“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom”Aristotle
After completing her law degree Shannon decided to switch paths to become a nutrition professional and explore more of the world. Spending the past two and a half years (and counting) living out of a suitcase, Shannon has explored Vietnam, Thailand, Bali, Melbourne, Sydney, Gold Coast, LA, Singapore, Dublin, Naples, Hong Kong, Japan, London, Florida, New Orleans, New York, Hawaii, Madrid, Amsterdam, Taipei, Krakow, Vienna and Lisbon. Shannon believes (and I agree) that her travels have given her a unique perspective on health, fitness, and what it means to live a fulfilling and enjoyable lifestyle.
From a philosophical standpoint, Shannon believes in the consilience of knowledge across different disciplines and has an interest in neuroscience, psychology, philosophy, literature and art. She values truth, strength, compassion, vulnerability, humility, courage and commitment and spends her time reading, thinking, helping and living. Shannon believes in the power of not only third-person, scientific knowledge. But, also, first-person knowledge sourced through introspection.
So as you can see, she’s the perfect for…
It’s great to finally get the chance to do this. I have been looking forward to having a conversation with you for quite some time now, so I’m pleased we are now getting it underway.
We have had a number of cool conversations previously about books, decision-making and health (among other things), but something I’ve wanted to pick your brain about a little more is introspection.
In order to kick things off, I wanted to ask you a few things around that topic, in order to form some context.
So, firstly, let me ask you this: How would you define introspection? Feel free to be as rough or precise as you please.
Additionally, why do you think it is useful and who would it possibly benefit most?
Glad to be here – it’s a mutual pleasure.
I am by no means an expert in this topic, but introspection is something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently so it’s great to be able to discuss this with you. I’m sure you will have some interesting ideas that will get me thinking even more.
Simply put, introspection is a practice we engage in to gain insight into our own minds. It is a way of developing self-knowledge: our understanding of ourselves, our motives and the type of person that we are (or want to be).
Introspection is not a new idea but it’s something that, in my opinion at least, is crucial for navigating the modern world. I fear it’s something we spend increasingly little time doing.
“There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.’’
Benjamin Franklin said this back in 1750; it rings true now more than ever.
We are living in a world of growing complexity and increasing power dynamics, coupled with decreasing sense-making capabilities. I am sure we’ve all experienced many of those ‘what the hell is going on?!’ moments, this year in particular.
With a broken information ecology, we struggle to tell true from false. With big data, AI and the growing reach of social media, we are at mercy of becoming limbically-hijacked without any conscious awareness that this is taking place. Not only is our attention difficult to control but it is directed towards stimuli that is primed to make us think and behave in predictable, predetermined ways. All of that is to say our sense of who we really are and what we truly want is weakening. The worst part is we are barely aware that it is happening.
The world we inhabit is brought into being for us by our brains, which also govern all of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Similarly to how the world changes depending on how we direct our consciousness toward it, I think that we too change when we turn our attention towards ourselves. If we neglect to turn our gaze inwards, we risk losing sight of who we really are, who we want to be and how we want to act.
So to answer your question, I think we would all benefit from directing attention towards our own mental states. Although introspection is a way of gathering information about our internal world, this knowledge affects the way we behave in the outside world. Let’s say that, upon introspection, I determine that my idea of success and fulfilment is biased more towards contributing to the lives of others rather than acquiring things for my own sake. My future actions will be based upon this self-knowledge. I may turn down work that doesn’t align with my aim, I may take more risks as I have fewer needs, or I may look for opportunities which allow me to make a greater impact even when there is little financial return. A failure to turn my gaze inward could leave me subject to the whims directing me towards a more conventional path in an individualistic culture, wondering why I feel lost and unfulfilled.
It’s an ongoing process that we should practice regularly. The brain is a prediction making machine and our internal representations of the world are being constantly updated. Our brains change when we experience different things, or behave in different ways. As our neural networks change through growth and reorganization, we too should do the same.
