Metacognition and Mindfulness: Do You Know What You Don’t Know? Part 1


Image: Denise Krebs: Metacognition, Flickr.

Contemporary Approaches to Metacognition

‘That which has been is what will be; that which is done is what will be done. And there is nothing new under the sun.’ Ecclesiastes. 1:9

The extensive range of contemporary approaches to thinking have roots stretching far into the past; the origins of the concept of metacognition can be found in the work of the great Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle.

When Socrates stated that ‘I only know that I know nothing’ (a somewhat roughly translated but succinct version of lines 21 a-e in Plato’s Apology), he was using metacognitive skills to acknowledge his lack of knowledge.

The wise Confucius said:

‘Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.’

He, too, was using metacognition to asses and monitor his own mental abilities.


Image: Lentina_x.  Socrates. Flickr.



Image: Confucius the Scholar. Qing Dynasty. Wikimedia Commons.

Whilst the term metacognition has its etymological origins in Greek (meta = above) and Latin (cognitio= thought), the concept was not termed metacognition until 1979, when American developmental psychologist, John Flavell, described it as ‘knowledge and cognition about cognitive phenomena.’ (Flavell)

This new – and ancient – concept has many dimensions and many applications. Metacognition, is popularly defined as ‘thinking about thinking,’ or, more technically,

‘a ‘recursive sense of consciousness…..the capacity to think about one’s own mind.’  Dehaene


This ‘recursive’ aspect of metacognition is interesting, in that it signifies the ability to be self-reflective, self-referential, to have thoughts about one’s own thoughts and beliefs and, in so doing, to function as both subject and object.

Such reflexive thinking, is, in itself, a time-honoured concept. It involves holding up a virtual mirror to the self and then identifying one’s subjectivities, one’s personal perspectives and biases.


Self-Monitoring: The self in the Mirror

Metacognition is thus about monitoring, control and regulation of our thoughts; it is a skill that is highly relevant to education and learning.

An example of a metacognitive thought might be ‘I know that I have a problem with science, but I am good at art.’ This is a ‘self-monitoring’ thought, which might lead us to action and strategy that could help us understand ourselves and our learning skills better.

The theory of metacognition can be applied to many different disciplines; as it relates to self-understanding, metacognition may be used in certain therapies. Over recent years, Professor Adrain Wells has developed ‘metacognitive therapy,’ which offers techniques to treat many psychological disorders.

It focusses on facilitating patients to recognise and manage their responses to their own negative and worrying thoughts. They are encouraged to explore their ways of handling, for example, ruminative thinking and a pervasive sense of threat.

Wells’ message is

‘Thoughts don’t matter, but your response to them does.’



The content of the thought is seen as less relevant than the way of thinking about the thought. Metacognitive therapy aims to enable people gain flexibility in the way they respond to their negative thoughts. They are helped to be less rigid in their ways of thinking and less dependent on unhelpful ways of managing such thoughts.

Metacognition and Advances in Cognitive Neuroscience

Using the tools of contemporary neuroscience, scientists are now beginning to identify the brain mechanisms that govern metacognition.

Scientists at University College London (Fleming) have conducted a series of trials in which they identified that ‘the people with better metacognition had more gray matter in the anterior prefrontal cortex.’

Disorders like schizophrenia, stroke and dementia can adversely affect metacognition. Deficiencies in this area can have disastrous consequences, leaving a person unable to have ‘insight into his or her own illness.’ (Fleming)

Research has been conducted into the use of various medications to help improve metacognition. Some people do have better metacognitive skills than others; there are, however, ways to improve these self-assessment skills. It has been discovered that meditation and stopping to reflect on one’s learning can help with the process of metacognition.



How can we think mindfully? The process of mindfulness uses metacognitive skills; the term signifies an awareness and acceptance of one’s thoughts in the present moment, attending to them without judgement or censure.

Thinking mindfully involves acknowledging thoughts, without criticism, watching what happens to the thought in the thinking process. Although there is some overlap between metacognition and mindfulness, the former extends and develops the process further, perhaps into action.


Theravada Buddhist Nuns Meditating

The term mindfulness originated in Buddhist meditation practice; it is now widely used, and in a variety of settings. It can be helpful in reducing stress levels and in enhancing enjoyment of life.

