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Meta-awareness is a state of deliberate attention toward the contents of conscious thought, serving as an appraisal of experiential consciousness. Meta-awareness is necessary for such uniquely human tasks as monitoring and controlling conscious thought, while lapses in meta-awareness make room for such phenomena as mind wandering and unwanted thoughts. Further, meta-awareness can be problematic because it is limited in scope and costly to maintain. Recent research on mindfulness-based meditation provides an example of a process that can cull the advantages of meta-aware states, while avoiding many of the drawbacks.
Jason M. Chin
University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Jonathan W. Schooler
University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California, USA
Names and Affiliations
Jason M. Chin, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Jonathan W. Schooler, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, California,
Full Addresses
Department of Psychology, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA,
93106-9660. Phone: 805-893-2791 Email: Fax: 805-893-2791.
Department of Psychology, University of California Santa Barbara, Santa Barbara, CA,
93106-9660. Phone: 805-893-2791 Email: Fax: 805-893-
Further Reading
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developmental inquiry. American Psychologist, 34, 906-911.
Lambie, J. A. & Marcel A. J. (2002) Consciousness and the varieties of emotion
experience: A theoretical framework. Psychological Review, 109, 219-259
Mason, M. F., Norton, M. I., Van Horn, J. D., Wegner, D. M., Grafton, S. T., & Macrae,
C. N. (2007). Wandering minds: The default network and stimulus independent
thought. Science, 315, 393–395.
Nelson, T. O. (1996). Consciousness and metacognition. American Psychologist 51, 102-
Norman, D. A. and Shallice, T. (1986). Attention to action: Willed and automatic control of
behaviour. In Davidson, R. J., Schwartz, G. E., and Shapiro, D., editors, Consciousness
and Self-Regulation: Advances in Research and Theory. Plenum Press.
Schooler, J. W. (2002) Re-representing consciousness: Dissociations between
consciousness and meta-consciousness. Trends in Cognitive Science, 6, 339-344.
Schooler, J.W., Ariely, D., & Loewenstein, G. (2003) The pursuit and monitoring of
happiness can be self-defeating. J. Carrillo and I. Brocas (Eds) Psychology and
Economics (41-70) Oxford, GB: Oxford University Press.
Schooler, J. & Schreiber, C.A. (2004). Experience, meta-consciousness, and the paradox
of introspection. Journal of Consciousness Studies, 11(7–8), 17–39.
Smallwood, J., Beach, E., Schooler, J. W., Handy, T. C. (2008). Going AWOL in the
Brain: Mind Wandering Reduces Cortical Analysis of External Events. Journal of
Cognitive Neuroscience, 20, 458-469.
Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W., (2006). The Restless Mind. Psychological Bulletin,
132, 946 -958.
Teasdale, J. D., Moore, R.G., Hayhurst, H., Pope, M. Williams, S., Segal, Z. (2002).
Metacognitive Awareness and Prevention of Relapse in Depression: Empirical
Evidence. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70, 275–287.
Winkielman, P.W. & Schooler, J.W. (in press) Unconscious, conscious, and
metaconscious in social cognition Strack & J. Förster (Eds.), Social cognition:
The basis of human interaction. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.
Table of Contents
I. Introduction
II. History
III. Meta-awareness and Monitoring
IV. Dissociations between meta-awareness and consciousness
V. Temporal Dissociations
VI. Translation Dissociations
VII. The double-edged nature of Meta-awareness
VIII. Conclusion
Automaticity; Mind wandering and other lapses; Executive Functions; Mindfulness;
Attention; Thought Suppression
Mind wandering: The experience of having thoughts that are unrelated and often
counterproductive to the task and hand.
Default network: Collection of brain regions that have been shown to be active during
brain imaging studies during rest periods. It is thought to have connections with mind
Recovered memories: Memories that one was previously not aware of.
Verbal overshadowing: The phenomenon of verbal report interfering with a related task.
For instance: describing a face and subsequently having poorer recognition for that face.
Temporal dissociation: A disconnect between consciousness and meta-awareness in
which one becomes meta-aware of an experience that had once eluded appraisal.
Translation dissociation: A disconnect between consciousness and meta-awareness in
which meta-awareness, in re-appraising consciousness has misrepresented the original
Flow: A mental state marked by full immersion in a task, such as the feeling of being “in
the zone.”
Meta-awareness is a state of deliberate attention towards the contents of conscious
thought, serving as an appraisal of experiential consciousness. Meta-awareness is
necessary for such uniquely human tasks as monitoring and controlling conscious
thought, while lapses in meta-awareness make room for such phenomena as mind
wandering and unwanted thoughts. Further, meta-awareness can be problematic because
it is limited in scope and costly to maintain. Recent research on mindfulness-based
meditation provides an example of a process that can cull the advantages of meta-aware
states, while avoiding many of the drawbacks.
Meta-awareness, a term often used interchangeably with meta-consciousness, is
the state of deliberatively attending to the contents of conscious experience. Frequently
when researchers speak of consciousness, they distinguish between two general states.
Unconscious, in which if information is processed at all, it is processed without any
concomitant experience, and conscious in which individuals experience what ever is
occupying their minds. In this context, meta-awareness can be thought of as third level
of consciousness in which consciousness is turned upon itself in order to re-represent the
contents of experience. In other words, meta-awareness is one’s explicit appraisal of the
current contents of consciousness.
The distinction between unconscious, conscious, meta-conscious processes can be
illustrated with the example of mind-wandering while reading. Consider the all too
familiar case of reading along and then suddenly realizing that despite your best
intentions, although your eyes have continued to move across the page, your mind was
fundamentally elsewhere. In this example, the pattern recognition procedures that
allowed you decode the individual words correspond to an unconscious processes.