Introspection changes the way we live our lives, consequently influencing the lives of others and the world that we live in.
Thanks, Shannon, I really like all of that. Your conception of introspection maps onto my own very closely and, when understood in that way, I think opens us up to a greater variety of introspective activities than what many might consider there are available to them. We can return to that point at a later time, however.
The first thing I wanted to mention was I think you touched on something important, without saying it explicitly, that who we are determines not only how we perceive and deal with our own personal matters but also grander and more abstract ones.
What I mean by this is, we may fall into the trap of thinking that introspection is a useful practice for self-related matters — such as why you feel unfilled in your career or why that thing your partner does annoys you so much — but not for matters relating to the external, rather than internal, world. I believe this to be a misconception.
Even when we think of matters (supposedly) not relating to the self — such as the correct way to handle the coronavirus situation from a national or global perspective; whether unregulated immigration is better from an economic and ethical standpoint than the current approach; or a topic pertaining to the physical sciences — our view on these matters is still filtered through our own personal lens.
To me, this is one of the many things that highlight the importance of introspection. We do not become automatically detached from our personal biases just because the matter at hand isn’t a personal one. The self travels with us everywhere, no matter the terrain we are exploring.
This suggests to me that any acquisition of knowledge about the external world that isn’t coupled to an increase of knowledge or awareness about one’s self, may, in fact, be some sort of illusion — the trading of one myth for another. It seems to me that you can only observe the external world more clearly by achieving greater clarity of yourself. The truth is not hidden, per se, only that we hide it from ourselves — consciously or otherwise.
If you have any thoughts on that, please do let me know. With that said, however, this brings me to the next question I wanted to get your take on: What are some common misconceptions about, or mistakes people make when it comes to introspection?
As an example, I think one should be careful not to slip too far into Freudian-like psychoanalysis, hypothesising and speculating on all kinds of indeterminate causes based only on the observed effects. But I won’t say any more, I shall pass it over to you in order to hear your thoughts first.
You made a really important point about how even our views on seemingly impersonal matters are tainted by our own personal lens. The self travels with us everywhere, no matter the terrain we are exploring. I really like how you put this and I think this idea is extremely important. We cannot separate ourselves from our own biases, we can only seek to be more aware of them. One’s understanding of the world will always be shaped by one’s experience and as such, one’s perspectives can never be complete. This doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as we are aware of this fact.
In my opinion, one of the biggest misconceptions about introspection is something you’ve already alluded to: the belief that introspection is a useful practice for self-related matters only. I don’t think this could be further from the truth. A truly significant benefit of introspection is the impact it can have on our wider society. Our internal world influences how we interpret the external world but also how we respond to it. I think this is a fundamental point that may not be obvious, so let me explain.
The physical reality of the world exists regardless of whether or not we believe in it, how accurate our understanding of it is, or how we decide to explain it. The sun rose each morning long before we knew why, or before we had an account of what that bright shiny thing in the sky was. In the past, we created stories and myths involving solar-deities or sun-gods in order to make sense of this. Now we explain sunrise and sunset in relation to Earth’s elliptical orbit and the tilt of its axis. The physical reality of the world remains the same; only our understanding of it has changed. The crucial thing is that it doesn’t go away if we stop believing in it.
Our social reality is slightly different. This environment is something that we have constructed ourselves. It changes over time and it also changes depending on our whereabouts in the world. An individual’s social reality reflects his or her belief-set, and we tend to coordinate with others around a shared set of beliefs. We exchange pieces of paper and coins for material goods, assets and resources because we’ve constructed the commodity of money. A commodity which could be meaningless in an alternative world but gains tremendous power in our social reality because we believe in it and fight for it. Multiple social realities may exist at once, but only if enough people believe in them.
Introspection is important precisely because our minds and the environment we live in are inextricably linked. We tend to shape our environment depending on how we think of the world and the values and beliefs we hold.