It can help us to become aware of what is happening both in and around ourselves, encouraging us to pause and notice sounds, smells and sensations.

Mindfulness provides a way of becoming aware of thoughts, especially intrusive and troublesome ones. These can have a powerful negative effects on our lives if they take over and appear to wield power over us. We can learn how to control them, gaining new perspectives:

A teacher walking with his students points to a very large boulder and says, “Students, do you see that boulder?” The students respond, “Yes, teacher, we see the boulder.” The teacher asks, “And is the boulder heavy?” The students respond, “Oh yes, very heavy.” And the teacher replies, “Not if you don’t pick it up.”

(Shapiro and Carlson)

This story illustrates how mindfulness can help manage fears about ‘obstacles’ that may be insurmountable only in one’s thoughts. A mindful approach would involve being aware of the boulders, but not to feel one is necessarily compelled to rearrange or shift them.


Mindfulness teaches an approach of  acceptance, an awareness of the impermanence of life. Has this technique helped you? Let me know in the comments below.

Discover more on this subject by checking out next week’s post: Mindfulness: The Real Truth.

Thinking and Acting



Are thinking and acting separate facilities and can they function independently? Does the one precede the other or are they interlinked, even blended? Should we think or act first?

Is thought in itself an action?

Some might say it is, for when we think, our minds are often described as ‘active.’ Asimov said ‘Writing, to me, is thinking with my fingers.’ Similarly, Michelangelo stated that ‘A man paints with his brains, not with his hands.’

However, some people, such as Goethe, regard thought and action as separate entities. He felt that ‘thinking is easy, acting is difficult and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.’ He obviously did not regard the two as part of a smooth continuum.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet thought similarly, although he regarded thought and conscience as negative manifestations of fear. For him, thinking robs him of the courage to act, leaving him a coward:

‘Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.’

(Hamlet, Act 3 scene 1 83-88)

This is not an uncommon way of seeing thinking, one which regards action as creative and heroic and thought as stultifying and weak:

‘Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.’
(Ray Bradbury)

‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’
(Samuel Beckett)

However, in an interesting paper called Creative Action in Mind, Peter Carruthers makes the point that thought may not always accompany, or indeed precede, action. For example, when a person mirrors another’s physical actions during a conversation, they often do so without conscious thought or planning.

The trumpeter Miles Davis said ‘I’ll play it first and tell you what it is later.’
Carruthers highlights ‘act-first accounts of creativity,’ such as jazz improvisations. These sometimes surprise even their musical creator; Carruthers refers to the book by Berliner entitled Thinking in Jazz:The Infinite Art of Improvisation , which highlights the fact that there is often no planning or thought preceding spontaneous acts of musical creativity:

‘So when a jazz improviser is surprised by the sequence of notes that he hears himself play, that is evidence that he didn’t have a prior expectation (whether conscious or unconscious) that he would play a sequence of notes of that sort. And that means that he had not formulated a creative thought in advance of performing the creative action. ‘

I do take issue , though, with the above statement about ‘conscious or unconscious ‘expectation.’ Surely an expectation is, by its very nature ‘conscious’? The unconscious represents the part of our mind of which we are largely unaware; therefore I do not think we can actually have an ‘unconscious expectation,’ as Berliner implies.

What we can have is unconscious brain activity. This might involve us being surprised by what suddenly surfaces into consciousness, such as memories, dreams and, yes, musical improvisations. Thus the jazz improvisor mentioned above may, in fact, to my mind, have a store of unconscious musical sequences, garnered from a multiplicity of past experiences, that might pop out and surprise him at any moment. Berliner’s above-mentioned ‘evidence’ is therefore a little shaky.

It is possible to think and act simultaneously. This is amply illustrated in Donald Schon’s book  The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action .


He uses the term reflection-in-action to describe a process whereby people think and know about their work whilst they are actually doing it. He also calls it knowing-in practice. This is a considerable skill, honed through intelligence and experience.

It is something we all do, not only at work, but in our everyday lives:

Phrases like “thinking on your feet,” “keeping your wits about you,” and “learning by doing” suggest not only that we can think about doing, but we can think about doing something while doing it.

In fact, thought and action can be, and are, creative partners. Buddha said ‘with our thoughts we make the world,’ and ‘what we think, we become.’ He saw the creative power of thought as crucial to constructive action, a parts of the same process.