Conscious experience would primarily correspond to specific contents of mind-
wandering musings, although presumably some superficially processed aspects of the
reading (e.g. the sounds of some of the words) would also enter consciousness. Initially
in this example, meta-awareness would be absent until you notice that you are mind
wandering. This abrupt realization (almost like waking up) represents the dawning of
meta-consciousness in which you take stock of what you are thinking about and realize
that it has nothing to do with what you are reading. Once meta-awareness of mind
wandering is achieved, then you are able to re-direct attention to the narrative and can
search for the last sentence you remember actually attending to, and try again.
Several important features about meta-awareness emerge from the mind-
wandering while reading example. First, where as conscious and unconscious processes
are presumed to carry on relatively continuously through out waking life, meta-
consciousness is intermittent. Only periodically does one take stock of the contents of
thought, which is how it is possible for one to mind wander during reading despite
knowing that it is impossible to comprehend text while simultaneously thinking about
something entirely unrelated to what he or she is reading. Second, when one notices that
they are mind-wandering while reading, there is often an abrupt experience of “coming
to.” It is almost as if one has just awoken even though they were not previously asleep.
The abruptness of meta-conscious understandings illustrates the qualitative difference
between a mental state that is associated with meta-consciousness and one for which
meta-consciousness is lacking. Finally, it is important to emphasize that when one
notices that the mind has wandered, this fact temporarily becomes the dominant element
in consciousness, as one thinks to themselves “shoot I just spaced out again, let’s see:
where was I?” Thus although meta-consciousness represents a distinct category of
thought, it may be nothing more then a particular kind of subject matter of consciousness,
namely when the subject of consciousness becomes an acknowledgement of what ever it
is that consciousness had just been focusing on. In short, meta-consciousness need not
represent a unique mental state, nor need it entail specific dedicated brain regions. It may
simply be a topic area (albeit a very important one) of consciousness.
Meta-awareness can be thought of as a subtype of larger category of mental
phenomenon known as “meta-cognition.” Meta-cognition corresponds to our knowledge
about what we know. The term was introduced by John Flavell in the context of studying
children’s capacities for monitoring their cognitions. Flavell distinguished two general
classes of meta-cognition. The first was meta-cognitive knowledge, or in other words
understanding how thought operates in the world. Belief that rehearsal improves memory
falls under this category of meta-cognitive knowledge. The second class was meta-
cognitive experiences, which was more focused on the feelings associated with meta-
cognition. The feeling that a sought for word is on the “tip of one’s tongue” falls under
this heading.
A key moment in the development of the construct of meta-awareness came with
Thomas Nelson and Louis Narens’ introduction of a basic model of the control and
regulation of cognition in a paper published in 1990. This early model proposed two
levels of cognition, the object level and the meta-level. The object level deals with
cognitions about external objects, while the meta-level deals with cognitions about object
level cognitions. Moreover, information was said to flow between these two levels.
Monitoring occurs when the object level is informed by information from the meta-level.
Control, on the other hand, occurs when information from the meta-level modifies the
object level. These applications of meta-cognitive knowledge provided a shift from work
focusing on an understanding of conscious thought, towards work on meta-awareness as
a specific representation of consciousness. The distinction between monitoring and
control remains prevalent in current work on meta-awareness.
Meta-awareness and Monitoring
Many aspects of daily life require routine monitoring and adjustment. When one
speaks, one needs to adjust their volume to the ambient noise in the room. When one
reads, one needs adjust the rate at which they move their eyes in accordance with
comprehension. In many cases, this type of monitoring and adjustment can carry on
behind the scenes without any explicit awareness. However, the tacit monitoring system
is limited in the types of things it can monitor. It can, for example, help one to keep their
volume appropriate under normal circumstances, but if one is wearing headphones they
have to explicitly attend to their volume when they speak or otherwise they will shout.
Similarly, tacit monitoring processes can control eye movements sufficient to recognize
the word, but recognizing that one is not attending to what the words are saying requires
a more sophisticate monitoring process. Meta-awareness provides this more
sophisticated form of monitoring. Comparisons can be drawn between the meta-aware
monitoring system and the pilot of an airplane. The autopilot system (tacit monitoring)
can efficiently pilot a plane under most circumstances, making minor adjustments to keep
the plane on track under most conditions. However, if something major occurs, the pilot
(meta-awareness) is needed to make major corrections and decisions. The meta-aware
monitoring system has a lot more resources available as it draws from several different
systems, but is also more resource-taxing and can potentially interfere with carrying out
concurrent tasks. Thus while it is necessary to invoke meta-awareness periodically to
make sure that things are on track, the common absence of meta-awareness is adaptive
because it frees up resources that can be applied to the task at hand.
Dissociations between meta-awareness and consciousness.
Because meta-awareness is re-representation of the contents of consciousness and
not consciousness itself, it is possible that meta-awareness can in some cases be an
imperfect or poorly timed translation of conscious experience. In other words, people
may fail to take stock of their conscious thoughts, or may do so inaccurately. These
dissociations between meta-awareness and consciousness can have important and far-
reaching consequences. Researchers have classified two specific types of dissociations:
temporal dissociations, which are discovered experiences that once had eluded meta-
awareness, and translation dissociations, which encompass occasions when meta-
awareness does not accurately reappraise conscious experience. Both types of
dissociations are explained in greater detail below.
Temporal Dissociations
Conscious experience can often occur in an absence of meta-awareness. When
triggered, meta-awareness can lead to a re-appraisal of elements of conscious thought that
once eluded meta-awareness. This experience of discovering an experience that one was
previously not meta-aware of is known as a temporal dissociation.
