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Posts Tagged ‘Metacognition’

Within a turbulant economy and in the midst of an individualist culture, people feel the pressure to find different ways to make themselves an appealing investment for a company. When the social loses its significance in joint creation of wellbeing, people turn to themselves for help. People seek to better themselves in a number of ways during their free time as well as at work. A somewhat ridiculous example of the pressure for self-development and self-help on the modern information worker are the gyms offering treadmills not with TV shows to lookat but simultaneous brain training games. Sounds appealing, enhance your cognitive capacity AND do your cardio at the same time!

Extremes aside, people do invest a lot of time and effort into becoming better and feeling better at what they do. In essence, this is a positive trend, highlighting personal responsibility and ability in self-development. However, with all the offerings and help for self-improvement out there, one may get a little lost, like in the gym example above.

How do you know when and what type of self-development is needed? A simple answer is: when contentment ends. When viewed from an environmental perspective, sometimes there are rules in play that force action that is not good for you or at the end for the environment. This is the case for instance when an employee has to work in an organization according to rules that she feels are not supporting her best efforts; lord knows how many people are at the moment doing for example work in a manner they know is not their best, in unsatisfactory circumstances, or with people they feel are not helping. However, there is no need to succumb to the situation. These are moments where the rules have reached their limits, they are inadequate and do not serve a purpose. These situations open a window of possibility for change: the possibility to take a step back, observe the situation, revise and transcend.

It is quite easy to notice rules and restrictions in your operating environment that make you unhappy and inhibit your success. Discontent about your own actions or thought processes is however easily subdued or avoided. Noticing what inhibits yourself from being better in your surroundings as well as in your own thoughts is vital for going forward. There is no reason people could not step back, observer, revise and transcend in their own minds as well.

What is it that separates highly successful individuals, excellent performance or wellbeing from their opposites? Luck or circumstance, the predispositions caused by individual genetic makeup and the environment, such as the networks we choose to belong to and build, all play their part. However the individual is not a dummy but a willful agent in the world. What are the actions that a person can take that help reach excellence and be better?

It seems that in the end te answer is very simple – reaching good quality and continuing development require: 1) challenging your own views about what you are doing 2) recognizing points of discontentment 3) making a conscious effort to do things better and 3) using your time correctly. Seems pretty manageable. But when looking at the popularity of services and consultation telling people to do just this, it also seems we need some help in the process.

The thing that connects most self-development programs, psychotherapies, meditation, yoga, life-coaching and career counseling, basically anything that promises you development, wellbeing, problem solving is that they aim at making use of the mind is “a combinatorial and recursive system” with the metacognitive capacity to have thoughts about thoughts as well as thoughts about thoughts about thoughts (you can continue this sentence for as far as your metacognitive capacity permits).

Recognizing and developing this particular cognitive capacity would be the first step for any person aiming at developing either outer or inner faculties. It would help in all the steps needed: noticing where and how things could be better in your own actions, understanding what is needed for improvement, what you do not yet know and how you could find this information as well as finding ways to motivate yourself into action. It seems that the power for becoming better is an innate faculty and one that to a great length defines human nature. Without clear and insuperable environmental or deeply rooted genetic obstacles for development, we find there are no more excuses…

 

 

Thank you Linda Nordberg and Vesa Putkinen

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The importance of recovery from work-related stress in supporting personal wellbeing has been widely researched in health and organizational psychology. The mechanisms for recovery can be divided into psychological detachment, relaxation, mastery and experiencing control. The recently held annual Psychology Congress of Finland provided detailed insight especially about the mechanisms and effects of psychological detachment in relieving job related stress. The information in this text about psychological detachment and its effects on wellbeing is based on the articles and work of Dr Sabine Sonnetag.