Many see thought as necessarily preceding action. Beethoven carried his thoughts in his head ‘ for a long time, often for a very long time, before writing them down.’ Freud said that ‘Thought is action in rehearsal.’

This ‘rehearsal’ time is regarded by others as crucial. Scientific research by Dr Stephen Fleming reveals that, often, the quick-fire decisions that are encouraged in our current society, do, in fact, mean that we might sometimes increase our chances of getting it wrong. In an article in Aeon in 2014 entitled ‘Hesitate!‘ he states:

‘The agonising feeling of conflict between two options is not necessarily a bad thing: it is the brain’s way of slowing things down….

When people do come to speedy conclusions, there is less opportunity to gather and assess the necessary evidence to form a good decision. The ‘neural flip-flopping’  between options is regarded as ‘the brain’s weighing of evidence for and against decision………..We should allow some indecision into our lives.’

It is a pity that Shakespeare’s Hamlet could not have known of these findings. Then he might have felt less cowardly in relation to his indecisiveness and he might have seen his hesitation as a constructive mechanism.

However, the play would have been far less attractive to the audience and much less of a tragedy.


A Christmas Present: the Best of 2018. Thinking Quotes to See You into the New Year.



Here is a selection of some very pertinent and powerful quotations from this year’s blog posts on Ways of Thinking.

Please leave below any short-or long- comment that comes to mind after reading these, either about the blog in general, or specifically regarding this post. I’d love to know your thoughts!


‘In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow.
In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention.
And in an age of constant movement nothing is more urgent than sitting still.’

The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere. Pico Ayer

Blog post: What Thinks Can We All Think Up?


‘Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.’

(Samuel Beckett. Adapted from a line in Waiting for Godot.)

Blog post: Thinking and Acting


‘A thought once spoken is a lie.’ Tyutchev

‘There is no truth. There is only perception.’ Flaubert.

Blog post: Thoughts and Secrecy


‘We must care to think about the unthinkable things, because when things become unthinkable, thinking stops and action becomes mindless.’ (James W. Fulbright.)

Blog Post: Unthinking, Not Thinking and the Unthinkable.


‘Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.’  Albert Einstein.

Blog post: The Unthinkable: ‘Failed Empathy’ and Hatred of ‘the Other.’

Do you have any suggestions for subjects for next year’s posts? Please leave below and I’ll try my best to accommodate!

Thoughts and Secrecy




How important is it for us to have secret thought processes? Should we always reveal what we think? These are important questions, with powerful implications, which need thinking through.

Imagine for a moment what would be revealed to others, if there were no secrecy and no censorship of our innermost thoughts. What if all of our private our thoughts were displayed to those around us, if thought bubbles appeared above our heads? How might this affect our lives, our relationships, our world?

The philosopher Hanna Arendt felt that thought involves ‘that silent dialogue between me and myself which since Socrates and Plato we usually call thinking’ (“two-in-one”).  In an article entitled ‘Personal Responsibility under Dictatorship II ‘, Arendt underlines the importance of an inner dialogue between two parts of the self,  ‘me and myself’, in which issues can be thought through and discussed internally, The two parts need to have agreement, in order for the person to be clear and just in their dealings with others.

What is central to such thinking is the development of an integrated and ‘whole’ personality. In psychoanalytic terms, this means that aspects of the self are not split off, divided from our consciousness. If we are able to achieve this internal integration, then   the inner conversation will be an open one,  in that the inner arguments can be balanced, with thoughts and ideas freely accessed.

This internal dialogue is an important aspect of thinking with which we can all identify, but perhaps we may not have given it much of our attention. These silent whisperings are a part of everyday life. Sometimes they are not so silent; we have all sub-vocalised, or heard others whispering to themselves, as they work out their thought-processes.

This silent thinking is also powerfully explored in David Lodge’s fine novel Thinks . Lodge’s principal character, Ralph Messenger, professor of cognitive science, is studying human consciousness. Messenger records his own thoughts in a ‘stream of consciousness,’ as a way of researching into ‘the structure of thought.’