Mind Wandering
Mind wandering without noticing it is a quintessential example of a temporal
dissociation meta-awareness. The pervasive phenomenon of mind wandering occurs
when attention is decoupled from the task an individual intended it be directed on. In
many situations, mind wandering may be quite adaptive or at least, harmless. For
example, when one is walking to work, it may be helpful to think about what one needs
to do that day, rather then devoting all attention to the non-demanding task of walking
down the sidewalk. However, in other situations, for example, when one is driving in
difficult traffic or reading an important paper, mind-wandering is counter-productive.
The fact that individuals mind wander even when engaged in tasks that they recognize as
being undermined by mind-wandering, illustrates how easy it is to temporarily lose track
of what is going on in one’s mind, i.e. to have a temporal dissociation of meta-awareness.
In recent years, a number of laboratory studies have investigated the process and
impact of mind wandering without meta-awareness. Under laboratory conditions two
different approaches have been used to sample mind-wandering. The first approach, the
probe-caught method, samples the experience of the individual at varying time intervals
as they perform a cognitive task. The second approach, the self-caught method, requires
the individual responds with a button push whenever they catch their own mind-
wandering. Probe and self-caught measures of mind-wandering yield different
information on the occurrence and awareness of mind wandering because they
systematically sample the different aspects involved in off-task experiences. The probe-
caught technique provides evidence of how readily the mind turns inward, and can be
used to study the onset of decoupling, or the speed of drift within attention. On the other
hand, the self-caught method requires the individual to recognize that their mind is
wandering , and so illustrates the engagement of meta-awareness of their own mind-
wandering. Evidence of the value of distinguishing between probe caught and self-
caught mind wandering comes from the findings that the two measures are differentially
associated with task performance. Interestingly, it is the probe caught mind wandering
episodes that tend to be maximally associated with detriments in performance including
both reading comprehension and memory. The more modest consequences of self-
caught mind wandering episodes suggest that when individuals are meta-aware of mind
wandering, they are more effective in circumventing its costs either by more effectively
dividing attention or by more efficiently recovering information that was missed during
the lapse.
A second way in which meta-awareness during mind-wandering has been
assessed is simply to ask people following a probe whether or not they had previously
been aware of the fact that they were mind wandering. Strikingly this simple procedure
reveals consistent differences (in keeping with the self-caught probe caught distinction
introduced above). For example, mind-wandering episodes that are characterized as
having occurred with out meta-awareness (termed “zone-outs) are typically correlated
with performance detriments, where as mind-wandering episodes that occur with meta-
awareness (termed tune-outs) tend to be less problematic. Neurocognitive measures
have revealed a similar story. For example, errors on a simple vigilance task were found
to be correlated with zone-outs but not with tune-outs. Similarly, in an fMRI study of
mind-wandering, it was found that the difference in brain activation between on task and
off task performance was markedly greater when individuals reported being off task and
unaware, relative to off task and aware.
During mind wandering, it can often seem like the task at hand (e.g., reading, in
some cases) has been put on auto-pilot. There are some tasks, however, that can more
easily be put on automatic, and these task are also understood better under the umbrella
of meta-awareness. Automatic behaviors are often considered to be unconscious, a
designation that can prove problematic. For instance, driving an automobile can become
automatic, especially if one is attempting to do something like hold a conversation while
doing so. The person will then often find that he has arrived at his destination with little
memory of the actual drive. The driving, however, was not unconscious as the driver was
certainly experiencing the road at some level. Meta-awareness allows psychologists to
posit that the driver was conscious of the driving, but not meta-aware of these behaviors.
Unwanted Thoughts
As noted above, sometimes the mind can wander even when the individual is
explicitly told to reign it in. But, could individuals experience this same gap in meta-
awareness when the cost is revisiting a terrible thought or memory? Psychologists, such
as Daniel Wegner, have often wondered about why it is so difficult to suppress unwanted
thoughts. Meta-awareness shines new light on this troubling issue. Some unwanted
thought theorists have hypothesized that these unwanted thoughts lie in the unconscious
(or pre-conscious) mind. An unconscious monitoring system is said to patrol these
thoughts and purposefully avoid them, but when this system gets tired or overwhelmed,
these thoughts can surface. Research supporting this theory finds that unwanted thoughts
are more likely when a person is under a high cognitive load, thus occupying the
monitoring system.
Meta-awareness provides another level at which to understand the prevalence of
unwanted thoughts. This account suggests unwanted thoughts may simply lie in
conscious thoughts, ones that occupy people’s minds but may not penetrate meta-
awareness all of the time. The monitor, in this account, would then be patrolling
conscious thoughts looking for evidence of the unwanted. This formulation of unwanted
thoughts can potentially tell researchers more about how unwanted thoughts are banished
and where they go.
Recovered Memories
In a similar vein to this research on unwanted thoughts, meta-awareness also
provides a useful framework for accounting for recovered memories of sexual abuse.