This graphic illustrates the point quite nicely:
If we believe that GDP per capita is the best measure for quality of life, the more we will build a society that is aimed at generating a higher GDP (assuming that we value improving our quality of life). If we determined that quality of life meant something different, this would have profound implications for the way we construct society.
The crucial point is that society is a macrocosm of the individual, not the other way around. We are not a sub-element of society but rather, society is an emergent property of human interaction. When we conceive of society in this way, we realise that we have a huge responsibility to live our own life honestly by paying attention to our own experiences. We are reflections of the world around us, but the world itself is also a reflection of us. I would not be the first to suggest that many of the issues that we face in the world today are not a disease of the state, but a disease of the soul.
Although Freud had some pretty radical ideas, he was onto something when he brought the idea of Das Umbeweusst, the unconscious mind, into the spotlight. Human behaviour is the product of an endless stream of perceptions, feelings, and thoughts, at both the conscious and the unconscious levels. Through introspection, we gather information about our internal world to facilitate a deeper understanding of the external world, and to determine for ourselves how we should act.
What mistakes do people make when it comes to introspection? Failing to do it at all.
I really enjoyed all of that — the third paragraph, in particular. It reminded me of the kind of passage that one would find in Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World” — and I mean that as the highest of praise. While you touched on the idea beautifully, it would be remiss of me not to use this as an excuse to reference one of my favourite quotes by Philip K. Dick: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”
I also agree with your statement: “We cannot separate ourselves from our own biases, we can only seek to be more aware of them.” However, I am inclined to think that we can word this even more strongly. Let me slightly tweak what you have said and then please tell me if you agree or where you think I’ve gone wrong.
The idea I would like to propose is that humans are not actually biased, but, instead, we are biases. I forget exactly where I first discovered this line of reasoning, so I (unfortunately) cannot credit the source — though, I do believe it came from Rob Bensinger from the Machine Intelligence Research Institute if memory serves.
When I say that humans are biases I am not trying to make a romantic claim to mediocrity here — “this is how we are; therefore, it’s ok” — but it should be recognised that biases are not only a source of error in our perception, but fundamentally who we are.
I think it is correct to say that our biases are what give us our personality and character, among other things. An introvert is biased in certain ways, a morally upstanding person in others. I think it follows that our beliefs about the world are as much a product of our biases as any other personal-characteristic. So far, I don’t think you would disagree with this, however, the crucial point I am getting at is: We could say that a rational person is biased in ways that an irrational person isn’t. The rational person has different biases, not the absence of them.
If we did not have biases — which we could possibly consider “preferences” — our thoughts and behaviour would be completely random. Even then, though, it could be said that we have a bias towards randomness or away from consistency.
I mention this because I think this is a point of irremovable unity between the external and internal world. Because we cannot rid ourselves of biases, perhaps it is more productive to ask one’s self, “What biases would serve me best? What internal state would generate the most real-world utility?” It is likely that the default settings are not the optimum.
To be explicit, the most concrete example — that I can think of, at least — would be a bias towards what is true. A subsequent example could be a preference for more evidence rather than less before a threshold of belief is breached. Another could be a tendency to not speculate or form rigid ideas early in an investigatory process, even if it seems tempting or safe to do so.
These are almost certainly not perfect, but they are likely superior to default-settings such as: What I think is correct because I think it; The right thing (such as good and/or fair outcomes) is what will happen; I am less biased than the average person, and; The thing that is most easy to imagine occurring is what did or will occur.
Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that we think these thoughts consciously, only that they are, in essence, what our thoughts are — whether we realise it or not. This seems to be your opinion as well, given your comment on bringing awareness to these things.
This, to me, at least, demonstrates the importance of introspection. In order to help ameliorate our counterproductive biases, we must first become aware of them and then in which direction they skew — a different correction process is used for a car that consistently pulls left in comparison to one that consistently pulls right; let alone one that overheats or has braking issues.
