Discovering Ideas

English Composition Spring 2009 Palomar College

The Power of Mindful Reflection


Automatic and Reflective Thinking

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When we engage in automatic thinking we are reacting in a predetermined way to what we perceive to be happening to us. We could call automatic thinking "reactive thinking." Why is it important to realize that much of our thinking is reactive? Because it allows us to think about our thinking in a more sophisticated way and helps us to see that we have more choices than we may have thought we had.

The automatic thinking involved in cognitive distortions  is of a certain kind: it involves adopting automatically ideas, beliefs, or interpretations. Another kind of automatic thinking is different in that it involves doing rather than just believing. Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist, has called this kind of thinking "experiential." (Look closely at that word: It is "experiential," having to do with experience, not "experimental.")  We all rely on experiential thinking when we do something that has become a habit. When you drive to work or to college over the same route every day you are probably not consciously aware of making any decisions about your driving. If traffic is normal, you take the curves and make the same familiar turns to get where you are going without even being aware of doing so. If you are like me, you can get completely absorbed in a conversation or a thought and lose all awareness of where you are. But you still get there. I moved not long ago into a house that was closer to the college but on the same route as the one I took when I lived farther away. Twice so far I have gotten into the car to go to the store, preoccupied with some problem, and realized only when I was halfway to Palomar that I turned in the wrong direction. I wasn't consciously "thinking" about where to turn, so experiential thinking took over and drove me on the most familiar route--until I realized where I was and made a U-turn.

Donald Norman compares experiential thinking to a reflex, like the way your leg jumps when the doctor hits it with the rubber mallet. He says, "Experiential processing does involve some thought, but it is similar to the reflex in that the relevant information must already exist in our memory and the experience simply reactivates that information, much as the hammer tap activates the muscle movements" (24). The automatic or reactive quality of experiential thinking has a value for us: it allows us to perform complex and difficult activities much more quickly and reliably than we could have if we had to stop and think about each step. If fact, part of becoming an expert at something is learning to do it so well that it requires only experiential thinking. The skilled airline pilot or surgeon is someone who knows experientially the complicated steps of a take-off and landing or an appendectomy. Experts don't have to stop and think about these things; they just do what needs to be done. One of the reasons for going to school is to make what at first are new and foreign skills so familiar that they are easy to perform, experiential.

But what happens if you are driving to the college by your old familiar route and you come around a corner to see a serious accident, police cars with lights flashing blocking the road. Something changes. You can no longer run on automatic pilot. What was previously an almost completely automatic process--driving to class--suddenly requires you to look carefully at what's around you and call upon a wide range of background knowledge to make conscious choices about what to do next. Are all lanes closed? Are the police and fire personnel clearing up the last remnants of the accident, or will they be there for some time? If you can't get through, what are the alternate routes? Which would be easiest at this time of day? Will you be able to get to where you're going on time, or should you pull over at the nearest gas station and call to say you'll be late? In just an instant, driving to class has changed from experiential thinking, requiring hardly any of your conscious attention, into something quite different. You are now engaged in what Donald Norman calls "reflective thinking." He writes, "Reflective thought requires the ability to store temporary results, to make inferences from stored knowledge, and to follow chains of reasoning backward and forward, sometimes backtracking when a promising line of thought proves to be unfruitful" (25).

(In Thinking About Being a Student, we made a distinction between experiential and reflective intelligence.  The terms are used similarly here.  But here we are talking about the kinds of thinking that generate these different dimensions of intelligence.)

Unlike experiential thinking, which we do very quickly because we are merely reactively replaying scripts we have already learned, reflective thinking often takes time. But it is reflective thinking that is required in the most important moments of decision we will face. The flight crew of the airliner may have reduced the complex controls of the great plane to purely experiential processes. But what do they do when the controls give them conflicting information, a sure sign that something has malfunctioned? The surgeon may be able to perform an appendectomy "with her eyes closed," but how will she react when she discovers something unexpected in the abdominal cavity, like a growth that didn't show up on the x-rays? We really discover what we can do in the moments when the scripts we have already written in our heads don't give us sufficient guidance; that is when we learn what we didn't know before. We learn through reflective thinking. The method of modern science consists of reflecting on what we do not know and purposely designing situations that we don't know the outcome of, that we can't respond to experientially, and trying them out. These exercises in the unfamiliar are called "experiments," and it is the essence of a good experiment that you can't reliably predict the outcome in advance.