These memories that individuals were previously unaware of, but come streaming back
as if from nowhere, are difficult to understand through many traditional psychological
theories. Further, there is a good deal of controversy over the truthfulness of some of
these memories, an important issue given the often traumatic and sexual nature of some
of these memories. Although there are good reasons to believe that recovered memories
can be fictitious (particularly when they are recovered in therapy) many of these
memories (at least those occurring outside of therapy) can be corroborated and thus
treated as memories of actual events. Scrutiny of these corroborated recovered memories
demonstrates that they are often consistent with the current conceptualization of meta-
One way in which the notion of meta-awareness can help us understand recovered
memories is with respect to people’s estimations that prior to the recovery, the memory
had been unrecalled. The characterization of a memory as having been previously
forgotten is itself a meta-cognitive judgment. One is making an appraisal of what they
think they previously knew. However, if individuals often lack meta-awareness of the
contents of their minds, then it is in principle possible that individuals who report
recovered memories could in fact have known and thought about the experiences before,
but simply failed to note this fact. Several lines of evidence are consistent with this
interpretation of at least some recovered memories. First, a number of documented cases
of recovered memories have involved individuals who are known to have talked about
their experience during the period in which they believed themselves to have been
amnesic. Second, individuals with memories that are recovered out of therapy have been
found to be particularly susceptible to failures in meta-cognitive judgments regarding
previous episodes of recollection, that is they tend to be poor at determining what
information they have previously recalled. Third, individuals with recovered memories
of sexual abuse tend to be poor at noticing when they are having unwanted thoughts.
Together these findings suggest that reports of recovered memories of abuse may at least
sometimes be the consequence of a deficit in meta-awareness, in which individuals lived
for a period of time occasionally recalling their abuse but failing to explicitly notice that
they had done so.
Meta-awareness and affect
Temporal dissociations need not only deal with lapses of meta-awareness of
thoughts, but also of feelings. For example, as the old children’s song goes, “If you’re
happy and you know it, clap your hands.” This line certainly implies that it is possible to
be happy, but to not have realized it yet. And indeed, the current understanding of meta-
awareness suggests it is indeed possible to experience an affective state without having
realized it yet.
The experience of flow illustrates the dissociation between experience and meta-
awareness of pleasure. One of the most effective ways of assessing the occurrence of
pleasure in everyday life is the experience sampling technique in which participants are
equipped with a pocket computer that intermittently probes them regarding what they are
doing and how much they are enjoying it. Using this methodology, research has found
that many of most pleasurable moments occur when individuals are in a state of flow.
The flow state occurs when one is deeply absorbed in a task that is both highly
challenging yet also accomplishable. What is so striking about research on the flow
states is the fact that it indicates that individuals’ most positive experiences occur when
they are not thinking about themselves, but are rather deeply absorbed in the activity
itself. Indeed the flow state is so absorbing that individuals do not have the attentional
resources to explicitly notice that they are happy at the time.
As it seems that experience and meta-awareness of positive and negative affect
can often become dissociated, then it stands that inducing meta-awareness of affect can
change the entire experience of an feeling-laden event. Recent research has shown that
the induction of meta-awareness does alter the nature of such events. In one such study,
subjects were instructed to continually rate their level of happiness while listening to
hedonically ambiguous music. Researchers found that subjects who did rate their
happiness throughout the study reported less post-music happiness than subjects who did
not continually rate their happiness throughout the study. Results from this study indicate
that inducing meta-awareness of emotion can inextricably change the experience itself.
Further, research from flow literature also strongly suggests that introducing meta-
awareness during a flow state would interrupt the state, and any positive feelings that go
along with it.
Translation Dissociations
When re-appraising the contents of consciousness there is a chance that the re-
appraisal might not be perfectly veridical to the actual experience. These experiences are
classified as translation dissociations because there has been a break down of the
translation of the experience to meta-awareness. The likelihood of a translation
dissociation is particularly great under three sets of circumstances. For one, if the
experience is essentially non-verbal and a person attempts to verbally reflect on it, then
there is an increased chance that he or she will get it wrong. Second, a person could be
especially motivated to misrepresent an experience. And third, a lay theory about how an
experience should be could lead to a reinterpretation that is unfaithful to the actual
Attempting to verbalize a non-verbal experience can lead to a misrepresentation
of that experience, an effect that is often labeled as “verbal overshadowing.” The
hallmark finding in verbal overshadowing literature deals with the verbalization of faces.
Faces are known to be represented holistically in the mind, a quality that makes them
difficult to verbalize completely. Numerous studies have shown that subjects instructed
to verbally describe a face are poorer at recognizing that face later, as opposed to subjects
who simply viewed the face without instructions to verbalize it. Verbal overshadowing is
likely due to the recoding of the visual image into words, a modality that lacks the
intricacies and nuances to properly describe the complex, holistic nature of a face. In this
situation, the meta-aware re-appraisal of an experience interferes with the task at hand.
The verbal overshadowing effect is not specific to faces, and generalizes to other areas of
perceptual memory.
Several studies have shown that many visual stimuli that defy words are
vulnerable to verbal overshadowing effects. The detrimental effects of verbalization
include stimuli such as color and shapes. Beyond visual memories, verbalization can also
interfere with other perceptual modalities, such as audition and taste. One such study
demonstrated that untrained wine enthusiasts had poorer memory for wine they tasted if
they attempted to describe wine tasting experience. These wine drinkers were ostensibly
well accustomed to tasting wine, thus possessing the ability to detect various nuances
present in the wine. They did not, however, have the vocabulary or expertise to properly
describe the wine, leading to a re-appraisal that did not do a good job of describing their
perceptual experience. On the other hand, trained wine writers showed an improvement
of memory when verbally describing the wines, likely due to their ability to accurately
and fully verbalize their wine tasting experience. A meta-awareness of an experience can
both aid and obstruct a task depending on one’s ability to take stock and reanalyze that
Constructing a meta-awareness of a nonverbal experience applies not only to the
domain of perceptual memory, but to other areas of nonverbal cognition. In the domain
of judgment and decision making, verbally describing or rating the qualities of the
available choices to be made can lead to substandard outcomes. This detrimental effect
of verbalization has been reliably demonstrated in contexts where the choices to be made
are affect laden, such as taste and visual appeal. For instance, researchers performed a
study veiled as an inquiry into consumer judgments of strawberry jams. They asked
some participants (verbalizers) to taste the jams and then list their reasons for liking or
not liking the jams, as well as analyzing their reasons. Control participants tasted the
jams but did not list or analyze their thoughts about the jams. These researchers found
that participants who did not list and analyze their reasons made judgments that were
more similar to that of expert jam raters (from consumer report magazines) as compared
to verbalizers. Other research has shown that analyzing reasons can also promote choices
that yield decreased post-choice satisfaction.
