How ‘Feelings About Thinking’ Help Us Navigate Our World

A key idea here is that our brains are constantly riding the ups and downs of the uncertainty that surrounds us. Part of this uncertainty has to do with our own cognitive processes and capacities…

Illustration: Painting by Irshad Salim (Toronto, 2010)

by Pablo Fernandez Velasco and Slawa Loev at Psyche: The British TV quiz show University Challenge is known for its tough questions and the lightning-fast responses of the contestants: How is hydrated magnesium silicate known when used in a bathroom? Which major US city is geographically closest to London? Species in which family of seabirds include Arctic, River, Sandwich and Roseate? If you are the average TV watcher, chances are someone on the show will have pressed the buzzer before you even had time to understand the question (Talc! Boston! Tern!) The participants are certainly all very knowledgeable, but there is more to it than just knowing the answers. ‘People who aren’t “natural quizzers” think they should only buzz in when absolutely certain, which usually means waiting to hear as much of the question as possible,’ says Tom Whyman, a philosophy lecturer and a former contestant. ‘In fact, you have to get to the buzzer before your head quite gets to the answer: if I had to describe the feeling, it’s a knowing that you’re going to know.’

That feeling of ‘knowing that you’re going to know’ is commonly described in psychology as the feeling of knowing. It belongs to a ragtag family of emotional processes called metacognitive feelings, which includes things like the feeling that you are forgetting something, the sense of déjà vu, the feeling of insight, or the sensation that some key information is at the tip of your tongue.

These everyday experiences are often overlooked, but they provide important examples of the interplay between emotion and reason. The picture of the mind that most people have is still one in which passion and reason are separate, and emotions get in the way of clear thinking. But metacognitive feelings show the constant interaction of ‘reason’ and ‘passion’ in our mental processes. Moreover – as we’ll explain – these feelings are consequential. In fact, cognitive prowess often has to do with tuning into these feelings in a skillful way, as the University Challenge example shows.

More here.