Thinking About Learning

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Learning virtually everything you know involved a process of reflection. Even very simple learning tasks that consist of memorizing things through repetition require reflection. When you first learned to write--I mean to make the "A, B, Cs" with that thick pencil in first grade--you were essentially just imitating what someone else did, copying the teacher's letters off of the blackboard. Today, handwriting is a purely experiential activity for most of us. We think the thought; it appears on the paper. We don't think about how to shape the letters at all any more. (Maybe some of us should, but that's another subject.) But when you first learned to write, you had to reflect repeatedly on the simple act of writing. You made the letter; then you looked at it; then you looked at the model you were copying and compared them; then you tried again to get closer. Only through a long period of reflective thinking about how to make the letters--repeated experiments, most of which "failed" and hence taught you how to modify your next attempt--did first printing and then writing cursive become an exercise of experiential thought for you. The same is true of learning to add and subtract and multiply and drive a car and write an essay.

But learning cannot involve purely reflective thought. Learning requires a balance between automatic and reflective thinking. You could learn to write only after you had learned to hold a pencil and draw lines with it. Writing was just honing a skill that was already experiential for you by learning to draw specific shapes of lines and to draw them consistently. None of us learned to ride a bicycle before we learned to walk. New learning involved refining our existing experiential thinking, working on and extending what came automatically to us by experimenting with applying those existing skills to new tasks.

It may sound odd to talk about writing and riding a bicycle as "thinking." But it sounds perfectly reasonable to talk about "knowing" how to do these things. And knowing something is merely having the ability to think it when necessary. When these skills become experiential we do not have to consciously think about them. But we still use our brains to accomplish the task, though reactively rather than reflectively. If we make the mistake of believing that only reflective thought is "real" thinking, then we will never be able to understand how we learn or why we behave as we do. Learning consists of going back and forth between automatic, experiential thinking and conscious, reflective thinking.  We develop our experiential intelligence through practice at doing certain kinds of tasks.  But we also develop it through reflecting on our experience.  Reflective thinking leads us to experiment with different kind of activities, to try new things.  Hence reflective thinking increases our experiential intelligence.  The two are complementary, not in conflict.

This tells us something very important about learning: In order to learn successfully, we must have a foundation ability to think experientially about what we are learning, but we must be challenged to think reflectively. Consider one of the most basic learning activities, the one you're engaged in right now, reading. Each of us has a certain vocabulary, that is, a body of words that we can use automatically, without thinking about it. Assigning meaning to a word that is in my vocabulary is experiential thinking. I don't stop to reflect on what the word means, I just understand it. There are also many words in the English language that are not in my personal vocabulary. In order to make sense out of those words, I need to reflect on their meaning. I need to pause and look at the context of the word in its sentence, guess at the meaning (an informal experiment) and then test my guess to see if it works in the context. If that doesn't work, I may need to ask someone or look it up in a dictionary. I can handle reading where there are a few words that I don't understand. But if the number becomes too high, it will slow me down so much that it will be very hard for me to keep going. If I can understand most of the words in a passage experientially, then I can reflect on the meaning of the few I don't know and pause to figure them out without loosing the overall idea that the passage wants to get across. But if the ratio of new words to familiar ones is too high, it is too hard for me to follow, and I will want to give up. What ratio is too high? That will depend on a number of things, one of which is my automatic thoughts about the difficulty of the reading. But for all of us, there is a point where we cease to be able to learn because we do not have the capacity to think experientially about what we are doing. Another way of putting this is that any task we get better (learn) at must be sometimes easy and sometimes hard. If it is too easy, it will not keep our attention. If it is too hard, we will be unable to keep up with it.