The verbal overshadowing effect and other evidence of the sometimes
problematic nature of meta-awareness have been shown to be reliable phenomena in the
psychological literature. Still, it is important to note that verbal reflection is often
helpful. This is so when the experience is easily translated into words. Research has
shown that logical problem solving is aided by verbalization, as well as in situations
when the verbalizer has the expertise or training to create accurate verbalizations. Recall
that wine drinkers trained to accurately describe wine show a better memory for wines
they verbalize. Regardless, the influence of verbal reflection on memory, judgment and
decision making illustrates the importance of a full, rich, and most importantly, accurate
meta-awareness of an experience
While sometimes an experience is difficult to describe, other times individuals
may simply be motivated to misrepresent the experience to themselves. It has been
shown that homophobic individuals may not want to recognize when they are aroused in
response to depictions of homosexual acts. In other words, they may consciously
experience arousal, but not be meta-aware of these feelings due to their motivation.
Even if the motivation to develop an accurate meta-awareness exists and verbal
reflection is not a problem, other barriers exist to cause translation dissociations. One
such barrier is a faulty theory about what a meta-awareness should contain. That is,
people may have a faulty theory about what they should be feeling or thinking in a
particular situation, which in turns colors their appraisal of their actual experience. A
compelling example of this comes from people’s reports of their experience of catching a
ball. Most people believe that as they watch a ball, their eyes first rise and then go down
following the trajectory of the ball. Indeed, this is the case when one watches someone
else catch a ball. However, when people catch a ball themselves, they actually maintain
the ball at precisely the same visual angle. Nevertheless, when people who just caught a
ball are asked what they experienced, they rely on their theory of experience rather than
on what they actually did.
The double-edged nature of Meta-awareness
The various dissociations between meta-awareness and experiential consciousness
serve to show that meta-awareness can have both beneficial and detrimental effects.
Meta-awareness allows humans the ability to monitor and control their thoughts, which in
turn make goal-driven behavior possible. To illustrate, imagine a pilot attempting to land
a plane: without the ability take to stock of his thoughts he would be unable to stave off,
or even recognize a potentially disastrous bout of mind wandering during this important
process. Phenomena such as verbal overshadowing, however, show that meta-awareness
can be incongruent with success at certain tasks. These times when it is perhaps better to
not be meta-aware are summed up well by the old children’s story of the centipede and
his beautiful dance. As the story goes, there was a centipede who, using all his 100 legs,
did a wonderful dance that all of the other creatures were jealous of, none more so than
the tortoise. The tortoise devised a devious plan to derail the centipede, sending him a
letter asking how the dance was performed. Did he move his 28th leg before the 39th?
And was that followed by the 12th and 72nd at the same time? The centipede began to
think about what exactly he did and was never able to dance again. This classic story
illustrates well the danger of paralysis through analysis, or in other words, the danger of
becoming meta-aware (i.e., dissecting the dance) of a conscious experience (i.e., the
dance itself). Still, the field of mindfulness may shed light on how to achieve analysis
without the accompanying paralysis.
Research on mindfulness meditation training demonstrates a process that may
focus on the benefits of meta-awareness, while avoiding its pitfalls. Like other forms of
meditation, mindfulness mediation deals with becoming aware of consciousness. Unlike
other types of mediation, it doesn’t involve focusing on a stimulus, but instead strives for
a broad observation of several facets of experience. Mindfulness-based interventions
have been shown to help decrease stress, anxiety, and lead to several positive outcomes.
These results indicate that there are different sorts of meta-awarenesses to be
experienced, and one that involves being broadly mindful may avoid some of the pitfalls
of other varieties.
Meta-awareness is likely unique to humans. It represents the ability to step
outside one’s own thoughts and reflect upon them. This function of meta-awareness
endows a high degree of flexibility, such as the ability to monitor and control cognition.
While meta-awareness confers incredibly flexibility, it does not always work as one
might wish. For one, meta-awareness is limited and costly to sustain. Such can be seen
in temporal dissociations such as mind wandering. When attention drifts during these
lapses in meta-awareness allow individuals to get off track, and perhaps more
importantly, fail to notice they are off track. A lack of meta-awareness may even be
confused with the feeling of having never known, such as with the problem of recovered
memories of sexual abuse.
Meta-awareness is also, by nature, imperfect. When consciousness is reanalyzed
and re-appraised, mistakes can be made - seldom is the time when the copy is as robust as
the original. Translation dissociations such as verbal overshadowing illustrate this pitfall
of meta-awareness. In such cases, a verbal recoding of a perceptual experience, like the
image of a face or the bouquet of a wine, are not as good as the original. This mismatch
between experience and re-appraisal can cause problems with memory, as well as
judgments and decisions. Translation dissociations can also occur if the motivation to
accurately reflect on a memory is not present, or if theories about how an experience
should be are faulty.
Although the two-edged nature of meta-awareness may never be completely
avoidable, some forms of meta-awareness may be more beneficial then others. For
example, explicit analytic reflection may be more disruptive than the more intuitive
mindful awareness that develops through contemplative practices such as meditation. As
research continues on the nature of these different flavors of meta-awareness, students
and researchers can expect a deeper knowledge of how to harness this fundamentally
human ability.
