Is Introspection Possible?

You learn something new every day, or at least that’s what the cliché would have us believe, and today I learned that I should be more careful about choosing words. A few days ago on Facebook, I posted an affirmation/resolution, saying: Today I will be . . . introspective.

mindA friend sent me an email in response: I was about to make a comment on introspection but hesitated when I remembered a “strange” entry about the topic in the “Oxford Companion to the Mind.” They had a short paragraph that began by judging the entire psychological technique of introspection as being in danger of misinterpretation. They then stated “It has, however, become clear that very little that goes on in the brain associated with the mind is accessible to conscious introspection, and “we” regard the mind as a much broader concept than awareness, consciousness, or what is known by introspection” (Pg. 389). Was the “we” the editors? Isn’t that odd that they would sidestep something that I think of as quite positive and I’m certain you do as well.

Huh? I was under the impression that introspection was a synonym for contemplation or reflection, so I emailed her back: Fascinating. I thought a bit of introspection was a good thing. Don’t be surprised if a blog post on this topic shows up. I do most of my “introspecting” via blog, and this certainly needs a bit of thought.

Today I finally got a chance to research the word, and it turns out that introspection is a particular type of contemplation — the contemplation of one’s own thoughts.

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, introspection “is generally regarded as a process by means of which we learn about our own currently ongoing, or very recently past, mental states or processes.” To be classified as introspection, thoughts need to meet three conditions:

1. The mentality condition: Introspection is a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one’s mind.

2. The first-person condition: Introspection is a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about one’s own mind only and no one else’s, at least not directly.

3. The temporal proximity condition: Introspection is a process that generates knowledge, beliefs, or judgments about one’s currently ongoing mental life only; or, alternatively (or perhaps in addition) immediately past (or even future) mental life.

In other words, (at least I think these are other words that explain the situation), to be introspective, you must be thinking about your current thoughts. Some people, however, debate if this is even possible. Can the brain know itself? Can the mind know itself? Which brings us back to the email from my friend. Apparently (at least according to the Oxford folks), very little that goes on in the mind is accessible to conscious introspection.

Confusing the issue of whether introspection is possible, there is something called an introspection illusion, where we tend to believe we have direct insights into the origins of our thoughts, but treat everyone else’s insights as unreliable, so everything we do or think is biased in our own favor.

Introspection might seem impossible to scientists who need non-biased input, but on a personal level, introspection is possible — those of us with a contemplative bent do pay attention to how we think, but to be honest, from now on, I’m going to sidestep the whole issue and simply use the term “reflection.” That would cover everything — thoughts about my thoughts and thoughts about everything else. And who knows — maybe someday I’ll even bypass reflection and go straight to awareness.


Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+

8 Responses to “Is Introspection Possible?”

  1. rami ungar the writer Says:

    I like to think introspection’s possible, especially when I meditate or I listen to certain hypnosis tracks that help me listen to my body and mind. Otherwise, what the heck have I been doing all this time?

  2. ROD MARSDEN Says:

    I think we are generally in two minds. The conscious and the subconscious. Fraud would go further and say three minds which consist of the Id, the ego, the superego. In a ’70s text it was simplified into the child, the parent and the adult.

    The Id or child is our creative mind. If you are a painter or a writer this is where you get the juice from to paint or write. It is also where you get ‘play’ from in playwright. Here you can imagine. Here you can also want things NOW. I am walking along a footpath and I see someone with an apple. Id says that’s a nice apple, I want that apple, take it off that person because I want it. As you can imagine civilization wouldn’t last fort very lobng with this Id running things.

    What you need is your ego or parent. This is the part of your mind that has taken in all the rules and regulations involved in living with people. This is also the part of you that allows you to feel for others. You can’t care about anyone or fall in love without your ego or parent. On the other hand when I buy jewellery for some woman I care about my Id kicks in because he has better taste in that sort of thing than my parent.

    The superego or adult is basically a combination of the other two plus what your learning right now about stayimng alive and getting on with what you want to get on with.Mind you the other two at times need to be in the driver’s seat. You want to enjoy a walk across the Sydney Harbour Bridge? Not possible without your Id no matter how many times you do the walk. The parent will help you put your writing into some kind of order. Your Id isn’t very tidy and probably doesn’t care too much about spelling and punctuation. Sometimes you just don’t feel like being that adult person and sometimes you do.

    Right now I’m writing a novel in first person perspective. Introspection is called for. Right now I’m letting my Id out to play. Then my parent will clean up after that rascal and hopefully my adult with have come up with new and improved ways of presenting the results to the public.

    There is that bit of French business ‘I think therefore I am’ and Popeye did come up with ‘I am what I am’. And the writers of Red Dwarf had a great deal of fun putting those two sources together.

    I think we get a glimpse of the hidden us through dreams. Ah! But how to interpret them is the question.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I have enough trouble dealing with just one of me! Joking aside, I wonder if it’s possible to combine all one’s minds into a single focus.

      • ROD MARSDEN Says:

        It is. That’s how the best novels are written. Mind you if the Id wants to kick off for a while on his or, in your case, her own I’d say let the Id have some fun.

  3. Carol Wuenschell Says:

    Very interesting post.

    Sometimes word have a loose, everyday, or “lay” meaning and a more precise, or technical one. That’s part of what’s going on here.

    Just because we have a word for something doesn’t necessarily mean it exists, but in this case I don’t think we would have the word “introspection” (literally, “looking within”) if a significant number of people didn’t feel that they could do this kind of self-examination. Personally, I think I have learned a lot about myself through introspection and I don’t really care whether some psychology theorist thinks I can’t do it.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      That’s what I thought introspection was — looking within. Such a simple concept. I prefer the lay meaning, as you call it. I don’t analyze my thought so much as I analyze everything. It’s the thoughts doing the analyzing.

  4. Mike Croghan Says:

    Hello, Pat. I’m a retired educator (high school and university). I claim no expertise beyond some serious reading and years of “introspecting”. I would discourage you from casting the word aside. I believe it has real value in the universe and in human relations. Indeed, I’d say there’s precious little of “introspecting”. Were there more, people would be in closer touch with what pushes their behavior and that would, I think, make for less pushy, more peaceful behavior.

    As educator, I battled mightily to explain “metalearning” to my students, especially those who were preparing to be teachers. If we can get in touch (through introspection) with HOW we learn what we learn, we’re more liable to become independent and thoughtful learners. That means more effective learners. “Metalearning” – the mental skill to get outside of oneself when we are learning successfully and study HOW it is we are learning what we are learning.

    Don’t give up on introspection. Humanity needs more of it, not less. I believe introspection makes us smarter, too. Examining how we learn? Wouldn’t that be just too cool?

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      MIke, what a fascinating concept. I’d never heard of metalearning, but to be able to see how we learn makes perfect sense. I have a talent for learning, but have no idea how I learn other than that I pay attention. From my first days in school, I always did well on tests because I knew intuitively how to take them (sort of a triage, first answer the questions I knew the answer to, then do the ones I could figure out the answer to, then take the others one at a time), but I have no idea how I learned that at such a young age. I also learned the teacher more than the subject, so I knew what would be on the test, and I don’t know how I learned that, either.

      I have a hunch that although I’ve led mostly a contemplative live, I’ve been more reflective (or even reflexive) than introspective.

      Because of my experiences with grief and what it does to a person, I’ve become aware of my lizard brain and how it works, but maybe it’s time to start paying attention to how my mind works, too. The part of me that could step aside and see those workings would probably be the real me. Unless there is another layer to us beyond that?

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