Thinking About Thinking About Thinking

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"Metacognition" is thinking about thinking. The word is long but the activity is familiar to you. If you read or thought about the cognitive distortions or the three dimensions of intelligence, you have been doing metacognition; you have been thinking about the way your automatic thoughts work. That part was easy. But if you are going to be a successful learner, you will need to reflect on your reflection about your own thinking. Here's why.

The balance between reflective and experiential thinking that learning requires will hardly ever take care of itself. This is true in college classes; it is true on the job; it is true in family life. The world does not shape itself to our needs--at least not after we reach puberty. The odds are that most of the books we pick up to read will not be written at exactly the level that is most naturally interesting for us. Most of the problems we have to face will not be designed to match perfectly our level of experiential thinking skill in a given area. In a job where you have any kind of real responsibility, it will not be your skills but the needs of the organization and the outside environment that will determine the level of challenge in the problems you face. In personal relationships, we often spend time with other people in the easiest way first, we allow one another to engage in experiential thought by spending time doing what we both like. But in long-term relationships, the time comes when we are challenged by one another, when the experiential skills won't work, and when we need to reflect on the other person in a new way and learn to relate to that person differently. If we can't do it, the result is divorce, unemployment, failure. The point is that to get what we want out of life, we need to be able to learn constantly, to learn in situations where it is difficult, to read even the hard books. And to do this successfully, we need to be able to assess what skills we already have and how to use them to meet new challenges. In other words, we need to be able to reflect on our automatic thinking and to evaluate our reflective thinking so we can decide how to change it to get the job done.

Consider college. The classes you have to take to get a college degree require a great range of different skills and abilities. The average college student probably will find some classes that require only experiential thinking, that are completely unchallenging. Some classes will probably be boring because they are too easy. Others will seem to call for constant reflective thinking, so much so that it is impossible to stay with them. Frankly, students often experience college writing classes as very challenging simply because the process of deciding what to say always involves reflective thinking and so is much more challenging, in a way, than memorizing information and taking tests on it. You often face a situation where a class seems to call for more skills than you have, where it seems that you are trying to learn too much.

If a class is to produce learning, it must challenge students to think reflectively, not just experientially. If it doesn't, students are unlikely to learn much. But often it is just the class that challenges students most to think reflectively that students are most likely to quit or fail. That's not good. Because those are the classes that could help students to grow and learn the most.

I gave a number of examples in discussing the cognitive distortions of students whose automatic beliefs told them that they did not have the capacity to learn in a given situation. But in every one of those cases, and a hundred more I could describe to you, they were wrong. Their basic problem was not that they didn't know enough about English or writing; it was that they didn't know how to think reflectively about what they did know. If a task could not be handled with experiential thinking, by falling back on old habits, they concluded it was impossible and wanted to give up. Likewise, many "good" students who have always received good grades, have mastered the experiential skill of writing a certain kind of essay. When challenged to think reflectively about their own writing these students sometimes feel cheated; if experiential thinking has gotten them this far, it ought to be good for every purpose. But if the goal of college is learning, and especially learning how to learn, then experiential skills are never enough. The job is to do more, to go farther, to learn. Not to stay the same.

So how can you learn to think reflectively about your own learning? Fortunately, you already have. If in reading about the cognitive distortions you were able to see how you have sometimes adopted one or more of them, you were reflecting on your own thinking, and specifically reflecting on cases where your automatic thoughts blocked your learning.

It is harder to reflect on your thinking while you are doing it. The key is to make reflection a habit, to build it in to your experiential thought processes. And you can do this with almost everything. If you learn reflectively in the first place, you will have much more capacity to reflect on your learning as you use it than if you learn purely by rote. If you are learning just to make the knowledge automatic, you will learn in a different way than if you learn to be able to reflect.