Again, to me, this is the role of introspection. Just because the cognitive science literature says that “on average, humans demonstrate x amount of confirmation bias and anchor their beliefs by about y percent” doesn’t mean that you do. You are a human, not the average of studied humans. For this reason, it is introspection that helps us locate these personal biases, and as such, unveiling who we really are. Introspection then lays the foundation for us selecting better alternatives and providing a platform for who we want to become.
Building on this, I’m also appreciative that you mentioned the word “perspective.” I think this is going to be one of the key-words for the 21st century, due to its many implications relating to open-mindedness and how we perceive and analyse information. I feel that while most pay lip-service to the importance of recognising that our view is only one perspective, I don’t think many of us — including myself, at times — understand this point in all of its important implications.
What I mean by this, is that the phenomenon of perspective is how we represent the 3-dimensional world in 2-dimensions, such as on a canvas or in our field of vision. Crucially, however, doing so causes what is being represented to lose information — not just some superficial details, but an entire dimension. The classic “train-tracks heading over the horizon” is an easy example to use here. When we look at — or paint — train tracks, which are parallel, heading over the horizon, they end up converging at a single point. However, this is not how the train tracks are, only how we represent them. This creates the perception of depth in a 2D space, but as I said, we have categorically lost information from the 3D world (or, at least, altered it so that it fits the medium through which we represent it).
In a very similar way, our beliefs about a 3-dimensional world are represented in 2-dimensions. I believe this point should make us cautious about how certain we are about what we think is true. A skilled painter, no matter how talented, still paints a 3D world in 2D — meaning that the world is not how they represent it, no matter how realistically portrayed. Just like you said: “…one’s perspectives can never be complete. This doesn’t have to be a problem, as long as we are aware of this fact.”
Finally, to your point about Freud, I completely agree. I think Freud is rightfully considered a revolutionary in that regard. However, as I hinted at, I think there are some significant errors that are made in the name of Freud’s work. The utility of Freud’s work and introspection is, in my view, similar to the common argument for “Intelligent Design.”
This argument essentially translates to, “If a watch is found, then one can infer the existence of a watchmaker.” This line of reasoning is fine as far as it goes and is somewhat applicable to our own psychology, by which we could say something like: “If an unpleasant emotion is found, an unpleasant cause or some kind of deficiency can be inferred.”
Where this goes wrong, however, is when those inferences are made in an unrestricted or improbable manner. This was Freud’s error, I believe. What Freud did — and many others also since — is the psychological analogue of finding a watch and inferring the existence of Atlantis.
This is also the major error — excluding not doing it at all — that I think is made when it comes to introspection. Exploring your own psychological world can be extremely useful; creating ad hoc explanations for what you find is typically not.
If I were to distil it down, I would say that introspection is the mental act of noticing effects within one’s self, and progressively attributing more probable causes to those effects, so that one can more reliably generate the outcomes that they truly desire.
The Demon-Haunted World is one of those books that really opened my eyes and changed the way that I think, so to be associated with Carl Sagan’s writing is a huge compliment! Thank you for that.
I had never thought of humans as being biases before this point. Now that you have made the case so clearly, I can’t see how it could be any other way. You and I do not have more or less biases than one another, just different varieties of them. I believe you are correct; it is who we are.
I do believe, however, that our biases, like our preferences, are not set in stone. We can become more rational, for example, by shifting from a bias towards certainty (with a low threshold of evidence accumulation) to a bias towards the truth (with a higher threshold of evidence accumulation and more tentative belief formation).
I think that you would agree with this. As you say, introspection is a way for us to determine whether our biases are serving us in the way that we would want them to. When we introspect, we are seeking to discover who we currently are, and when we do, we may be surprised to find someone who we do not wish to be.