In Lodge’s novel, Messenger believes that ‘we can never know for certain what another person is thinking’. We need the secrecy. Messenger’s lover, Helen, underlines the reasons why she will not allow him access to her own secret thoughts ostensibly for his research. She emphasises the importance of privacy and of concealing thoughts to ‘maintain our self-respect’, which she views as ‘essential to civilisation.’

It is interesting to consider just how central is this secrecy of our thoughts to the maintaining of civilised behaviour in the world. Arendt also regards this private, internal reasoning process as essential to the avoidance of committing evil deeds. Without it, we would act without consideration, without standards, without internally questioning our morality.

Shakespeare has characters in two of his plays utter the phrase that ‘Thought is free’ (The Tempest and Twelfth Night.) This is true. We are free to think whatever we choose. However, freedom of thought is different from freedom of speech. Speaking our thoughts without consideration can be dangerous and hurtful.

We cannot always say what we think if our thoughts are offensive or likely to imperil others. Internal, personal editing, and sometimes censoring the expression of some thoughts is essential. In democratic societies there are often laws that prevent dangerous and criminal thoughts and ideas from being expressed publicly, such as those that involve as racism and sexism. Whilst some people may harbour such thoughts, they cannot be expressed legally in public.

The Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev, in a poem entitled Silentium, implies that thinking can be dangerous and he counsels us to keep our thoughts to ourselves:

Be silent, hide away and let
your thoughts and longings rise and set
in the deep places of your heart.

We are urged to recognise the impossibility of a thought being expressed clearly and truthfully:

What heart can ever speak its mind?
How can some other understand
the hidden pole that turns your life?
A thought, once spoken, is a lie.

This last line is, indeed thought-provoking. Can we ever understand another’s thoughts, once they are spoken? Or is it better to keep silent, as the poet says?




Thinking Again About our Photographs:The Photograph as a Way of Thinking, Part 2.





‘Photography is a medium of thought; it is a means of discovery and expression, a way to decipher patterns, to work out ideas, to find and tell stories.’ Spirn


In last week’s post, we began to explore the photograph above, knowing nothing about its content or its provenance. This week we continue to examine the image and then discover the known facts about it.

Let us begin by looking at the women’s body language.

The posture of the woman on the left is relaxed, hand resting on her lap. She leans towards the other woman. She is definitely addressing her. The shape of her mouth could indicate that she is speaking in a rather strident manner.

The woman on the right looks older, although it is difficult to gauge their ages. She is not  responding. Her body language contrasts with that of the other; she is far from expansive in her gesture. Smaller in stature than the younger woman, her body language indicates a passive, self-protective, closed attitude, as if she is feeling uncomfortable.

She stares at her raised foot, right hand clamped over her mouth, chin and gaze lowered. The other hand crosses her body. This is seen as a ‘barrier signal’ by Desmond Morris. Is she stopping herself from responding? Her gesture indicates suppression of speech.

What might she be thinking? She does not appear to relish what is being said to her. She does not look pleased.

Making no eye-contact with her companion, she appears still, although we cannot know whether her foot is kicking up and down. Somehow, it just looks raised, for her perusal. Her eyes are looking down, almost closed. This is a ‘Cut-off’ gesture; it is the ‘Evasive Eye.’ (Morris) It indicates a wish to withdraw from the other. It appears as if she is visually blocking out what is happening around her, for she cannot really be that interested in her own foot.

What might she be feeling? Could it be guilt? Anger? Fear? Meekness? An urge to kick, or flee? We cannot know.

As we peruse the picture in depth, more questions emerge:

What language are they speaking and what might they be saying?

Who took the photograph?

What is the date of the photo and what was happening in the wider world at this time?

Who are the women? What is their relationship?

Are there other photographs of them?

What is the emotional effect on you, the viewer, of this photo?

Whilst Yvonne could not answer all my questions, she could furnish me with some important facts. Other facts are lost in time, for the image will keep some secrets.

The picture was taken in the back garden of a now demolished house in Cheetham Hill, Manchester, where Yvonne’s mother and her twelve siblings were born. The women are her grandmother, Rose, and her great-grandmother, both of whom died before she was born. She ‘knows’ them only through family stories. And through photographs.