Psychological detachment can simply be defined as not thinking about work-related issues after work hours. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing has been thoroughly researched as well as the characteristics of different kinds of employees and the ways they handle work related stress. The relationship between detachment and wellbeing is evident through for instance decrease in fatigue and negative affect. Detachment is especially important when job demands and time pressure are high. However, it has been found that employees who highly identify themselves with their work, and could thus be expected to also experience high job demands and time pressure, do not use detachment as a way to relieve job stress as much as people with less personal identification with work. It seems that the people most in need of the protective influence of detachment have a relationship to work that makes detaching somewhat impossible.

When thinking about modern information intensive work that pervades the typical limits of working hours and places, it may be that it will present individuals with increasing challenges for recovery from stress by detachment. What to do when work is no longer defined by work hours and work roles that can be isolated from other facets of life? Is high job-related stress inevitable when people find work in which they wish to immerse?

It seems intuitively reasonable that thinking about work related matters during non-work time, or failing at detachment, may increase experience of work-related stress. However, the pathological nature of work-related thoughts is difficult to comprehend: What is the difference between thinking about a concept that has to do with what you do for a living than for instance one about your leisure time interests? Is the pathology of work-related thinking created more by loss of control over thought processes than the contents of the thoughts themselves?

Loss of control over thoughts is a characteristic of the mind that is already noted as a factor in many mental illnesses. Increasing control over thought processes is a major goal of many psychotherapies and as a part of metacognition a vital cognitive process in learning and intelligent human function. Increasing metacognitive awareness and skills could provide a way for busy people to support wellbeing despite high immersion in work. Especially activation of negative work-related thoughts has been connected with increased fatigue and negative affect. Using metacognitive skills and control to stop negative thought cycles about work-related issues, identifying the most important things to think about and recognizing their influence on emotions and wellbeing would provide concrete and powerful internal tools to support stress management in lack of possibilities for detachment.

What could help in creating a sense of detachment in highly engaging information intensive work is finding a new way of thinking about work. People’s lives are in any case filled with a constantly transforming mass of subject matters and tasks. Some tasks and subjects are defined as work and people are rewarded money for letting these take up their time and brain activity. Some for instance have to do with hobbies and can activate a person and take up time and energy without any direct monetary consequences. A person’s work can in itself contain profuse tasks and subject matters varying in how motivating, challenging and rewarding they are. If the tasks that make up leisure time and the tasks that make up work would lose their imaginary boundary of definition, there is no reason why thinking about one work-related subject matter could not produce detachment from another. When thinking of tasks in this way, there would actually be no reason to specifically strive for detachment. Everything a person does is transient attachment, to different kinds of parties, matters and with different material and non-material consequences. For true stress relief and long-lasting wellbeing, it would be best to create as much positive, energizing and rewarding attachment as possible within and outside work-related circles. Detachment from one thing happens by itself through attachment to another.

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Photo credit: vanlaar, Flickr

The concept of self, the dynamics of the mind and the mechanisms of consciousness are ideas which, despite great advances in cognitive neuroscience and psychology, still remain unexplained. People operate smoothly in everyday life through these functions but their definition still somehow escapes the logic and reasoning of which minds are capable.

When a person becomes interested in taking a deeper look at his thought processes or in understanding the personal meaning of his existence, more questions may arise than answers. If thought processes or the feelings tied to them do not define who a person or what his mind is, what then does? If a person is for example able to separate the definition of his self from a maladaptive thought content and decide to attach it to a different thought content with more positive ramifications, what is the stable part of the self that defines who a person is?

The only thing that is stable, continuous and that one can truly be certain of is the experience of “I am”. The pure feeling of existence or existing is stable throughout life, while the cells in our body change and the functions of the mind undergo huge developments. The feeling of existence is the only thing that you can really count on and as such may be a great source of comfort and energy. When recognized, it can provide a feeling of continuation in the midst of the relentless transience of other aspects of life.

