Updated: May 18

(you can find the podcast version of this post here...)

Metacognition. Sounds a good word and it's certainly an important one. The dictionary defines it as ‘thinking about thinking’, self-awareness, our ability to oversee what we are thinking and doing. It’s not a new idea - the Greeks had it pretty much nailed (literally) to the arch over their oracle at Delphi. If you want advice on how to approach an uncertain future begin with this recipe - ‘Know thyself’.

But it's more than a self-improvement motto. It's a key neural capability, one which has helped us evolve and survive as a species. Even though we’re smart enough to find solutions to problems of a hostile environment there will still be situations where we need to reframe, to question what we’re doing and perhaps try a new tack. And that needs metacognition - the ability to think about how we are thinking.

It's a hot topic in psychology today. The neuro-scientist Stephen Fleming has just published a book (Know Thyself: The science of self-awareness) which highlights the importance of self-reflection and the ways in which its absence can have negative impacts. His team carried out studies using advanced computer techniques which highlight very clear neural pathways associated with the capability for ‘thinking consciously about our own minds and the minds of others’.

And without it we can soon find ourselves in difficulty. For example, Tim Harford’s excellent account of the Torrey Canyon disaster draws attention to the problem of not taking the time out to question and rethink. In 1967 the Torrey Canyon, a well-built and modern oil tanker under the command of a highly experienced captain followed a course which took it away from the destination port of Milford Haven and instead on to the Seven Stones rocks near the Isles of Scilly. Despite having radar, accurate charts and having travelled the route before the ship crashed hard against these - resulting in what was, for its time, one of the world’s most damaging environmental disasters.

The subsequent reconstruction for the official enquiry found that the captain (under pressure to try and make harbour before the tide turned against him) had followed a new course. Unfortunately he also made assumptions about the ship’s position which were wrong and even when he was provided with updated information stuck to his original course plan.

A classic example of where a minute of metacognition could have helped avoid a lot of heartache (not to mention a disastrous oil spill, the financial costs of cleaning it up and the end of a good man’s career).

What psychologists call ‘plan continuation bias’ looks to have been at fault - our tendency to continue with an original course of action that is no longer viable. It’s a well-known problem, the villain in many other disasters - for example those resulting from when pilots unexpectedly encounter bad weather but decide to persist with their course rather than divert to another location. The aviation world has a name for this - ‘get-there-itis’ - and it is surprisingly infectious.

The trouble is that this is not the only challenge we face in trying to get things done. Sometimes we’re so focused on the task in hand we lose sight of the wider peripheral information which might contain clues about something important which has changed in our environment. Psychologists call this one 'inattentional blindness’ and it's behind a slew of internet video clips which have gone viral.

Perhaps the most famous shows a group of students playing a game of basketball, half of them dressed in white, the other half in black tops. The viewer is instructed to watch closely, following the white team and counting the number of times the ball is handled - bounced, passed or lost to the other team. A highly focused task and one which is complicated by the fact that they are playing with more than one ball!

It draws you in if you’ve never seen it before; during the thirty seconds or so for which the clip runs there’s a lot of activity going on as you try to count. Which is why you may well not notice the gorilla (or rather someone dressed up in a gorilla suit) strolling to the centre of the game, turning to the camera and beating his chest before sauntering off again. This isn't a small sideshow; it takes place centre stage. And yet studies repeatedly show that around half of the viewers fail to see the gorilla and are surprised by it when shown the film a second time.

It’s a real eye opener - or rather , an eye closer. Because what is going on is the determined focusing of attention on the task in hand - counting the passes and throws of the ball(s). A second’s peripheral vision, a quick glance at the bigger picture and the gorilla instantly and obviously becomes visible.

Inattentional blindness takes many forms and it results from our having evolved the capability to focus our limited attentional resources quickly on the urgent task in hand. That's been a really valuable survival trait for us as a species but it comes with the downside that the gorilla and a thousand other experiments highlight; sometimes we fail to take something else into account because we are too focused.

Our problem is that although we are pretty good at thinking our way out of trouble our unconscious biases (of which these are only two of many) can often get us into worse trouble. So metacognition matters - being able to pause and check what and how we are thinking. Unfortunately it isn't always deployed.

Of course it's not easy - the swamp/alligator analogy springs to mind. It’s really hard to think about draining the swamp (or any other solution which a metacognitive pause might help generate) when your appendages are being snapped at by hungry reptiles! But if we can develop that faculty it’s probably going to pay off in the long term - which is why evolution has helpfully built it into our neural wiring.