She guessed the date as the beginning of the 1900’s. Yvonne continued to describe the image:

‘The women were extremely Orthodox Jews, hence the hat and Bubba’s (Yiddish for [great] grandmother) sheitle (wig worn for religious purposes). The hat belonged to Bubba… was a Russian hat, she came from Vilnius, Lithuania. I don’t know what they were talking about and they only spoke Yiddish to each other. Life was hard and they all lived together. Rose had 17 pregnancies, 13 infants survived. The children brought each other up because Rose was always pregnant. I have a photo of my mother in her wedding dress rushing up the steps of the house straight after the Chuppa(ceremony) to be with Rose who was on her deathbed. She died aged 42.’



What poignant photographs of an impossibly joyful and excruciatingly difficult moment in Yvonne’s mother’s  life! How graphically has the camera frozen the image in time, chronicling for eternity the anxious bride as she visits her Mother’s house.

Then, in the right hand image, like some ethereal , almost spectral figure, she is there, at the bedside, observing her dying mother. It is as if the camera has captured the spirituality of the moment, and we are Rose, viewing her daughter through misted and fading eyes.

How much more can we legitimately add to these photographs from our own knowledge? Dorothy Lange said that ‘The camera is a tool for seeing without a camera.’ In similar vein, Spirn perceived that ‘The image is a form of thought.’

We can thus use the photograph to discover a way of thinking based on visual clues and markers. If we add some historical and familial knowledge to these clues in the tope photograph , for example, the Russian hat, we can be fairly sure that the two women were immigrants from Eastern Europe:

Exodus from Eastern Europe
It has been estimated that some 2.7 million Jews migrated west from eastern Europe between 1881 and 1914. Many were seeking work or a better standard of living. Others sought to avoid compulsory military service or persecution. The assassination of the Russian Czar in 1881 was followed by a series of campaigns (pogroms) against Jews in the Russian empire: Jews were forbidden from settling on or owning land outside towns or moving between villages, and restrictions were placed on their entering higher education or the professions.’

Spirn has pointed out that ‘research shows that perception and cognition are intimately linked’. In terms of Yvonne’s photographs, we can add the visual clues to her own comments and our knowledge of history and human nature. All these aspects can help us reconstruct the fragments of  long lost stories, that otherwise might be forever lost in time.

Perhaps you, the reader, might be able to look at your photographs with a different eye now?



Rose and her Mother dressed for best.

What Secrets Can We Learn from Looking at our Photographs? The Photograph as a Way of Thinking. (Part 1)

‘Seeing is for me a way of knowing, photography a way of thinking.’
Anne Whiston Spirn



(This post departs temporarily from the usual themes; however, photographs are often used in psychotherapy. They certainly make us think. Understanding how to look at a photograph can be highly relevant to an increased understanding of the self.)

How can photographs help us think? In this digitally-driven, quick-fire, fast-thinking world, staring at a photograph may become a rare experience. Yet doing so can slow down our thinking and encourage us to use our powers of perception more deeply.

Most images are given a cursory glance as they flash up on our screens and some of us have learnt only to skim the surface, unaware of the richness that lies beneath.

Anne Spirn uses the term ‘visual illiteracy, the inability to recognise and interpret visible signs and phenomena’ and she regards it as having potentially serious consequences, ‘impoverishing the spirit.’


Using the power of visual thinking, we can learn to think ourselves into the photograph, to explore more deeply beneath the immediate image.

In my book Beyond the Smile: The Therapeutic Use of the Photograph, I commented on a photograph taken in the Warsaw Ghetto by Roman Vishniac.

‘Try to look at this picture in a new way, examining every part, perceiving the smallest nuances and expressions. In this way, it may actually be possible to perceive more than the actual photographer himself saw at the moment of taking the picture. We can view the moment at our leisure, as the photographer could not do, although paradoxically, we are seeing less than he of that real moment in time.’


Without any other information, let us now discover what can we see and know about the photograph of two women above. If we look, really look, there are aspects that we can perceive and think about that might surprise us.

‘Separating photographs and text frees the reader to view the images unencumbered, to discover, to bring into play his or her own memories and associations..’ (Spirns)

Let us begin with some questions.

What might be happening in this photograph?
What time of day is it?
What time of year?
Where are they?
What might their body-language reveal to us?

There will be some aspects within this photograph that are fairly clear and obvious. Some questions will be left unanswered, some left to our imagination. Each person looking at this photograph will have a different understanding, a different imagination. There is mystery; the photograph has its secrets.

