Moore's Law for the mind

The smartest apes think about
thinking... And wear armor.
If you've read even a handful of posts here at the Happy Homunculus, you'll know that a major buzzword is "metacognition".  I love saying it, thinking about it (meta-metacognition?) and writing about it.  After all this metacognition geekiness, I feel I am overdue in explaining my obsession with this whole thinking-about-thinking business.

To get right to the point, I think metacognitive skills are the most important cognitive skills we possess. Furthermore, if we want to provide ourselves, our children, our grandchildren, and society with the best tools to survive in a complex, changing world, I am of the opinion that metacognitive training should serve as a foundation on which all instruction is built.

Why? In order to explain, I propose the following thought experiment:  

Let's say I want to become a better runner.  Right now, I am a terrible runner.  I sort of bounce up and down like a large, flightless bird.  It's a sad thing to see and is a horribly uncomfortable experience for me.

However, I also don't run very often.  The skill of running is not one that I've invested a lot of time and energy into mastering.  So, just like anything, if I start running more frequently, I'll improve.  I'll get fitter, my form will probably improve, my pain tolerance will increase etc.

The sigmoid: Awesomeness as a function of time
In fact, once I start running more regularly, I should see my running ability improve dramatically.  I'm so shitty at running that, during this beginner phase, even thinking about running will probably make me a better runner.  

Unfortunately, and as most of us are aware, that honeymoon phase doesn't last forever.  Soon, the improvement gains stop coming so easily.  Soon, I will begin to experience the dreaded "sigmoid" phase of the learning curve. In other words, I'll keep getting more awesome, but the gains in awesomeness will come less and less frequently. 

Now, this is assuming that my training plan doesn't change.  All I'm doing is running more often than not-at-all, say every day for 20 minutes. That's it.  Well, what if I start mixing it up and begin to experiment with my weak points.  Do I need to get faster?  I may run some sprints to see how fast I am.  How's my endurance?  I may go for some longer runs to see if I have the ability to sustain a pace for longer.  By experimenting, through trial and error, I may realize that I've plateaued because I am not focusing on speed.  Switching focus to that weak point may result in faster improvement than if I had continued doing the same thing I had been doing.

This the deliberate practice approach to improving running: I can start thinking about the process and I'll get better, faster.

Metacognition is the same concept applied to how we think and learn.  So, the first cognitive level might be: study.  But  if, after studying again and again I realize I am not at a level I'd like to be, then I must move to the second cognitive level: meta-study.  In other words, I must start thinking about how I think during the process of studying.  How often do I study? Where do I study?  What does studying consist of: reading, looking at pictures, highlighting endless passages?  How might I become more efficient at studying?

Moore's Law is the oft-cited phenomenon that the power per unit size and/or cost of our computers has grown and continues to grow exponentially.  Now, I purposefully mentioned Moore's Law in the title to be provocative and I don't actually believe that one could actually experience exponential growth in intelligence simply by thinking more about thinking.  

However, I do believe that a little deliberate analysis of how we think is a strategy that will undoubtedly lead to better thinking, and performance, than simply rote repetition ever will.  In this way, metacognition is pretty much the only strategy that will allow for constant improvement  in performance.  Moore's Law for the mind is something I made up so you would read this, but metacognition can still make us smarter, faster.

The beauty of a metacognitive approach is that it can apply to any type of thinking or behavior.  Where should I focus to raise my performance to the next level?  Perhaps I give up too soon because I have a pessimistic attitude towards change. I should probably focus on reducing negative self-talk. Or maybe I know what I need to do to get better but don't invest the time to improve.  I might want to think about combating procrastination.  The possibilities really are endless, but improvement will happen after some focused metacognition.

Unfortunately, I get the impression that most people don't think of thinking as a skill that can even be improved.  Instead, many people focus on the externally-motivated skills that are essential for day-to-day existence.  That is a totally reasonable approach in the short-term, but by going meta we can bust through any plateaus that may be dogging us and maximize our effectiveness in the long-term.  

For that reason, the most essential metacognitive skill is to first think that improving how we think is even possible.

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