Many philosophies and even some religions concentrate on definition of the self, the soul or human existence. Some psychological constructs such as metacognition provide ways to cultivate self-perception and awareness, but ultimately it seems that the mind cannot be defined by thought functions generated within it. The self cannot be wholly defined and explained by the mind’s functions, because in the end, the self is more than only a collection of intellectual and emotional constructs.

Scientific attempts to define consciousness and the self are very rare even within psychology that as a science strives to analyze and explain human behavior. Most research concentrates on models of neural interaction, neurological correlates to psychological events or theoretical models of psychological functions. A comprehensive explanation of what the mechanisms that produce a concept of self are or how consciousness could be explained are apparently too vast questions about too ill-defined constructs for research. A quick search through one article database returned only 4 articles, with two of them concentrating on coma.

One brave article on the concept of self relies on the theory awareness and consciousness as only be by-products of neural interaction. According to this principle of organizational invariance for example replacing any or all of the neurons in a human brain with microchips that have the exact same excitatory and inhibitory functions as the neurons would not alter consciousness as a phenomenon. This idea starts coming pretty close to esoteric concepts of cosmic consciousness but takes us quite far from trying to understand specifically human existence. It seems that whilst waiting for means of more refined measurement of the mind and the brain, all that people can do is speculate.

So what is the point of this kind of thinking? It may not be fruitful action to spend the majority of one’s time thinking about how to define the self and one’s existence. However,  as a thought for the mind to experience, these kinds of themes may provide a refreshing sense of release. Thoughts and feelings as events happening in the mind have such definitive and profound effects of people’s lives. They can be detrimental to the point of making someone seriously ill and on the other hand support long-lasting wellbeing and success in life. Recognizing the tremendous power and simultaneously the temporary nature of these internal constructions helps in creating a healthy perspective on life events. With more distance between the definition of self and the ongoing dynamic of feeling and thought, getting past negative happenings and concentrating on positive ones can become easier. Finding a more stable concept of self that does not follow the rollercoaster of emotional experience can provide a sense of security and enhance trust in oneself.

The nature of consciousness equips people with the ability to have control over their own thoughts and with the power of choice. The means to create happiness are within peoples’ minds but the point of access may be tricky to find. There is huge potential within every mind but at the same time the time for discovery is very limited. The distractions of everyday life take us along easily and most of the time in the midst of all this hurry it seems like a waste of time to take a moments to try and explain one’s existence. Maybe only posing the question from time to time is enough. Taking some time to ask and question vague concepts like meaning and existence can give the self a little holiday from endless definition and outer requirements.

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Photo credit: Todd Huffman

Meditation, mindfulness, awareness, consciousness and metacognition are terms appearing in different contexts and defined through different schools of thought. They all refer to processes within the mind that have to do with the mind itself. They all try to increase knowledge about the self and help find some degree of control over or release from the automatic verbal and nonverbal hum generated by neural networks in the brain. The idea is that through self-awareness, release and increased knowledge, more control and autonomy can be experienced. A person can more fully concentrate on the most important thoughts at the moment and choose to feel better by centering on adaptive feelings and mindstates.

The brain never sleeps. It continuously goes over information recorded in activity of neural networks, rearranging and combining it with past experience and producing future predictions. Meditation techniques that aim at silencing the brain usually actually result in immense activation because the brain cannot cease doing what it is built for. The brain does not want to be quiet because the fluctuations of activation and deactivation are what define its existence. And as people typically relate the self to activity of the brain, the brain’s activity defines the existence of the whole person. Trying to silence the brain can therefore result in a quite discomforting feeling of nonexistence.

In addition to endless activity, the brain does not understand the word “no”. When your try not to think of something, the mental image of the “thing” will automatically be produced in the mind. There is then, no sense to try and stop the brain from producing for example maladaptive thoughts or feelings. This will only result in activation of their representations in the mind as well as the negative feelings associated with them. Trying to actively stop thinking depressive thoughts will only result in a mind full of depressive thoughts.