‘That, it seems to me, is precisely what photography is: a meeting of the actual and the imaginary, where each adds to, rather than detracts from, the power of the other..’ (Richard Howells.)

What can we be fairly certain about? Here are two women, sitting on the grass on deckchairs. Their shadows are short, indicating it might be around midday. Perhaps it is lunchtime and they are having a break from their work?

Do their clothes give us any clues? The woman on the left looks as though she has been working in a domestic setting, wearing an apron. It seems she has worked hard; her hair is a little unkempt and her apron possibly well-worn. Their dresses look simple; patterned, thin cotton, long-sleeved, with no jewellery, although they may wear wedding rings.

Why is one woman wearing a Russian hat? Is she from abroad? The photograph looks old and is black and white. It is hard to judge how old it is. Women’s dresses in Britain began to have shorter hemlines in about 1910, so it could be any time from then onwards. However, we cannot be certain that this photograph was taken in the UK.

The trees behind are in full leaf and the rough grass looks abundant. Perhaps we can say it is summer. The deckchairs are out.

There is barbed wire on top of the fence and there is possibly a washing line. Beyond is the end of a barn. Are they beside a road or in a garden? Is that a book on the grass?

There is a strong sense of immediacy in this image; gesture and body language create an intriguing scenario that ‘speaks’ to us. This is a ‘noisy’ photograph. Listen. Can you hear what the gesticulating woman is saying? The other figure is definitely silent. Her posture indicates that.

There is movement,  even though this is a still shot. The woman on the left is moving her lips and her hand. In a sitting position, legs apart, she does look quite a strong figure, perhaps someone tending to be ‘in charge.’

What might she be saying? Her facial expression and gesture might lead us to believe that she is animatedly talking about someone else and perhaps not in an altogether complimentary way. There is some supposition here, but our general experience of people’s expressions would indicate that this might be the case.

Her pointing thumb-gesture is often used when gossiping, as in this painting by Norman Rockwell,  although this woman is not gesturing behind, but to the side.


‘The Gossips.’

Desmond Morris’s book Peoplewatching explores such gestures in some detail:

‘…there is also a more general, directional thumb-point. It has the flavour of a rather surly action- a grumpy or irritated gesture.’
Desmond Morris

Morris describes how the thumb point, up or down, has traditionally been used as a gesture of power. He sees the ‘thumb-jerk’ as

‘ a gesture that hints at hidden power; it is definitely not for use by subordinates towards their superiors.’

It has also been said that

‘The Thumb Thrust gesture is not common among women, although they sometimes use the gesture to point at people they don’t like.’ (

In fact the woman in the photograph is pointing four fingers at herself. Interestingly, in Navajo culture, any kind of pointing is seen as very bad form:

‘When you point a finger there are three fingers pointing back at you.’

She could be referring to ‘’er next door.’ Or perhaps not. That is my imagination. What words can you put into her mouth? What can you read into her gesture?

In next week’s post, this exploration of this photograph will be continued and the known facts about it will be provided.

(Please scroll down if you wish to leave a comment on this post. Thanks.)



Looking again: The Relationship Between Thinking and Feeling and its Importance in the Psychotherapy Setting


‘But what then am I ? A thing which thinks. What is a thing which thinks? It is a thing which doubts, understands, affirms, desires, wills, refuses, which also imagines and feels.’
Rene Descartes, Meditations II (1641)


In this post, I want to explore how thinking and feeling are intricately linked; I will then move on into how these two faculties crucially interact in the therapeutic situation.

Can we ever disentangle thinking and feeling? They are so intricately linked, both from a psychological and a neuroscientific point of view. There are so many differing views of the way in which these two human faculties relate to each other.


For example, Ken Robinson, in his excellent book Out of Our Minds regards them as more than linked, to the extent of being merged, or one and the same. He regards feelings as actually ’forms of perception,’ so that, for example, feeling grief at someone’s death is actually an ‘evaluation,’ revealing something about the quality our relationship with the dead person.

Piero Scaruffi, who has written on Consciousness in Volume 4 of  Thinking about Thought : The Structure of Life and the Meaning of Matter, sees the two faculties as less enmeshed, but nevertheless emphasises their crucial interdependence:

‘While the relationship between “feeling” and “thinking” is still unclear, it is generally agreed that all beings who think also feel. That makes feelings central to an understanding of thinking.’