Jonathan W. Schooler
Professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, Jonathan
W. Schooler pursues research on consciousness, memory, the relationship between
language and thought, problem-solving, and decision-making. A cum laude gradute of
New York’s Hamilton college, Dr. Schooler earned a Ph.D. in psychology at the
Univeresity of Washington in 1987. He joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh
as assistant professor, and in 2004 accepted and held the position of full professor and
Canada Research Chair in Social Cognitive Science until 2007 when he accepted his
current position.
A fellow of the Association for Psychological Science, Dr. Schooler has been the
recipient of three Akumal Scholar Awards from the Positive Psychology Network, an
Osher Fellowship given by the Exploratorium Science Museum, and a Lilly Foundation
Teaching Fellowship. His work has been supported, among others, by the National
Institute of Mental Health, the Office of Educational Research and Canada's Social
Sciences and Humanities Research Council. He currently is on the editorial boards of
Consciousness and Cognition and Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Dr.
Schooler is the author or co-author of more than one hundred papers published in
scientific journals and the editor (with J.C. Cohen) of Scientific Approaches to
Jason M. Chin Biography
Jason M. Chin is a Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia studying
social psychology. He completed his undergraduate work at the University of Virginia
where he majored in economics and psychology, graduating cum laude. At the
University of Virginia Mr. Chin researched the psychological underpinnings of aversion
to risk, suggesting that it stems from a tendency to overweight future negative emotional
reactions. He earned a M.A in psychology in 2005 at his present university for his work
on verbal overshadowing, and currently studies motivational and informational models
explaining prosocial behavior.
Mr. Chin’s research has been supported by the University of British Columbia and
the Izaak Killam Memorial Trust. A member of the Society for Personality and Social
Psychology, he has presented his research at several conferences and is co-author of two
scholarly publications. Mr. Chin has also served as a reviewer for several psychological
... Attention drifts away from our activities despite our intentions yet, after some time, we notice that we have lost focus. This "noticing" is the core of meta-awareness (MA): the process of attending to and appraising the current contents of consciousness (Chin & Schooler, 2010). Critically, MA involves noticing when focal behaviors are inconsistent with broader intentions, allowing resource engagement to overcome the inconsistency. ...
... Effective dynamic detection of MA may be possible through continuously measuring taskengagement. Task-engagement has been measured as an inverse proxy for mind-wandering (MW), which is often (imperfectly) assumed to reflect the absence of MA (Chin & Schooler, 2010). A number of behavioral tasks assess engagement and MW (see Fortenbaugh et al., 2017 for an extended treatment). ...
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How can we measure the absence of awareness? Attention research has developed tools for measuring self-caught meta-awareness restoration and behavioural mind-wandering, but we lack a way to dynamically track the loss of meta-awareness. The present pre-registered study sought to bring together three extant paradigms into one tool designed to dynamically measure meta-awareness: the Metronome Counting Task (MCT). The MCT is a continuous performance task wherein participants tap along to a steady beat while counting to twenty, indicating the final count by a special button press. This sample (N = 74) provides evidence that participants could self-catch their failures in the task, that a response variability metric measuring mind-wandering depth was successfully recreated in this new tool, and that dynamic performance changes may be useful for detecting meta-awareness loss before participants become internally aware of the loss or are caught by external errors. The MCT was conceived as a tool that will support neuroimaging models of dynamic fluctuations during sustained attention, providing a link between the phenomenology of meta-awareness, the behaviour measured by a replicable index of task engagement, and a continuous performance task on time-scales relevant for MRI. We discuss the possibility that meta-awareness may exist on a continuum and that conceptions of mind-wandering as attention failures may plausibly be reconceived as changes in goal priority manifesting as shifting task engagement.
... This perspective shift in relation to one's experience is by no means limited to psychotherapy or mindfulness practice, but rather is an extension of a fundamental aspect of psychological development and growth across the lifespan (Kegan 1982), also known as "the observing self" (Deikman 1983) or as "meta-awareness" (Chin and Schooler 2010;Schooler et al. 2011). This process allows the individual to uncouple the sensory, directly experienced self from the "narrative" selfthe reflective process that maintains continuity of identity across time (Gallagher 2000;Northoff and Bermpohl 2004;Northoff et al. 2006;Williams 2010). ...
In light of a growing interest in contemplative practices such as meditation, the emerging field of contemplative science has been challenged to describe and objectively measure how these practices affect health and well-being. While “mindfulness” itself has been proposed as a measurable outcome of contemplative practices, this concept encompasses multiple components, some of which, as we review here, may be better characterized as equanimity. Equanimity can be defined as an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). In this article, we propose that equanimity be used as an outcome measure in contemplative research. We first define and discuss the inter-relationship between mindfulness and equanimity from the perspectives of both classical Buddhism and modern psychology and present existing meditation techniques for cultivating equanimity. We then review psychological, physiological, and neuroimaging methods that have been used to assess equanimity either directly or indirectly. In conclusion, we propose that equanimity captures potentially the most important psychological element in the improvement of well-being, and therefore should be a focus in future research studies.
... In this chapter, we outline a theoretical framework of consciousness that we believe can help clarify the relationship between consciousness and report, thereby guiding scientific research and thinking about consciousness (for related discussions, see Chin & Schooler, 2009;Schooler, 2001Schooler, , 2002Schooler & Schreiber, 2004;Winkielman & Schooler, 2008, 2011. As noted, the theoretical perspective presented here goes beyond the simple dichotomy of conscious-unconscious that is assumed in many social psychology articles. ...
