we are overhearing now is a parade of contradictions. These contradictions are a peculiar blessing: they enable meta-thinking by showing us that something else emerges from our choice to use a tool besides its literal stated purpose. That something is a warp, a bending to the tool’s seductive logic; the warp invites us to alter our intentions, even our identities. The warping ways we adjust our lives to the logic and opportunities of tools—is our metalife.

If, as Tetlock asserts, the mind that thinks about itself thinks better, we have a lot to think about now and in the rapidly advancing future.


Day 41: What's on your mind?, Flickr, L S G.


More Information

Lost In Translation Steven Pinker reminds us that language is an instinct not a tool. Nonetheless, it is worthwhile to consider how much our thinking is influenced by language. Lera Boroditsky, professor of psychology at Stanford University and editor in chief of Frontiers in Cultural Psychology, is a leading researcher in this area.

The Shallows While neuroscientists and psychologists are challenging Carr’s central thesis, that neuroplasticity in our brains accounts for damaging effects from the Internet, Carr’s discussion of “Tools of the Mind” is well worth reading.

Thinking Meta

Hamlet’s Blackberry

You Are Not a Gadget Of particular interest here is Lanier’s discussion of lock-in: “Software expresses ideas about everything from the nature of a musical note to the nature of personhood. Software is also subject to an exceptionally rigid process of ‘lock-in.’ Therefore, ideas (in the present era, when human affairs are increasingly software driven) have become more subject to lock-in than in previous eras.”

Essential Skills for 21st Century Survival: Part 5: Conscious Awareness See all of Venessa Miemis’ posts on metathinking here.


Email This Post Email This Post     Print This Post Print This Post

From Commentary

1 Comment
  1. cartagena jack permalink

    I like very much the idea that we need to step away from this overload of technology once every while and just listen to our own heads and hearts. It’s refreshing to discover Mr. Tetlock feels the same way. I really liked this article – it gave me a little techo-claustrophobia until i looped back to that original statement at the top and was reminded that i have the power of all this technology and i can take a breather and listen to my own inner sense anytime i need another take on things.

    The fact that 42% of kids feel like they’ve been cyber-bullied, as Mr. Chudakov reports here – that’s hugely disturbing. I’d like to hear some ideas as to how to rectify this. What can we be doing with our kids, in our schools, in our advertising to lift people out of this cyber-bullying? Anybody?

We invite your thoughts and comments about this post. Leave a reply here.

Note: XHTML is allowed. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS