Is Introspection Useful?

Look within.
I have this intuitive sense that it's useful to think about our thinking, a.k.a to engage in introspection or metacognition.  For me, this intuition has swollen to become even more, a bit of an obsession.  Practical introspection could be considered the founding principle of this blog.  But is my intuitive sense correct?  Is introspection useful?  Or, is it a narcissistic drain on our cognitive resources? 

At the core of my personal philosophy toward introspection is an inherent skepticism.  Essentially, I propose that the goal of introspection is to adopt a stance of skepticism toward our own thinking with the objective of tuning our decision making to improve our mental lives and get better at life.

Skepticism truly is at the heart of this process.  I propose that improvement requires a continuous process of asking "Is this bullshit?" even (or especially) about our own thoughts.  By calling bullshit on our own habitual modes of thinking, we can reach a new understanding about the cognitive traps we might be falling into on a daily basis that cause us stress or hold us back from our goals.  We can then slowly work to discard these destructive patterns of thought with healthier ones.

As I've mentioned, this just makes sense to me.  But I could imagine a scenario where this might get out of hand.  The term "analysis paralysis" comes to mind.  One could introspect his life away, questioning each layer of decision making until he is frozen in inaction.

Of course, nothing in life is inherently good or bad, it's all how something is applied.  Exercise is a great example.  If done responsibly, exercise is beneficial.  You can get healthier and more physically fit. However if one were to exercise to the point of excess, injury or illness may result.  Introspection must be the same way.  There must be a self-analyzing sweet spot.  But what is that balance?

Ironically, my excessive introspection has led me to believe that the sweet spot is far on the side of less thinking.  As I have skeptically analyzed my thoughts as they have floated by over the years, I have come to realize that most of them can be binned as useless "worrying".  I have come to loathe thinking that does not perform a useful service to me and I have found that most thinking is useless thinking.

This line of thinking has led my to another principle.  I propose that thinking is useless unless it results in a decision and, typically, an action.  In other words, thinking is just energy-sapping wheel-spinning unless it actually cause you to do something in the real world that has consequences. Furthermore, by taking action we are essentially performing a mini-experiment about how our actions impact reality.  We can then learn from our actions and plan our next actions based on evidence.  This mode of thinking-while-acting is very close to my personal interpretation of flow and is the default state that I try to achieve.  

Here's how it's playing out right now in my dome...

Me: Well, Homunculus, is introspection useful?  

Homunculus: I think the answer is yes if the objective is to squash negative thinking that impairs our ability to make shit happen.  In other words, I propose that we should be skeptical that all of our thinking is useful and be ruthless in turning those thoughts off that get in our way.

Me: How do I know if it's negative thinking and not a rational weighing of risks?  I shouldn't always charge head first into a situation.  That's risky!

Homunculus: It's hard to know for sure what will happen but start taking some actions in the direction that seems the best and see what happens.  You'll learn more by experimenting in this way then by worrying about abstractions.

Me: But I'm worried about this, that, and the other thing...  What if they happen?

Homunculus: Again, it's all theoretical.  Take some small actions in the direction that looks most promising (test the waters, if you must) and learn/think with some new information at hand.

Me: Homunculus, you're the man.

Homunculus: No, you're the man.  Stay happy!


Bethany said...

This is a really thought-provoking article! I agree that too much introspection can be paralyzing, but I would say the sweet spot is still on the side of more thinking. Even beyond decision-making, people can fall into negative habits of thinking. For example, its so much easier to look back through memory and remember the negative occurrences than the positive ones. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't look back--the positive memories often give us a reason to keep going and make new ones. For me, it's important to thinking about how I'm thinking to recognize negative thoughts and balance them with positive ones. I recently had an interview, and afterward all the "stupid" things I did kept surfacing, so I kept forcing myself to remember the things that went well. Perhaps I can correct the bad things next time, but I must remember to repeat those good ones.

Vince Panzano said...

Thanks Bethany! I'm becoming more and more a "behaviorist" when it comes to introspection and thinking, in general. My stance here is akin to the "tree falling in the woods" concept, except as it relates to thinking. Thinking is really only useful if it leads to a distinct behavior (or conscious non-behavior) that benefits us. If introspection lets us keeping making progress, great! If not, time to get back to work :)

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