In general, humans have a tendency to want to maintain their own self-concept. We might think of ourselves as honest but tell small lies when there is a gain to be made . We are motivated to appear moral, yet remain focused on self-benefit . Crucially, we tend to evaluate others differently from ourselves . These differences are often the root of conflict. Closely evaluating our own behaviours can help us to paint more accurate pictures of ourselves, although to do so requires vulnerability and honesty. If we can see that we are not as virtuous as we’d like to believe, perhaps we won’t be as conflicted towards others.
Following on from this, you touched on the increasing importance of open-mindedness. This has implications in the moral realm. I know you are familiar with Jonathan Haidt, who defines moral intuition as:
“The sudden appearance in consciousness, or at the fringe of consciousness, of an evaluative feeling (like-dislike, good-bad) about the character or actions of a person, without any conscious awareness of having gone through steps of search, weighing evidence, or inferring a conclusion” .
We tend to judge people based on our own gut feelings about their observable behaviours. If we had greater access to our internal thoughts, feelings, and intentions, we may start to question them. We may become less attached to our way of viewing things and develop a greater appreciation for others. We may learn to tolerate, or even learn from and celebrate, the way in which we are all differentially biased. As Frans De Waal, the Dutch primatologist, states: The more self-aware an animal is, the more empathic it tends to be.
As you have so beautifully demonstrated, our own perceptions are limited representations of reality. I think it is fair to say that often these perceptions are inadequate. At times, perhaps it would be of our benefit to actively seek out the perspective of biases that differ from our own. Maybe we would gain greater depth, and see more detail, of the train tracks in the horizon. That should be of interest to us, given that we are all on that train together, headed in that direction.
With that said, I’d like to come round to one of the final points you made. Creating ad hoc explanations for what you find when you introspect does little to serve you. Unfortunately, it’s something that we are quite good at.
I think we limit ourselves by introspecting on our thoughts and behaviours and keeping these findings to ourselves. We may learn to get pretty good at noticing these effects within ourselves but that doesn’t necessarily lead to the attribution of probable causes to those effects. Given our limitations and tendencies towards the preservation of self-concept, I believe that there is much to be gained from sharing our insights into our own thoughts and behaviours with others. They can help us to interpret our biases and offer explanations that may not have occurred to ourselves.
Do you have any thoughts on that?
I think you put all of that very well, and I am in vast agreement with what you’ve said.
For instance, I share your view that our biases and preferences can be changed. If our biases are who we are, and who we are can change over time, then one could reasonably suppose that our biases and preferences have, therefore, changed. Overall, this is an observation that calls for optimism.
I also agree with your claim about humans being less perfect than they would like to think, as well as your reasoning that becoming more aware of these imperfections should allow us to better tolerate the same flaws in others. The Bible famously states, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” however, in the absence of sufficient introspection and self-awareness, one could very easily succumb to the illusion that they are sinless, and thus, are justified in their stone-casting. The less of this there is in the world the better.
I’m also very glad you mentioned Jonathon Haidt and moral-intuition; I think his work is of great import — as you well and truly know. To build on those ideas, I will add a passage from Robert Sapolsky’s Behave that I think is extremely relevant in this regard. It demonstrates the way we can gloss over, or forgo, the reasoning process of our moral intuitions — among other conclusions we use to navigate life:
“Consider two value-laden approaches to what to do to a cow: (A) eat it; (B) worship it. Two As or two Bs would be more peaceful when sorting out cow options than an A and B together. What might reliably mark someone who uses approach A? Maybe a Stetson and cowboy boots. And a B person? Perhaps a sari or a Nehru jacket.
Those markers were initially arbitrary — nothing about the object called a sari intrinsically suggests a belief that cows are sacred because a god tends them. And there’s no inevitable link between carnivory and a Stetson’s shape — it keeps the sun out of your eyes and off your neck, useful whether you tend cows because you love steak or because Lord Krishna tended cows. … And then something happens with those arbitrary markers. We (e.g., primates, rats, Pavlov’s dogs) can be conditioned to associate something arbitrary, like a bell, with a reward. As the association solidifies, is the ringing bell still “just” a marker symbolizing impending pleasure, or does it become pleasurable itself?
