"Cognitive psychology is the study of mental processes such as attention, language use, memory, perception, problem solving, creativity and thinking." - the Wikster
"i think you would really enjoy cognitive psychology." - Valerie Micu (Elwell)
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thinking about thinking is probably in my top 5 favourite introspective exercises. i've been doing it without deciding to do it ever since high-school and possibly before that, and i intend not only to continue, but also to increase the frequency at which i indulge in it. although it can be done wastefully, i find the returns on my mental self-investment generally quite substantial.
when i think about the way i think (cognitive psychology), good things usually happen. i plan to do it more and more.
"what kinds of good things?"
well, here's the deal: we humans fall into routines pretty easily. if our environment remain unchanged for several days in a row, we adapt to it, oftentimes without really thinking about the fact that we're doing so. examples abound: we know where the furniture in our house is without purposely memorizing anything, but stub our toes or bump our heads after a major rearrangement (or when moving to a new place). we type our passwords more quickly than many other words that get used less often. if we give up soda for Lent, going back to it again feels strange; maybe we don't like that sugary syrup taste anymore... even though soda hasn't changed at all during that time, nor have our tastebuds altered in composition. #cogpsychftw
downside, though: any pattern of thinking can become so normal for us that we don't know when it is hurting us. examples here are harder to find, until we start examining the people around us, rather than ourselves.
Ug often comes home from work with a contrary attitude. he finds some slight flaw in whatever anyone says about anything, gets verbally frustrated at any mundane just-got-home ritual that doesn't get executed to perfection, and will spend half an hour complaining about some five-second-long unpleasant interaction he had with someone earlier that day, picking it apart until i can't even remember what the whole looked like.
all of this makes perfect sense to me, 1) because he has to deal with stupid junk at work almost every day, and 2) because he is not one to naturally critique his own thought processes on a regular basis. that latter is very important: if Ug were to think about this pattern, and how it affects his daily life, he would likely be inclined to change it.
(i don't mean to pick on my wonderful uncle. he is a wonderful uncle. but he's just such an easy target, and i'd rather spend most of my blogging energy on things other than ensuring that i'm being fair in my choice of he upon whom i pick.)
full disclosure: even as a naturally metacognitive person, i have many many unhealthy thinking patterns. unfortunately, i am unaware of most of them. fortunately, i am dead-set on hunting them down one by one, and dealing justly / strategically with them. doing so will greatly improve my overall health, via my mental & emotional health (which affect my physical health).
which brings me to the point i'd like to make, the thought that inspired this blog post: regular meditation is an awfully great idea.
*gasp* "but isaiah! you're a CHRISTIAN!! how could you?!?!"
i'm happy to say (and, i am always happy to say this): i can explain.
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prayer is both duty & privilege for the Christian. it involves [allegedly] two-way communication between oneself and the mysterious Person responsible for our creation, and i myself have found the allegations of mutuality to be circumstantially true. furthermore, those circumstances are somewhat manipulable by those who seek to improve their prayer skills.
"isaiah, prayer isn't a skill. it's just talking to God."
you are incorrect, you dumb anonymous asker/commenter. prayer, which utilizes our cognitive abilities (among other things), very much involves our brains. most of us think when we pray. (i suppose you could pray without thinking, but i don't think that's the instruction we've been Given.)
and because it involves our brains, which develop patterns quite naturally (as designed), it can be described as a skill. maybe not every Christian wants or tries to be a better pray-er, but in this case it's simply a skill that doesn't improve. i very much want to improve my cognitive skills, and prayer will certainly benefit from my attempts to reach this brain-related goal.
i'm rambling. back on track:
i am talking about prayer because it includes that which i would now describe as meditation. i say "now" because i'm just recently learning about meditation on purpose. it has to do with shifting one's awareness, guiding one's attitude via either cooperation with or (more likely) wrestling against one's established thought patterns.
"once more, but differently, please."
i used to think meditation was about thinking certain things over and over again until something mystical happened. but now i think meditation is about choosing to think in a certain way for a chunk of time, with the goal of altering not only how one thinks but how one feels. additionally (and more importantly!), it is about changing how one thinks after the meditation is completed.
i believe meditation can be used to improve one's mental and emotional health. i believe it can guide our attitudes. and i believe that anyone who is not 'meditating' on purpose is doing it accidentally instead, and that accidental meditation is one of the top causes of mental distress in the world.
"what the eff is accidental meditation?"
call it what you will, but i call it that because it happens without us choosing it and it affects our thought patterns in a similar way to purposeful meditation. here are some examples. i'll use 'me' in each, for readability's sake. they may or may not be things that actually apply to me.