Whilst it might be difficult at present to be more precise, what is known is that the interplay of these two functions is complex, an inextricably interwoven mass of finely-tuned connections, deep within areas of the brain and the psyche. The amygdala, an almond-shaped set of neurons deep within the brain, plays an important role in processing certain feelings, like fear and pleasure. The neocortex is involved in advanced level mental functions, such as consciousness and rational thought.

Daniel Goleman used the term Emotional Intelligence in his book of the same name to describe the combination of empathy and emotion with clear and rational thought. Emotion guides and informs the thinking and behavioural process:

‘the workings of the amygdala and its interplay with the neocortex are at the heart of emotional intelligence.’

Understanding our emotions helps us to control and manage them and to develop functional relationships with other people.

What of the term ‘cognition?’ The words ‘thinking’ and ‘cognition’ are often used interchangeably. However, cognition is more of an overall, inclusive term, representing general mental capacities, the tools and hardware of our mind, such as the ability to reason, to acquire language, to remember, judge – and to think. Scaruffi regards cognition as being ‘at the service of our primary inner life : thoughts and emotions.’

‘Emotions play the key role of being preconditions to cognition and therefore to thought. ‘

We need a harmonious blend of both thought and feeling to function in the world. Can we even contemplate being in a world without either of these crucial faculties?

Imagine for a moment: a lack of feeling would mean that we would be robotic, and relationships with others would be impossible. There would be no love, hatred, guilt, desire, sadness, anger. Stasis and immobility would be the result, for we would be unable to do anything at all.

Without feeling, there would be no conflict, no ambition or motivation. Emotions like discontent, envy, boredom, stimulate us to move forward; anger rouses us to action, desire makes us search, love makes us give, hatred makes us fight.

Charlotte Bronte said that is is ‘better to be without logic than without feeling.’ Yet what would happen if there were no thought, no logic ? Absence of thought would result in chaos; if we could not think, there would be no sense or meaning in anything, and we would all be like riderless horses, careering through life with no aims or intentions.

Patrick McGhee, in his book Thinking Psychologically, writes in a very enlightening way about the importance of developing our thinking capacities, as well as our feelings:

‘We would all, I think, consider ourselves substantially incomplete in some significant way if we did not develop our emotional maturity or achieve our full emotional potential (however defined). But is it not also the case with thinking? Should we not also reckon our time in life by the range of forms of thought we experience as well as the forms of feeling? And is not cognitive as well as emotional maturity a form of human potential worth developing?’

It is interesting that he mentions the phrase ‘forms of thought.’ A book that I have found very central to my work as a psychotherapist is the late Dr Robert Hobson’s Forms of Feeling. He describes the word ‘feeling’ in the book’s title as an integrated aspect of the human psyche:

‘When I speak of feeling, I do to mean a faculty of emotions plus a faculty of cognition. It is a kind of ‘emotional knowing…’’

He emphasises the importance of using different types of thinking in the therapeutic process and especially underlines the importance of imaginative thought:

‘A psychotherapist needs to observe scrupulously details of verbal and non-verbal interaction in the interview. At the same time he envisages, with feelings… possibilities, new forms, new patterns of meaning. He needs to use imagination, described by Coleridge as:

‘the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere and with it the depth and height the ideal world, around forms, incidents and situations of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dewdrops.’’

Psychotherapy is, in fact, ultimately about helping people to think, clearly and creatively. (I will highlight the words in the following paragraphs that all reference forms of thinking in order to illustrate how central is the thinking process to psychotherapy.)

Therapy helps patients to become acquainted with their inner and outer world, to find ways of thinking through their problems that could lead to greater knowledge of themselves and other people. As therapy progresses, there is encouragement to face what might have been forbidden to the conscious mind through fear and to decipher those uneasy murmurings from the depths of the unconscious.

It is, understandably, difficult to think clearly when one is beset by painful and disturbing feelings; clearing out the dead wood of a painful past can be a confusing, contradictory and labyrinthine process. Yet it is crucially important to work through these feelings in therapy, to recognise their links to the past and to begin to understand their power to affect the present. It is psychotherapy that aims to help the patient know feelings. It helps the patient to gain insight into themselves and the world around them.