Elegant work related to the mesolimbic dopamine system shows that in a substantial subset of rats, the arbitrary signal itself becomes rewarding. Similarly, an arbitrary symbol of an Us core value gradually takes on a life and power of its own, becoming the signified instead of the signifier. Thus, for example, the scattering of colors and patterns on cloth that constitutes a nation’s flag becomes something that people will kill and die for.”
This passage is profound for many reasons, however, for our purposes here, it gives us a great insight into how we can begin to conflate the symbol and what it is symbolising.
Very commonly, we experience strong visceral emotions towards — and, subsequently, cast equally strong judgments about — people and things to which we have minimal information regarding. Both in the positive and negative direction. Not only do we fail to hire the best candidate for a position because they subscribe to different media sources than we do, but we also fall in love with the sociopath because he, too, loves reading.
We perceive a style of dress, a preferred cuisine or the presence of a tattoo and arrive almost instantaneously at a conclusion that we do or do not like this person/group and what they stand for; almost completely devoid of any conscious reasoning process. However, if we are not sufficiently introspective and aware of this, we can become almost permanently guilty of judging the proverbial book by its cover.
Moving on from that, I would like to say that I agree with your comment: “I think it is fair to say that often these perceptions are inadequate. At times, perhaps it would be of our benefit to actively seek out the perspective of biases that differ from our own.”
Here, I think we see something interesting. Take the often maligned confirmation bias for example. At the individual level, a bias towards confirmation tends to be a bug in our truth-seeking software. However, at the group level — where multiple divergent view-points exist — confirmation bias may possibly be considered a feature. This is because confirmation bias allows for the most thorough and robust construction of differing arguments; however, this presupposes the presence of “good faith” debates — a non-trivial matter.
However, if philosophical inquiry — rather than status-games — is the primary intention of those undertaking a debate on a particular topic, then confirmation bias allows for the division of labour when it comes to exploring various hypotheses and the strands of evidence which support them.
A simple analogy could be that you and I are both standing in the kitchen with the goal of locating your backpack. I believe you left your backpack in the living room, whereas you think that you left it in the laundry. In typical confirmation-bias fashion, we both attempt to test our hypotheses in a manner that will yield a “yes,” a confirmatory-result. So you go and search the laundry; and I, the living room.
Now, provided that we agree to meet back in the kitchen, reporting what we found and sufficiently trust the other — all the “acting in good faith” stuff — then we are benefited by the presence of different and individual confirmation biases. If neither of us privileged our own model of the world over that of the other, believing that we both have equal claim to the truth, we would end up exploring the same territory as the other at the same time.
I understand that this analogy breaks down a little bit, as that is not the practically correct way to try and locate a lost item when you have two people capable of looking for it, but this is essentially what the reasoning dictates. If you and I genuinely believe each other’s viewpoint is of as equivalent weight as our own, then eventually we would settle on a prioritised list of rooms to sequentially search alongside each other because we both think that it is most likely that the backpack is in the garage, and if not, next most likely in the study — and so on.
Additionally, in the presence of confirmation bias, when I return to the kitchen and report to you that your backpack wasn’t in the living room, you can be pretty damn sure that what I have said is true, with a high level of confidence. I would have walked into the living room and, upon first glance, noticed that the backpack wasn’t there. Then — in order to try and prove myself correct — I begin looking under tables, in between cushions on the couch and anywhere else I think that a backpack could possibly be.
Here, we see that due to confirmation bias, I more rigorously explore the “evidential space” — which is the living room in this instance. You, too, would be doing a similar thing in the laundry. When these intense individual efforts of exploration are combined, we have a sum of knowledge that is far greater, per unit of time taken to acquire it, than if we had both explored the same room at the same time, in an unmotivated fashion.