- calling myself stupid every time i do something stupid
- thinking anxiously about work tasks that are scheduled for the next week, especially without making any plan for how to deal with them
- contemplating what a failure my life is, and therefore what a failure i am
- dwelling on wrongs done to me (dwelling: indulging in the feeling of pain, when i could choose not to)
- getting (and especially staying) annoyed at Brittany leaving her ginormous brush on my side of the bathroom sink again
- attempting to sort through my entire day's experiences as i am also 'trying' to fall asleep
that last one is particularly stupid. it's like in those rom-coms where the guy tries to be on a date with two different girls in the same restaurant. we laugh, but we do that all the time, people.
do too. if you examine your life, or if you had the advantage of watching yourself on DVD, you would notice that you sometimes attempt to do mutually exclusive things, simultaneously. it's madness.
the cure is meditation.
shut up. here's isaiah's official definition (subject to future improvements) of meditation: time set aside exclusively for the purpose of ongoing improvement in one's thoughts, feelings, and attitudes, especially in preparation for those processes as they occur outside of meditation time.
"and this relates to prayer how?"
i believe prayer's first purpose is to change the one doing the praying, rather than to change the [other] things about which one is praying. in this way i believe prayer and meditation [should] have significant overlap.
"but God is the one Who changes Christians."
yes. and one of the ways He does so is by inviting them to pray, because prayer changes people, and would do so even if the One to Whom they were praying was not listening.
i've been called worse.
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prayer changes people because it encourages them to graciously consider their own hearts and minds. this was never the biblical description of prayer, but i think that if you were to interview everyone in the world who prays (to anyOne, not just to God), you'd find this common denominator: it's calming. it's 'centering.' it's healthful. it's like reorganizing your bedroom, or office, or office bedroom: things feel clean and simple. less clutter.
i want less mental clutter. i want to be less frustrated, and frustrated less often. i want to be at peace inside. i think we all want that at some points in our lives. i want it at this point, for the rest of my life. so i'll start practicing, on purpose, to change the way i inwardly live. i will pray, and i will meditate, and i will do both.
as i was preparing to type all of this out (you know that excited feeling when ideas are bursting forth), i thought about all the times i've tried to meditate, without realizing at the time that i was trying to meditate. most of those times did not involve prayer. i went to the backyard and worked on my necklace, listened to music, smoked cigars (see? it's good for me!), lit up the firepit (aesthetics are important for meditation!)... even doing the dishes can be meditative for me.
this guy, one of my most favourite bloggers, calls it mindfulness. he even agrees with me about the dishes! (or... i agree with him. whatevs.) check it out: http://www.raptitude.com/2010/03/how-to-make-mindfulness-a-habit-with-only-a-tiny-commitment/
not sure what my meditation routine will be. but i know that meditation and its benefits will be in the back of my mind every time i sense an opportunity.
i wanna mention one more meditationy thing that i do, because it's such a simple cognitive improvement that i think many others would appreciate. when my mind is going a million mph, while i'm supposed to be falling asleep, i have basically three options: 1) do what i used to do, which is attempt to order all of those thoughts and steer them in a productive direction; 2) try to think nothing at all; or 3) a special kind of meditation that's miraculously effective (for me).
the first is lame. it frustrates me even more, and pushes sleep away. the second is impossible for more than 2 seconds. the third is an idea that struck me suddenly a few years ago, when i became so frustrated with method #uno that i angrily, immaturely told my brain: "fine, you SOB. think whatever you want, and may it be the least productive thinking time ever. i don't even care anymore."
and then i let my brain jump from thought to thought at will. it would get to about 7% completion of any given thought before dumping it and moving on to the next random synaptic arc. i describe it too wordily (??); it would take less than a second to touch on fifty different things.
during my day, this kind of thinking would drive me crazy. i would probably be worried for myself and take some strong medication (possibly from my favourite island; you know, the really long one).
but at sleepytime, it's magical. like free-range chickens with their heads cut off, my many tiny thought processypoos scatter to the four winds. and i fall asleep in less than five minutes. in every case where, at bedtime, my cognitive overlord wants to terraform my boggy mindscapes into functional-yet-artistic bastions of urban efficiency... if i simply release the krakens (unless kraken is already plural??), i have no trouble whatsoever slipping into unconsciousness. every case. i repeat: this method has not yet failed me. in years.
meditation is not some new age mumbo-jumbo. it is a way to cooperate with oneself, so that things we'd normally try to force, instead happen quite naturally. i encourage you to try it, whether you do so at the kitchen sink, in your recliner, between the sheets, on a mountaintop, in a temple, at your office desk, in front of the fireplace, in a coffee shop while watching the rain, or in your vehicle while waiting for your inspector. #inabox #withafox
join me sometime next month for a monumental life makeover, in which i will change names, post shameless topless selfies, and dump whole bunches of friends at once.