Becoming Conscious: The Power of Metacognition
I’ve noticed that whenever I walk into my gym’s locker room, I always head to the same locker without thinking about it. I don’t have an assigned locker, so there’s no real reason to feel attached to a particular crevice. But you’ll notice that we often do this in many areas of life, whether it’s sitting at the same seat in a coffee shop or expressing the same thoughts and attitudes day after day.
The reason is that your brain is a highly efficient organ. It already eats up 20% of your metabolic energy and tries to automate as many processes as possible by making them unconscious. Your neural circuits responsible for those behaviors form fatty sheaths called myelin, allowing neurons to fire in a more energy efficient manner. This “automation,” the result of neuroplastic brain changes, makes it possible to perform routine activities like brushing your teeth or tying your shoes without being entirely conscious of that action.
“Limited participation by too few sub-minds leads to poor decisions. The best decisions come from the fullest participation of every part to the mind-system, which is one reason why increased mindfulness is so valuable in daily life.” - John Yates, Ph.D., The Mind Illuminated
Automation isn’t a problem, except when our autopilot is headed in the wrong direction. This may happen in one of two ways:
1) You stop paying attention to something that ought to require more vigilance. Like a car on autopilot that encounters a deer in the road, the results of metaphorical autopilot can be similarly disastrous. Most accidents happen when we’re behaving unconsciously.
2) Certain habits cause you harm and get repeated regardless. You might get stuck in the same negative thought patterns, become aggravated by the same situations, and put yourself in those same situations over and over again without realizing it.
Meditation can help you break out of your automated program simply by making you more aware of it. What’s known as “introspective metacognitive awareness” is really just becoming aware of your own program; you start to realize how your mind works by becoming conscious of it and therefore bringing it under your control. On the one hand, you can recruit more areas of your brain to perform whatever task you are working on, producing a higher quality outcome. And to address the second problem with autopilot, metacognition naturally leads you to change harmful habits, simply by becoming aware of them. This benefit of meditation often goes unrecognized.
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