At the risk of continuing to beat the same drum, here, again, I see the value of introspection. When we apply this analogy of backpack-seeking to all our intellectual endeavours, we observe there is some utility in confirmation biases; both our own and those of others. However, in order to capitalise on this, we must create the ability to get outside of the bias at times, learning to make use of it, and not just live within it. Alternatively, if we don’t ever develop the ability to get outside our own confirmation bias, then we are never going to learn anything else; we already know it all.
Finally, I am massively in favour of your suggestion to share introspective insights with others and cross-check your conclusions. I think this is a highly productive way to: 1) review your own interpretive processes by contrasting them with others, and 2) simply arrive at better conclusions. Both the process and the outcome can be improved via this process.
Additionally, I think writing down your thoughts can serve a similar purpose. While I am completely in agreement with your points about the preservation of our self-concept, we still are different at different points in time — due to a whole host of reasons. Because of this, even if you weren’t to share your thoughts with others, only yourself, you could still gain many of the benefits of sharing with yourself at a later time. This allows a different perspective also, thanks to the dimension of time. This act of journaling and reviewing it at a later date essentially achieve the benefit of a different person’s perspective on something you are dealing with, without ever needing to share your most private thoughts with anyone else.
Would this be your view of journaling? And also, now that we have discussed many of the benefits of introspection, what are some ways that you think people can work on this process and develop the skill?
I have to say, Behave is another banger of a book. The implications of confusing the symbol for the symbolised are quite profound, and not just in how we relate to others. I often think about this in relation to goal pursuit. It’s very easy to get caught up in chasing an arbitrary marker because we believe that it signifies something that might benefit us, only to find that it wasn’t what we thought it would be, but we continue to pursue it anyway.
To put it another way, goals are checkpoints that help us to orient ourselves towards a direction that we would like to head. They are not the direction itself. The distinction is important; it allows us to drop goals when they are no longer taking us in the right direction. Without the insight gained from introspection, we might not realise we have been heading the wrong way.
You have offered some brilliant examples of how our thoughts and emotions are intertwined. The view that humans are totally rational beings who rely solely on logic and reason to make judgements and decisions is a narrow view of cognition. A broader understanding of cognition recognises that many of these processes are shaped by aspects of our entire bodies, such as our biological states and interactions we have with our environments. This is something that rational empiricism misses, but an important point to consider if we are to understand our thought processes.
I am glad you mentioned that we are all different at different moments in time — this is precisely why I think introspection is so important. Otherwise, we may become rigidly attached to the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, and forget that we only exist in relation to everything else, which is constantly changing. For this reason, I share your thoughts on journaling, and that is why I think it’s an important skill to develop.
Start by asking yourself some questions: How am I feeling right now? What am I thinking about?
One of the biggest barriers is simply putting pen to paper. I am quite a fan of stream of consciousness writing — simply writing down everything is swirling around in your head. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The point is just to give it a go and see what you find.
Another point I would add is to slow down. Much of our deep thinking occurs when we’re not actively focused on tasks or constantly going from one thing to the next. I can’t stress this enough. I believe this is difficult to do. It’s something I often have to remind myself of.
Lastly, I would encourage people to remember the purpose of introspection: to understand ourselves better in order to change the way we interact with others and the world around us. We’re not looking for answers, we’re looking for clues. It’s important to take these insights and apply them to your life.
Iain McGilchrist, in Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and Making of The Western World, captures this perfectly when he says the following:
‘To live headlong, at ground level, without being able to pause… is to be like an animal; yet to float off up into the air is not to live at all – just to be a detached observing eye. One needs to bring what one has learned from one’s ascent back into the world where life is going on, and incorporate it in such a way that it enriches experience’.
I don’t think we will ever fully understand ourselves, or why we do the things we do. With that said, I still believe we stand to gain a lot by trying.
I think that is the perfect way to end things Shannon. You have offered a lot of value and presented many great insights. Thanks again for your time and I look forward to more discussions in the future.
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