Thinking About Our Thinking

Should we really be worried about robots taking over? Artificial Intelligence (AI) has become extremely sophisticated since Alan Turing took the first steps towards developing computers as we know them today. In the past few years especially, the progress made by AI developers has led to some anxiety concerning the loss of human livelihoods to robots.

However, despite the amazing achievements of developers, AI is unable to compete with the human brain in one crucial field: we will call it mega-cognition. Put simply, AI does not know what it does not know, whereas humans do. In fact, humans are unique when it comes to this profound thought process. We are able to think about our thinking.  We are aware of being conscious and are able to think about our minds, which means that we are sufficiently self-aware to know when we might be wrong or need to seek help.

The label for this cognitive ability is self-awareness, and its advantages are massive. Here are the most obvious.

  • Managing relationships. We can choose to control how we think and behave. By recognising our feelings and moods, we can choose to regulate them.
  • Decision making. We are able to think through sequential consequences, thereby distinguishing short-term impulses from long-term, value-based goals.
  • By knowing ourselves, we can empathise with others and communicate with them on a mutually understood platform.

But even though self-awareness is a common human trait, it is not evenly distributed: some have more sense of it than others. In fact, “Social scientists have discovered that people often grossly over-estimate their level of self-awareness.” * However, we do have the ability to cultivate self-awareness, and here are four of my favourite ways to do it.

  1. Keep a journal. By writing down how you feel, it is easier to identify the triggers that activate the sad or happy emotions: then you know which to avoid!
  1. Ask for feedback. Choose someone you have a solid relationship with and let them help you identify your blind spots. Listen well and work on recognising them.
  1. Read fiction. High quality fiction writers are often great observers of the human condition. We can learn from their capacity to note the details and nuances of life, thereby enhancing our own thoughts and reactions.
  1. Third person perspective. Pretend you are one of those writers who tells the story of your relationship with someone who ‘winds you up’ from the third person’s perspective. This may help you understand the whole situation and your reactions, leading to a more considered assessment of your reactions.

It's good to keep on learning, and you don’t have to go back to school for it. Life itself is one big learning workshop, and it comes with plenty of hands-on experiences built in.  And if you wish, you can check out some great resources at The School of Life.

A final quote: “If we seek to preserve our humanity, the answer is not to elevate intelligence (it is) self-consciousness that makes human beings different.” (Johnathan Sacks.

* Tara Wells, Barnard College.