However, the ongoing automatic and responsive activity of the brain naturally contains many levels of control and awareness. When there are maladaptive thought processes or mindstates that a person wishes not to experience, what needs to happen is a shift in the level of awareness and a change in feelings towards indifference. Through recognition of malign thought processes, a person can gradually learn to view them more objectively and detach emotion from thought content, which leads to deactivation of the thought and more infrequent appearance in the mind. Techniques that increase self-awareness are thus also the core of many types of psychotherapy. Problems of the mind can be cured by consciously altering processes of the mind.

Although thinking about the functions of the brain and awareness of thought processes may feel detached from normal life, there is a lot of which people without specific problems can make use.  Approaching the workings of one’s mind in a more relaxed and objective state is beneficial for not only people with thought processes disturbing mental health but for everyone. For example, increasing metacognitive awareness and metacognitive skills can support learning . Becoming more aware of own thought processes helps identify the way that knowledge is constructed in the mind. It helps answer questions like: ”That do I know?” ”What do I not know?” ”How could I understand this better?” and ”Where could I find this information?”.

Information intensive work typically requires functioning within hypermedia contexts. Even the more conservative companies have now evolved into complex organizations with numerous parallel processes through which employees have to define their work. When thinking about the nature of modern work it becomes evident that the amount of specific knowledge that people have is actually less important as flexibility of thought and use of metacognition. To succeed it is more essential to understand how to make use of available resources, how to develop oneself and operate within different contexts. Information contents do not matter as much as the employees’ flexibility in using them and viewing their personal contribution from different points of view.

Developing oneself through meditation, increasing self-awareness and training metacognitive skills are not only for those in therapy or those quitting work and leaving for India to become enlightened. They are ordinary human skills that are already needed in day-to-day work. There are ample possibilities for learning more about self-awareness and a lot of scientific and non-scientific information available from studies on metacognition to yogic philosophy about self-awareness and enlightenment. What is still missing is an integration of this knowledge into leadership and management. Ideas about personnel development and wellbeing are typically somewhat regarded as expendable or additional on top of “real work”. However, as metacognition is becoming a vital skill for knowledge workers, companies should consider integrating more metacognitive and awareness-supporting elements into their basic functions. Luckily with the abundance of different types of software and platforms, there are many possibilities to further this kind of thinking and integrate it into the core functions of work. In the future, instead of arranging for separate personal development programs, working itself can contain functions that increase awareness, wellbeing and learning.

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Coaching is a term that is used for various kinds of services aimed at promoting personal development and providing support for making good career choices.Coaching as a service is easy to approach. It does not sound as threatening as counseling or therapy even though they are all based on problem-solving interaction between people and try to produce change in thought processes and life situations. In addition, when considering the form, general aims of interaction and factors determining efficacy of all these services, they come very close to each other.

Several studies have shown that the framework or theory behind coaching and also behind therapy is not the critical factor in achieving good results – good results meaning actual change in thoughts, feelings and behaviour. The critical factor is the relationship between the coach and the client: if the client feels that she can trust the coach, good results will be guaranteed.  How can this trust be created?  One basic issue that builds trust is the expertise and experience of the coach and that these aspects come forth naturally in interaction – the coach is able to signal her expertise to the client.

Trust can also be created actively by using special techniques in interaction. These techniques are taught in many therapy trainings and during basic practical studies in psychology and include active listening, reading “between the lines” and acting upon nonverbal messages as well as signaling understanding. Although the factors and techniques behind professionalism can be singled out and taught, the best measure of expertise in people-related services is personal experience of the service.

Through personal experience of being a client in coaching, I have discovered that a trustworthy coach is straightforward and honest (not too diplomatic) and has a genuine trust in that the wanted change can be achieved.  During the past year two coaches have truly made an impression.  They were both very experienced and had a lot of knowledge about psychology but in addition to this they were both also very good at finding and bringing forth the most important questions to be tackled. In fact, very seldom were specific answers given to these questions during the coaching sessions. What was more important was the process that had begun during the sessions that made it possible for answers to start appearing one by one.

