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How Metacognition, or Thinking About Thinking, Can Improve the Mental-Health Crisis

Researchers report metacognition therapies, or directing personal thoughts and emotions for the benefit of mental wellbeing, can have positive effects on the treatment of anxiety, depression, and addictions.

In these times of virtual meet-ups, negative news overload and widespread uncertainty, it’s fair to say it has been a tough time for our brains. If you’ve been feeling mentally subpar, you may be floating around the edges or caught in the middle of the cognition crisis. And don’t worry, you’re not alone.

Our world is facing a global mental health crisis, one that is unique to modern times. Neuroscientist and neurologist Adam Gazzaley calls this a problem of “ancient brains in a high-tech world.”

Our brains evolved for a very different environment, and our biological instincts are struggling to keep pace with a sea of information, artificial stimulation and smartphone pings. This has contributed to a worldwide surge in anxiety, depression, addiction and other cognitive issues.

As is often the case, technology comes first and society adapts second. We are learning that surviving and thriving in the modern world requires a better understanding of our mind. This need for “cognition about cognition” brings us to the science of metacognition.
The successes of metacognitive therapy
Computer simulations of cognition are a large focus of the Cognitive Modeling Lab at Carleton University where I work as a researcher while pursuing a PhD in cognitive science. The theme of my research is the use of computational modelling to clarify metacognition. Metacognitive strategies can be thought of as a kind of mental software that can help to improve our cognitive functioning.

From my experience, it is worth looking at the successes of metacognitive therapy. It is unique in the sense that it involves the development of beneficial metacognitive beliefs. In many cases, it has shown to be more effective than cognitive behavioural therapy, another dominant approach taken by therapists.

For example, it can be helpful for someone to believe “I can direct my thoughts and emotions, and it is beneficial for me.” Believing in this possibility is a necessary precursor to action. Metacognitive therapy focuses on building this foundation, and it’s from this firm grounding that people can reach for the specific tools of metacognition.

We are already aware of many of these tools. And yet our practical minds require evidence before committing to them. The improving of attention through mental training or meditation practice works. Likewise, the strategies offered by cognitive behavioural therapy are among the most effective for learning emotional regulation. Particularly useful is the practice of “detached mindfulness” for treating depression and anxiety. Memory strategies have also shown to be productive, including the famous mind palace technique.

It’s time we take care of our minds
Overcoming the cognition crisis partly depends on getting around our mind’s automatic pleasure-seeking. Internally, we can avoid falling into the trap of instant gratification by being mindful of the information and entertainment we consume. Externally, we can craft a physical environment that improves our efficiency and mental welfare. Distraction blocking software offers just one example of how to do this.

We exercise, control what we eat and buy ergonomic desk chairs to take care of our bodies — it’s long past time we take the same care of our minds. There are so many evidence-based actions we can take to design a personalized toolkit of mental habits and strategies. Doing so will allow us to be more deliberate with our thoughts, attention and emotions, which can then improve every aspect of our lives.

Just as human health depends on mastering our own physical systems, the future of cognition depends on understanding and controlling our own psychological states. Solving the cognition crisis requires we get smart about our own minds, and there’s never been a more vital time to do that.

6 replies
  1. Fateme Hemmati
    Fateme Hemmati says:

    Metacognition is a collection of knowledge and processes that monitor, direct and control one’s cognitive discoveries and actually manage cognitive activities.

  2. zahra moradi
    zahra moradi says:

    Hello professor, it was a very useful article.
    This is exactly how children cannot think about their own work when they are children.

  3. Fatemeh Sarhadi
    Fatemeh Sarhadi says:

    Your mental health affects the way you think, feel, and behave in your daily life and personal development. Also, it affects your ability to fight stress, overcome challenges, build relationships and overcome life’s problems and failures. Mental health does not only mean not having mental problems. Mental or emotional health is more than the absence of depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues. Mental health focuses on positive characteristics rather than referring to the absence of mental illness.

  4. Azadeh shokri
    Azadeh shokri says:

    Hi professor
    It was is interesting article. and achild at low ege cannot to think about their own activities well self _cognitive. So the meta_cognitive for the child is going to go to the child

  5. Hannaneh Ghalandari
    Hannaneh Ghalandari says:

    The effect of metacognitive therapy on the fusion of thoughts of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The multidimensional and complex nature of obsessive-compulsive disorder requires the investigation and application of new treatments. The current study was designed to investigate the effectiveness of Wells’ metacognitive model on the fusion of thoughts of patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder, as one of the important dimensions of metacognitive beliefs.
    Methodology: This semi-experimental research was carried out with a pre-test-post-test and follow-up design with a control group. Among all patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder who referred to psychological clinics in Shiraz in 2017, 24 were selected by purposive sampling method and randomly divided into two equal groups, test and control. The test group experienced 8 weeks of metacognitive therapy, while the control group was followed up alone. Thought fusion test was used as an evaluation tool in pre-test, post-test and follow-up after 2 months. Data were analyzed with descriptive indices and multivariate covariance analysis by SPSS statistical software.
    Findings: The patients of the test group showed a significant decrease in the total score of fusion of thoughts and also in the triple scores of fusion compared to the control group in the post-test and follow-up (P<0.001).
    Conclusion: The application of metacognitive model in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder is effective in reducing the symptoms of mixing their thoughts.


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