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In this chapter, we first consider the respective roles of unconscious, conscious, and metaconscious processes. We then focus on two topic areas that have revealed the value of a tripartite distinction of consciousness: mind-wandering and awareness of emotions. Last, we consider some future directions in which consideration of the construct of meta-awareness may prove particularly fruitful, including (a) the cultivation of mindfulness, (b) unwanted thoughts (motivated processes may influence whether unwanted thoughts reach meta-awareness), and (c) stereotyping and stereotype threat (the disruption associated with this process may be underpinned by mind-wandering episodes occurring below the threshold of meta-awareness). Collectively, this chapter suggests that distinguishing among unconscious, conscious, and metaconscious processes may help to illuminate a host of topics. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2014 APA, all rights reserved)
... A second aspect of Schooler et al.'s proposed definition that calls for future differentiation in the important notion of an individual "noticing" the current contents of their mind (Chin and Schooler, 2009;Schooler et al., 2011, Box 1) is the conflation of knowledge and phenomenal experience. Postulating "explicit knowledge of the current contents of thought" (Schooler et al., 2011, p. 321; emphasis TM) excludes the possibility of higher-order misrepresentation, of being wrong about the current contents of one's own mind: In regaining meta-awareness, we might sometimes misrepresent the contents of our own mind (without being able to notice the meta-cognitive deficit itself), or we might even hallucinate first-order mental content that was never there in the first place. ...
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This metatheoretical paper investigates mind wandering from the perspective of philosophy of mind. It has two central claims. The first is that, on a conceptual level, mind wandering can be fruitfully described as a specific form of mental autonomy loss. The second is that, given empirical constraints, most of what we call "conscious thought" is better analyzed as a subpersonal process that more often than not lacks crucial properties traditionally taken to be the hallmark of personal-level cognition - such as mental agency, explicit, consciously experienced goal-directedness, or availability for veto control. I claim that for roughly two thirds of our conscious life-time we do not possess mental autonomy (M-autonomy) in this sense. Empirical data from research on mind wandering and nocturnal dreaming clearly show that phenomenally represented cognitive processing is mostly an automatic, non-agentive process and that personal-level cognition is an exception rather than the rule. This raises an interesting new version of the mind-body problem: How is subpersonal cognition causally related to personal-level thought? More fine-grained phenomenological descriptions for what we called "conscious thought" in the past are needed, as well as a functional decomposition of umbrella terms like "mind wandering" into different target phenomena and a better understanding of the frequent dynamic transitions between spontaneous, task-unrelated thought and meta-awareness. In an attempt to lay some very first conceptual foundations for the now burgeoning field of research on mind wandering, the third section proposes two new criteria for individuating single episodes of mind-wandering, namely, the "self-representational blink" (SRB) and a sudden shift in the phenomenological "unit of identification" (UI). I close by specifying a list of potentially innovative research goals that could serve to establish a stronger connection between mind wandering research and philosophy of mind.
The dynamic framework of mind wandering (Christoff, Irving, Fox, Spreng, & Andrews-Hanna, 2016) is reviewed and modified through integrating the construct of mindful meta-awareness. The dynamic framework maintains that mind wandering belongs to a family of spontaneous thought phenomena. The key defining feature of mind wandering is ‘spontaneity’ which characterizes the dynamic nature of thoughts in the framework. The argument is made that incorporating the mindful meta-awareness construct modifies the dynamic framework as follows: (1) the framework’s criteria for mind wandering do not hold anymore as meta-awareness changes the relationship between thoughts and constraints, and (2) lucid dreaming can be categorized as unguided thought while at the same time being dependent on deliberate constraints. Finally, the application of this modified framework will be discussed in terms of the treatment of mental disorders related to spontaneous thought alterations, in particular depression and nightmares.
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Mind-wandering is a psychological process involving the emergence of spontaneous thoughts in daily life. Research has shown that mind-wandering influences diverse psychological outcomes; however, less is known about possible individual differences that may drive mind-wandering. In this study, we argue that personality traits, expressed in neuroticism and openness to experience, may lead to the individual’s self-perception of their mind-wandering activity, due to meta-awareness processes. In a three-wave survey study with 273 college students, we gathered data which supported a positive association of both neuroticism and openness to experience with mind-wandering self-perception, mediated by the individual’s meta-awareness. Thus, this study contributes to the literature on spontaneous thinking by showing that mind-wandering processes may be a function of individual differences expressed in personality traits.
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During the past 20 years involuntary memories have been established as a noteworthy phenomenon, which occur spontaneously in everyday life and with greater frequency than expected. Other types of ideations also occur involuntarily and very frequently, both in the normal population and in clinical groups. The aim of this paper was to assess for the first time whether involuntary memories and involuntary future thoughts differ in the amount of cognitive resources, considering that both are experienced as being rather automatic. As in previous work on mind wandering, this was done by assessing the effect of different conditions on frequency of spontaneous thoughts about past and future. Involuntary memories and future thoughts were obtained in an experimental setting (vigilance task) that mimics a mind-wandering task. In it, participants saw slides (trials) with horizontal or vertical (target) lines. In half or one-fourth of the trials verbal cues were also presented. In a third condition one-fourth of the trials had verbal cues and one-fourth had simple arithmetic calculations. Participants were asked to report any mental content that crosses their mind when the vigilance task stopped. Results show that the manipulation modulates the number of both involuntary memories and future thoughts, and both engage cognitive resources. Future involuntary thoughts seem to require more cognitive effort than involuntary memories and, specifically, future scenarios require more cognitive resources than both involuntary memories and future plans. The results support previous findings showing that reporting spontaneous mental contents makes use of cognitive resources and are discussed linking the involuntary memory literature with mind wandering and metacognitive processes.