Another specific skill that these coaches had that made them excellent professionals was that they could easily recognize and adapt to different moods or problem areas at hand. Excellent coaches adapt efficiently to differing needs of different customers and their individual situations. They must also take many roles during one coaching process. For example, usually in the beginning they need to be an understanding and listening  “mother “ in order to help people clarify their thoughts and get a better understanding of the challenge at hand. An essential part of coaching is also being “a career counselor” who is able to help the client in converting her thoughts into attainable goals and outline several paths leading to these goals. Knowing what to do is essential but we also need to act upon this knowledge and this is where the role of the “father” comes in and becomes realized in feedback about fruitful and not so fruitful actions.

There are many steps that the coach has to take in order to enable smooth and customer-oriented approach in the actual coaching situation. Some examples of skills needed in coaching are understanding the message of client, understanding what she does yet know in order to comprehend the big picture and being able to find relevant questions based on this information. In general, the coach has to understand what the client wants to achieve and why, even though it would be something very different from the coach’s values.  She must also be able to see the meaning, rational and positive aspects in the client’s thoughts even though they would be very different from her own.

From the viewpoint of the coach the most important skills to develop are metacognition and self-awareness. They permit identifying the emotions of others and stepping into different roles from which to meet the needs of the client. In work that highlights personality and interaction, the tool to develop is the self, and luckily in this area, there is always room for development and refinement.

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An image of "brainbows", neurons in the mouse cerebral cortex. Photo credit: Livet et al/PA Wire

The need for new innovations and the need to foster creativity in teams is manifest in many organizations. What can organizations and their employees do to be more innovative?

Creativity is usually seen as an obscure characteristic that people are or are not born with. As other personal characteristics, creativity is difficult to measure and usually people just arrive at dichotomous observations about it – “that guy is really creative” or “I’m not creative at all”. However, if creativity is viewed as change and learning that occur within people and between them, rather than something that people solely possess, it opens a multitude of possibilities.

Learning always results in change. Every time an individual experiences something, there are changes in the dynamics of brain function. Learning something means that the brain changes on a neuronal level, that new connections are built or old ones activated differently.

Creativity as a learning process implies that individuals within an organization need to engage in conversation to produce change in their knowledge structures. Information and expertise cannot be seen as something people own but something that is open to discussion and development. This requires an open atmosphere and platforms for interaction.

If the people in an organization view their expertise as something they sell to the organization or a lever in negotiation, it is excluded from wider discussion and development. Knowledge that is imperfect or uncertain is often excluded from conversation because of shame. Fear of making mistakes and presenting imperfect knowledge hinders development, because the common opinion is that intelligence is the same as possession of facts and lack of mistakes. However, an organization that is open to imperfection and development of incompleteness is creative and can produce innovation. The employees in such an organization do not strive to impress or be perceived as intelligent by presenting facts but strive to learn from each other and develop imperfect thoughts in interaction.

On an individual level, development of metacognitive capacity increases possibilities to develop thinking and improves learning. Metacognition is defined as “thinking about thinking”. It can be divided into metacognitive awareness and metacognitive self-regulatory mechanisms such as planning and evaluating strategies that are essential for successful problem-solving and efficient learning.

Metacognition can be learned and has many beneficial consequences. Many effective therapies aim at increasing metacognition, awareness of own thought patterns and control over them. Increasing metacognitive capacity in individuals increases the possibility to learn, create new thoughts and develop them. Metacognition also occurs and develops in interaction, and if interaction contains metacognitive elements, it increases learning of all parties involved.

Organizations that wish to produce innovation should first help their employees develop as individuals. Creating and allowing free interaction between individuals in a permissive and respecting atmosphere, supporting their metacognitive awareness and offering structure to work that increases metacognitive skills are all powerful steps to take on the road to creative thinking.

Thank you Esko Kilpi

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