Observing Thinking

Observing Thinking
Observing Thinking

Monday, August 1, 2016

Reflecting on Reflection/Exploring Reflecting... Take your Pick

Sunday morning. Time to get to work on my next column. I start by checking my media sources for new ideas. Pocket has a link to a potentially interesting article from the New York Times: “The End of Reflection” by Teddy Wayne. It’s a fairly quick read which examines some of the research on how the technology provided by the Internet favors multitasking and scattered thinking to the detriment of thinking reflectively or “thinking about thinking”. I first heard the phrase, “thinking about thinking “ over forty years ago while I was working on my dissertation --- I didn’t care much for it then and I haven’t changed my mind. It’s an example of a self-referential statement which most always leads to a paradox; for example, “This sentence no verb” or “Absolutely all absolute statements are false.” Since language is meant to clarify and communicate ideas, it’s a good idea to stay away from paradoxes unless you’re telling a joke or just want to show off.

However, the interesting thing for me is that, while reading the article, about halfway down, there is an active link (you know, some text colored blue which holds the promise of whisking you off to another website) from which much of Wayne’s article was derived ( “Our Cluttered Minds” by Jonah Lehrer). Unable to contain my curiosity and being of easily distractible nature, I clicked and went. And guess what? Halfway down this article was a reference to the term, “Hot Take” which led me to another search which led me to “A History of the Hot Take” by Elspeth Reeve.

At this point I began to realize that I was confirming the Wayne and Lehrer hypothesis: I was allowing myself to be distracted by the hyperlink jumping ability provided by the Internet instead of first reading the entire article and then reflecting on its content. I was jumping in when I should have been standing back.

Before going further, I have (in the interest of full disclosure) tinkered with the truth a bit in the above description of my actions. While I may appear dumb, I am really not that dumb. In fact, as soon as I saw the first link, I did go to that page and after a hasty scan, realized it would be useful and simply saved the page in a new tab which I could come back to later. Same deal for all subsequent links. So maybe there is a middle ground, a compromise if you will, between completely standing back and reflecting vs jumping in and forging ahead allowing the creative drive to lead us where it may.

Perhaps the problem of reflection vs “distraction” is a false dilemma. Perhaps both are useful problem-solving tools. Then we could replace the pejorative word, “distraction” with a more positive one like “exploring” or “doing”. This idea is not a new one; somewher around 350 BCE Aristotle wrote, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them" and later in the early 20th century when educational theorist John Dewey promoted the concept of “experiential learning”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiential_learning

But this “learning by doing” strategy is not sufficient. Certainly we can learn by doing but our understanding is deepened and enhanced by reflecting on what we have just done: could it have been done better, more efficiently, how does it fit in with what we already know? Note that this is not the same as “thinking about thinking --- this is thinking about what we have done. Learning is an exploratory process while Reflection is an integrative one.

In short, we learn best by doing and then thinking about what we’ve done. But progress in Internet technology has made us more impatient: who has the time to reflect if we can’t wait out a two-second delay in response to our query? As the creator of old-time comic strip “Pogo”, Walt Kelly put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” On the other hand, as some other old sage has noted, the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is a problem. I’m working on it.

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