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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!
A lab-coated investigator places a box on a table before each participant, in turn. “What is in the box? Say whatever you think,” he says, to each one, alone. One person answers “Apples,” because the box says “APPLES” in red block letters. Another notices a word scribbled in marker on a label at one end and says, “Wine Glasses”. A third peeks into the box through a small hole in its side and says “Nothing in there.” Subject #4 lifts, shakes and smells the box, looks into all the torn places and holes, and says, “Clove-studded oranges.” Mr. 5 says, “I have no idea,” and when pressed to say whatever he thinks, laughs and says “I give up. A bomb?”
Finally, #6 answers. “Could be a hamster – there’s an air hole. Might be books, walnuts, tools – anything! How ‘bout a whole series of smaller boxes? Let’s see…there’s air in there, and dirt, probably. If it’s photographs you could say the box is full of memories. Depending on the books in there, that box might ‘contain’ India, or another planet, or a fairy world. What if it’s some high-tech gizmo…then it contains the work of dozens of scientists, years of research, rare earth. Wow! Should I go on??”
#1 used language decoding skill – relying on the accuracy of the label.
#2 did also, but took in a bit more information, held both labels in mind, and made a judgment.
#3 got his senses more fully involved, but didn’t realize the limitation he unconsciously accepted.
#4 used more sensory information, and gave the one correct answer.
#5 used his freedom to resist constraints instead of to play the game.
#6 answered as a child, or a poet might, because the question itself stimulated his imagination. He, following instructions to report “whatever he thought,” tried to report all the mental events triggered by the suggestion, “What might be in a box?”
I offer this scenario by way of explaining why I find it difficult to give short answers to interesting questions.
Case in point: our archbishop recently convened a ‘listening meeting’ to gather input for his ten—year planning process. I would never have presumed to offer any opinions about his management of the archdiocese, or his vision for it, but….he asked. And I began to consider the questions he asked. (What is the archdiocese doing well? What should be our main priorities? What should the archdiocese look like ten years from now?)
The first thing I noticed was that there were huge foundational gaps in my knowledge about the archdiocese. If I were going to picture it ten years along, I’d have to understand its current state better. A list of questions I’d like to ask developed from those gaps. Then, in my imaginary leap to “What would you say if the Archbishop was interested in your thoughts?” I discovered a wealth of material that didn’t quite fit into the three-question, one-paragraph format I’d been offered. Hence, a list of questions I wish he had asked.
Finally, set loose to create my own vision of our archdiocese, ten years older and wiser, I came up with lots of ideas. I had no idea what to do with all this outside-the-box response, and considered just keeping it to myself to save trouble for Self and the Bish’. But, it was all there, and such things, in my experience, do not go away. They beg to be at least typed and file away so as to free mental space for other work. And when I considered tucking those lists away and going on with my life, I really wished I could do it! (After all, when one knows one’s response is likely to be of little use to the recipient, to be a pain in his neck, or to be considered ridiculous and childish, one prefers to crawl under a rock with it!) But then, there’s that nagging sense that you are what you are, and God made you that way, and if nobody else answers in this way, it might be even more important that you do, and if everybody takes his response and files it the Archbishop will get nothing in the way of feedback at all.
So, a quick cover letter of explanation (“I’m a good girl, I am! This is not a challenge, or a rebellion, or a demand, or a joke, but a real offering.”), enclose the three lists, and I’m done. I won’t write out my answers to the questions I wish he had asked unless he expresses some desire to see them. Sigh…. By now, though, the Q’s had provoked A’s – one thing leads to another, and so now I’m actually interested in what my answers are, whether he is or not.
Enter: Blog. Here’s the entire series:
This is where I make room for my own thoughts, where I ‘essay,’ or try out my ideas. So, this is where I’ll post my responses, in case anyone is interested. Here’s a pdf of the Q’s and anyone is welcome to give your own A’s – to your pals, to me, to the Archbishop. If I were really leading an archdiocese, I’d want everyone’s responses. I might have to get help reading and sifting out main streams of thought, but I’d want the input. If he doesn’t (and I can’t imagine he’d have time for all this!), it’s all the same to me. This has been a good thinking exercise for me, so I’m happy. Nothing is wasted in God’s economy. Watch this space for my Q’s and A’s in the weeks to come. Consider writing up your own responses, and do suggest Q’s you wish the Archbishop had asked us.