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So what do we do in order to make reflection a habit, to make learning reflective? The short answer to that question is probably, do the opposite of what you've always done in school. But that might not apply to everyone, and it certainly requires more explanation. Most students in school settings have learned how to learn in a way that reinforces automatic thinking and protects them from reflection. They have learned that there is one right answer to each question and that they will be rewarded if and only if they get the one right answer. If you believe this, you are incorporating all or nothing thinking into the very basis of your learning. And you will also not bother with reflection because it's a waste of time: if there is one right answer, and you have it, what is there to think about?

Harvard University psychologist Ellen Langer has studied the way people think for many years. She has described a kind of thinking that is closed to reflection, the kind that many students learn in school, and another kind of thinking that is open to reflection. And she has given them names. Thinking that assumes that there is only one right answer for all time she calls "mindless." Thinking that invites reflection she calls "mindful." I like these names because they highlight the fact that in one kind of thinking the conscious mind is involved and aware, and in the other kind it isn't.

Langer also suggests some specific qualities of mindful thinking that define it. "A mindful approach to any activity," she writes, "has three characteristics: the continuous creation of new categories, openness to new information, and an implicit awareness of more than one perspective" (4). Let's briefly consider each of these suggestions.

First, continuous creation of new categories. You'll recall, perhaps, that one of the first things I asked you to do this semester was to think about the category of "college class" as it existed in your mind. You may have had trouble doing that because you could find very little to say about that category. What you may have been trying to do was report an automatic thought. One way of looking at the cognitive distortions would be to say that they consist of automatically applying a pre-established category to a new situation without considering the alternatives. Letting automatic thoughts determine our reaction to new situations is, as Langer says, mindless. You have probably known people who always find that whatever happens confirms their own preexisting opinions. If we interpret all new events using just our established categories, we cannot learn. The key to learning is seeking to find and create new categories, seeking to expand our capacity to understand by adding new terms to our vocabulary of understanding. You have an opportunity to do that every day, in college, at work, and at home, with the subjects that interest you and the subjects that bore you, with people you love and people you hate. You have an opportunity to develop a new concept of what a "college class" is right here in this class and make it real.

Second, openness to new information. New categories are needed to explain new information. Automatic thinking often leads us to explain away new information because it doesn't fit in our existing categories. That's mindless. You've probably heard the expression "My mind is made up; don't confuse me with the facts." It expresses an attitude that many of us carry through the world as an excuse for wearing blinders and ignoring much that's going on around us. The theme of this course, Discovering Ideas, calls attention to the fact that we live in a world where information is abundantly available. Yet most of us do not approach it with a spirit of discovery but with a spirit of defensiveness, an attitude that "what you don't know won't hurt you." From a mindful perspective that is a terrible mistake. Quite to the contrary, the only way we can help ourselves is through discovery.

Third, an implicit awareness of more than one perspective. Our automatic thoughts come at the world from a certain angle. There's nothing wrong with that. But you can't see everything standing in one place. You may know what a person or a country or an issue looks like from where you stand, but can you imagine what it looks like from the other side? Have you tried? One of the best ways to develop new categories and see new information is to look at the matter from the point of view of another person or another set of assumptions. But what Langer suggests is not that we do this occasionally but that we do it all the time. One thing you can see in all of the examples of the cognitive distortions is people locked into one perspective and unable to escape from it. I am not suggesting that you should not have strong opinions or should doubt everything that you believe. What mindfulness means is that your beliefs become more three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional because you can see what you believe from more than one angle.

One last question: How can a mindful approach help us to find that balance between experiential and reflective thought that we need to achieve if we are going to learn? You may have figured that out already. A mindful approach will allow us to reflect on our automatic thoughts by creating new categories for thinking about our experience, testing those new categories by seeking new information, and viewing our own automatic thoughts from different perspectives.

We will be seeking to find ways of becoming mindful all semester--and I hope longer.

List of Works Cited

Copyright 1997 John Tagg

On-line Discovering Ideas Table of Contents
On-line Syllabus

On-Campus Discovering Ideas Table of Contents
On-Campus Syllabus

Discovering Ideas
Palomar College
This page was last edited: 01/05/09