Thinking about thinking

Thinking about thinking
Photo: Pete Linforth

Most of us don’t remember learning to think—it just happens—whether we want it to or not. At school we learn to think about specific subjects… at least enough to learn/remember/understand and pass the exams. But what does thinking mean? The Oxford English Dictionary defines thinking as:

“The most general verb for expressing internal mental activity, excluding the simple perception of external things or passive reception of ideas. To form or hold in the mind (an idea, image, or intuition); to carry out (something) as a mental operation. To turn over in the mind, meditate on, ponder over, consider.”*

Thinking—good thinking—is essential to knowledge and ultimately, to wisdom. We can’t acquire or use knowledge without good thinking skills and wisdom will elude us without thinking and knowledge.

How do we master thinking? How can we think better, more clearly or more successfully in a variety of situations? After considerable… thinking… about the matter along with some research, I can confirm that there’s much more to thinking than we realize. One of the more helpful resources I’ve found so far for understanding the multiple layers is The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning.** In Chapter 1 “Thinking and Reasoning: A Reader’s Guide” (p. 1), Holyoak and Morrison clarify the various ways we conceptualize thinking by considering the ways the word is used in common language. The term “thinking” is frequently used to denote:

“‘I think that water is necessary for life’ and ‘George thinks the Pope is a communist’ both express beliefs (of varying degrees of apparent plausibility), that is, explicit claims of what someone takes to be a truth about the world.”

problem solving
“‘Anne is sure to think of a solution’ carries us into the realm of problem solving, the mental construction of an action plan to achieve a goal.”

“The complaint ‘Why didn’t you think before you went ahead with your half-baked scheme?’ emphasizes that thinking can be a kind of foresight, a way of ‘seeing’ the possible future.” [Holyoak and Morrison’s footnote: “Notice the linguistic connection between ‘thinking’ and ‘seeing,’ and thought and perception, which was emphasized by the Gestalt psychologists of the early twentieth century.”]

‘What do you think about it?’ calls for a judgment, an assessment of the desirability of an option.”

a place of mental musing [reflection]
“Then there’s ‘Albert is lost in thought,’ where thinking becomes some sort of mental meadow through which a person might meander on a rainy afternoon, oblivious to the world outside.”

While we may perceive our most urgent thinking experiences/needs to be connected with problem solving, foresight and judgment noted above, we should not ignore the importance of belief and reflection (or time “lost in thought”). More on beliefs and reflection in another post.

Awareness of our thinking is called “metacognition.” Discussed by school teachers and college/university instructors, metacognition is defined as: “the awareness that you have of your own thinking and mental processes; it is knowing what you know and do not know. … Part of gaining wisdom is to understand how to use your existing knowledge and how to work through what you do not know.”***

Metacognition is of interest to me because I’ve long believed that we all know much more than we think we know. Through metacognition—exploration of our thinking, knowledge and experience—we can access valuable (and often unexpected) capability. How we uncover our capacity (creative thinking, ideas, experience, skills and wisdom) is rather like a treasure hunt. Everyone is different and thus the quote, “Start where you are” (attributed to tennis player Arthur Ashe Jr., Pema Chodron and probably others) seems especially appropos. By experimenting with different techniques and increasing our awareness and introspection we can begin to recognize and utilize more of our capabilities.

This sounds great in theory but how do we access and improve our thinking ability when required? We all have a “default” habitual way of thinking—whether we’re conscious of it or not. In most cases, we’re not being as focused, creative and strategic as possible. We can improve our thinking by learning and practicing a few strategies to use when needed—creating a toolkit of sorts. These strategies may appear deceptively simple but they are essential to successful planning and problem solving. Our thinking tool kit is important in avoiding the deluge of data generated by a desperate Google searches (you’ve experienced these?). A variety of thinking strategies will be offered in subsequent posts. Consider techniques you use currently and add new ones that appeal. Become conscious of your thinking to increase your opportunities.

*Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). (2009). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

**Holyoak, K. J., & Morrison, R. G. (2005). The Cambridge Handbook of Thinking and Reasoning. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 1

***Farmer, M. (n.d.). Meta-cognitive Skills: Knowing What You Know (Montana State University, Center for Faculty Excellence). Retrieved August 6, 2018, from