I’m placing a contact form here, in case you, or the Archbishop, would like to get in touch about this Research Project of mine.
This is a shameless plug for my own book! I’m so excited that Angelico Press has published Souls at Work, and I have high hopes that it will be a blessing to readers. Someone has asked “What kind of book is this?” and it’s hard to put it into a typical category.
It is ‘self-help,’ because I enjoy talking to people who enjoy self-improvement. It is ‘educational,’ because I look at the world through the lens of the classical Trivium and suggest this as a model for self-educators and for teachers. It is ‘Catholic spiritual direction,’ because I strongly believe that your interior life will be much improved by taking on reality in all its forms – art, persons, subjects, buildings and more.
It is ‘poetic,’ because it is meant to give you entrance into my own lived experience, and so is written with a richness of vocabulary and diction that is sadly missing from many 10-bullet-point books. It is ‘hard,’ because it invites you into the adventure of working out your salvation in the rough and tumble tensions of things that are difficult for you. It is a ‘workbook,’ because I ask you to do the work of writing it for yourself (!), or, at least, responding to its questions to make it truly your own.
It is ‘dangerous,’ because there is no true growth or education possible apart from venturing into the unknown territory of the Real World with only our imperfect realization of Christ to guide us. It is ‘Catholic,’ because it is deeply indebted to and respectful of the Faith, and is predicated on my own love for Christ and His teaching magisterium…without being at all a work of theology.
What else? A fountain of youth? Yes. A great conversation starter? Yes. A fun romp through science, art, literature, architecture, and more with, not an expert, but an interested fellow student? Yes. A help in understanding relationship dynamics? Yes. A new perspective on the new evangelization? Yes!
So, as one who is obviously totally unbiased about this book, I highly recommend you get a copy and share the news that it is available. THANKS to all who take the plunge and wade into this ‘invitation to freedom’. Together, Catholic writers and readers must discover what it means for an artist to be, not a law unto herself, but a member of the Body of Christ. I so look forward to your response to this book. Please tell me what kind of book it is when you know!
My whole life is an argument! It’s not that I go around picking fights, but that every choice I make, every action is, in its own way, an argument for choosing that action over other possibilities. This quality of actuality – one judgment realized in concrete form necessarily limits the range of possibility for the next choice – is one reason we keep ideas and virtue locked in a mental tower, and so seldom actualize them in forms, gestures, incontrovertible proofs of what we have thought about.
Thankfully, I don’t live intimately among people who choose quite differently. So, there’s not really much overt argument about my life choices. Every now and then, I realize that my very presence – because of these choices, not because I’m constantly mouthing off about my decisions – is a challenge to someone else.
I know how they feel. I’ve felt it myself – a little defensive in the presence even of someone who has chosen to dress nicer for this party, or go ahead and buy from that company. They might feel a bit wary that their choice for something I clearly chose against might be grounds for exile from my heart, my community, or my regard for them.
Their remedy – if my experience is any indicator – is to be much more clear than people usually are about the whys and wherefores of their own choices. The real challenge is to see that it’s me who needs to shift course when I feel defensive. I need to go over my own reasoning with a teachable spirit (not a combative, internal, self-righteous rehearsal) and then take a calm stand based on my own judgment.
Most important, I need to ‘own my own stuff’ and not attribute my discomfort to the other person, as though he were forcing me to defend myself.
I can stand my high ground, but need to stay free while doing it. Read some surprising reasons why you should argue.
If I could make one book required reading for Catholic parents and educators, it is Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake. In six succinct chapters, he leads readers from the history of education’s disintegration to a vision for its restoration and ‘re-enchantment’. Caldecott’s proposal to return wonder, beauty, integrity and, thus, enchantment to the sphere of education calls for a reawakening of some ancient sensibilities. [Read more…]