In these times of virtual encounters, a plethora of negative news and widespread uncertainty, it’s fair to say it was a rough time for our brains. If you feel mentally weak, you may be floating or stuck in the middle of a cognitive crisis. And don’t worry, you’re not alone.
Our world is facing a global mental health crisis that is unique in the modern era. Neuroscientist and neurologist Adam Gazzaley calls this the “old brains in a high-tech world” problem.
Our brains evolved for an entirely different environment, and our biological instincts struggle to keep up with a sea of information, artificial stimulation, and smartphone sounds. This has contributed to a global boom in anxiety, depression, addiction, and other cognitive issues.
As is often the case, technology comes first and society adapts second. We are learning that surviving and thriving in the modern world requires a better understanding of our minds. This need for “cognitive awareness” leads us to metacognition.
What is metacognition?
Metacognition is a great word for what we all know and do hundreds of times every day. Have you ever tried to focus your attention? Tried to regulate an emotion? Feeling distracted and making the decision to put your phone away? Each is an example of recognizing a mental state and trying to control it.
Metacognition involves the scientific study of how the mind perceives and controls its activity. Understanding how the mind works gives us insight into how to best use it – an educational guide on how to act tailored to the psyche of a character.
For example, we all deal with our immune systems every day. We have a vague understanding of why we should wash our hands, wipe the kitchen table, and wear a mask while chatting with the people inside. However, immunology has given us a deeper understanding of our personal immune system, and we can, in turn, use this knowledge to combat a global pandemic.
In a similar sense, metacognition provides more in-depth knowledge of how the mind understands and controls its own processes. With this growing body of research we hope to develop the tools needed to overcome the current mental health crisis.
The quiet growth of metacognitive research
A unique side effect of modern technology is that apps, games, social media, and online content can hijack the learning pathways of the human brain. As a result, we are increasingly captivated by compulsive behaviors, attention problems, and emotional problems.
The pandemic has added fuel to this crisis. It has forced many people into social isolation and contributed to an increased reliance on devices for social interaction and entertainment.
This has led to a global tsunami of debilitating mental health problems, affecting more than half a billion people with financial losses running into the trillions.
But there is good news: the quiet growth of metacognitive research.
Decades of experimental studies have shown that metacognition is effective in reducing addictive behaviors and improving emotional well-being. Metacognitive training has shown great benefits in therapy, education, and even business. Especially effective tools for helping people engage with their thoughts and emotions are in CBT.
Metacognition is a vague concept. One useful metaphor is to think of the brain as containing software and hardware. Program is our thoughts, feelings and conversations with others; Organs are neurons and the connections between them. We are only beginning to understand how these two interact. So when something goes wrong in our brain, we’re not sure how to fix it. Fortunately, progress has been made in clarifying this topic using arithmetic.
The successes of metacognitive therapy
Computer Perception simulations are a major focus in the Cognitive Modeling Lab at Carleton University where I work as a researcher while pursuing my Ph.D. in Cognitive Science. My research topic is the use of computer modeling to illustrate metacognition. Metacognitive strategies can be thought of as a type of mental program that can help improve our cognitive performance.
In my experience, it is worth considering the successes of metacognitive therapy. It is unique in the sense that it involves the development of useful metacognitive Beliefs. In many cases, it has been shown to be more effective than cognitive behavioral therapy, which is another dominant approach taken by therapists.
For example, it might be helpful for someone to think, “I can direct my thoughts and feelings, and that’s good for me.” Believing in this possibility is a necessary prelude to action. Metacognitive therapy focuses on building this foundation, and from this firm foundation people can access specific metacognitive tools.
We already know many of these tools. Yet our practical minds require clues before committing to them. Improving attention through mental training or meditation practice work. Likewise, the strategies offered by cognitive behavioral therapy are among the most effective strategies for learning emotional regulation. Practicing “discrete vigilance” is especially useful for treating depression and anxiety. Memory strategies have also been shown to be fruitful, including the famous Mind Shortening Technique.
It’s time to take care of our minds
Overcoming a cognition crisis depends in part on the spontaneous deflection of seeking pleasure in our minds. Internally, we can avoid falling into the trap of instant gratification by paying attention to the information and entertainment we consume. Externally, we can craft a physical environment that improves our efficiency and mental well-being. Distraction blocking provides just one example of how to do this.
We exercise, control what we eat, and buy comfortable office chairs to take care of our bodies—it’s been a long time since we took care of our minds. There are many evidence-based actions that we can take to design a customized toolkit of mental habits and strategies. Doing so will allow us to be more considerate of our thoughts, interests, and emotions, which can improve every aspect of our lives.
Just as human health depends on mastering our bodily systems, the future of cognition depends on understanding and controlling our psychological states. Solving a cognition crisis requires us to be smart about our minds, and there has never been a more vital time to do so.