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You may go through life with nary a thought about how you think, or what you think, or how well you think. But life without ‘meta-cognition’ is flatter than life with at least a bit of it. So, here’s a little ‘cognition cocktail’ to sparkle up your day.
How Do You Think?
In a nutshell, your brain is like a little kid, constantly trying to get your attention. Movement, scary antics, chatter, funny faces – whatever it takes, it keeps up a running display of ‘ads’ or concepts – shown on your mental screen as words or visual images. Like a child, it wants your engagement. The fun isn’t in standing on the edge of the wall, but in standing there while Mom goes ape and runs over to grab you. Only if you actually engage with one of the concepts being advertised do you have the fun of thinking. Your emotions might react to images and words even faster than you can attend to them. Sometimes, what draws your attention to thought is some feeling you can’t account for. You wander into the mental theater wondering why your tummy is tied in knots, or why you suddenly want to run and hide. There, you can ask for a playback of the last few minutes to help you figure this out. Basically, ‘how you think’ is ‘pay attention to what’s going on in the Brain Show’.
What Do You Think?
If asked, “What do you think?” many people will say, “I don’t know.” It hasn’t occurred to them to check in on their own interior goings-on. Once you ask, they can usually begin considering the question. If you’ve posed a topic, they turn inward, looking through the Brain Database for material on that topic. Your question may seem like a pop-quiz (i.e. – they might not enjoy this process), or an assignment to write an essay extemporaneously on the topic (see ‘hate this process,’ above). Thinking will be loads easier if there has been some ‘reading about,’ ‘talking about,’ or ‘related experience’ beforehand. “What do you think?” is largely a function of what’s in your database. People whose database is filled with smut think about smut. Those whose vocabulary is limited think mostly about things that can be expressed in a small number of words. Full of movies? No doubt you’ll regale us with a complete rendering of the cast list, or script of your favorites. For good or ill, what you talk about emerges from what you think. Which brings us nicely to:
How Well Do You Think?
Hmmm….Maybe I don’t think well enough to do this one justice, but I’ll give it a go.
The quality of your thinking, in general, comes before the quality of your thoughts about a particular subject. Memory plays a huge role in thought strength, but real thinking goes beyond fact storage to the building of networks of information. Good networks help make up for weak memories.
Good thinking involves good source material. Stronger and more resilient networks will be created from reading Shakespeare and Chesterton and Aquinas than from reading comic books, People Magazine and cereal boxes. The best networks have paths that are used frequently. So, either think about particle physics a lot (alone), or pick a topic that’s more likely to come up in general conversation, like “Catholicism,” “What’s wrong with the world?” “male-female complementarity,” or “reasons for hopefulness.” (Did that remind you you’re always supposed to be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in you? Scripture is a great network-builder!)
Good thinking emerges from overlap and interlinking between topics and experience. New networks develop where, for instance, one author cites another’s work, a book about the Sabbath references economics and the environment, or a play by St. Pope John Paul involves questions about social justice and art. A good thought-network can provide hours of mental hiking through interconnected pathways, or help you move a conversation from territory no one has thought about (say, ‘quantum physics’) into a more thought-populated zone (such as ‘amazing medical discoveries’).
How well do you think? How much hiking have you done for exercise in this mental landscape? If one node of your mental network is stimulated, how many others light up, raising their little hands and hopping up and down wanting into the conversation? Quality of though also depends on the self-disciplines of not-thinking-about and intentional-thinking-about.
More on all this later. I’m thinkin’ about it!