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+