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In addition to longer-term engagement in meditation, the past years have seen an increasing interest in the impact of single bouts of meditation on cognition. In this hypothesis and theory article, we adopt the distinction between focused-attention meditation (FAM) and open-monitoring meditation (OMM) and argue that these different types of meditation have different, to some degree, opposite impact on cognitive processes. We discuss evidence suggesting that single bouts of FAM and OMM are sufficient to bias cognitive control styles towards more versus less top-down control, respectively. We conclude that all meditation techniques are not equal and that successful meditation-based intervention requires the theoretically guided selection of the best-suited technique.
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In light of a growing interest in contemplative practices such as meditation, the emerging field of contemplative science has been challenged to describe and objectively measure how these practices affect health and well-being. While “mindfulness” itself has been proposed as a measurable outcome of contemplative practices, this concept encompasses multiple components, some of which, as we review here, may be better characterized as equanimity. Equanimity can be defined as an even-minded mental state or dispositional tendency toward all experiences or objects, regardless of their origin or their affective valence (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral). In this article we propose that equanimity be used as an outcome measure in contemplative research. We first define and discuss the inter-relationship between mindfulness and equanimity from the perspectives of both classical Buddhism and modern psychology and present existing meditation techniques for cultivating equanimity. We then review psychological, physiological, and neuroimaging methods that have been used to assess equanimity, either directly or indirectly. In conclusion, we propose that equanimity captures potentially the most important psychological element in the improvement of well-being, and therefore should be a focus in future research studies.
Full-text available
This paper explores the interplay between unconscious, conscious, and metaconscious processes in social cognition. We distinguish among mental states that are (i) genuinely unaware, (ii) aware, but lack meta-awareness, and (iii) meta-aware—internally articulated as states of the perceiver. We review key studies from our own and related research programmes to highlight this theoretical framework, and to illustrate access, translational, and temporary dissociations between levels of awareness. The discussed phenomena include unconscious affect, mind-wandering, verbal overshadowing, theory-based biases in reporting of experiences, and many others. We also show how our framework can offer new perspectives on some classic social psychology findings and inspire discovery of new findings. However, we also highlight challenges inherent in establishing whether a phenomenon is genuinely unconscious or experientially conscious but lacking in meta-awareness.
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Introspection is paradoxical in that it is simultaneously so compelling yet so elusive. This paradox emerges because although experience itself is indisputable, our ability to explicitly characterize experience is often inadequate. Ultimately, the accuracy of introspective reports depends on individuals' imperfect ability to take stock (i.e., to become meta- conscious) of their experience. Although there is no ideal yardstick for assessing introspection, examination of the degree to which self-reports systematically covary with the environmental, behavioural, and physiological concomitants of experience can help to establish the correspondence between meta-consciousness and experience. We illustrate the viability of such an approach in three domains, imagery, mind-wandering, and hedonic appraisal, identifying both the situations in which introspections appear to be accurate and those in which they seem to diverge from underlying experience. We conclude with a discussion of the various factors (including issues of detection, transformation, and substitution) that may cause meta-consciousness to misrepresent experience.
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Followed 78 adult workers for 1 week with the experience sampling method. (This method randomly samples self-reports throughout the day.) The main question was whether the quality of experience was more influenced by whether a person was at work or at leisure or more influenced by whether a person was in flow (i.e., in a condition of high challenges and skills). Results showed that all the variables measuring the quality of experience, except for relaxation and motivation, are more affected by flow than by whether the respondent is working or in leisure. Moreover, the great majority of flow experiences are reported when working, not when in leisure. Regardless of the quality of experience, however, respondents are more motivated in leisure than in work. But individuals more motivated in flow than in apathy reported more positive experiences in work. Results suggest implications for improving the quality of everyday life.
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Metacognitive awareness is a cognitive set in which negative thoughts/feelings are experienced as mental events, rather than as the self. The authors hypothesized that (a) reduced metacognitive awareness would be associated with vulnerability to depression and (b) cognitive therapy (CT) and mindfulness-based CT (MBCT) would reduce depressive relapse by increasing metacognitive awareness. They found (a) accessibility of metacognitive sets to depressive cues was less in a vulnerable group (residually depressed patients) than in nondepressed controls; (b) accessibility of metacognitive sets predicted relapse in residually depressed patients; (c) where CT reduced relapse in residually depressed patients, it increased accessibility of metacognitive sets; and (d) where MBCT reduced relapse in recovered depressed patients, it increased accessibility of metacognitive sets. CT and MBCT may reduce relapse by changing relationships to negative thoughts rather than by changing belief in thought content.
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Data reviewed suggest that previous theories of emotion experience are too narrow in scope and that lack of consensus is due to the fact that emotion experience takes various forms and is heterogenous. The authors treat separately the content of emotion experience, the underlying nonconscious correspondences, and processes producing emotion experience. They classify the nature and content of emotion experience and propose that it depends on 3 aspects of attention: mode (analytic-synthetic; detached-immersed), direction (self-world), and focus (evaluation-action). The account is informed by a 2-level view of consciousness in which phenomenology (1st order) is distinguished from awareness (2nd order). These distinctions enable the authors to differentiate and account for cases of "unconscious" emotion, in which there is an apparent lack of phenomenology or awareness.
Studies suggest that young children are quite limited in their knowledge about cognitive phenomena—or in their metacognition—and do relatively little monitoring of their own memory, comprehension, and other cognitive enterprises. Metacognitive knowledge is one's stored knowledge or beliefs about oneself and others as cognitive agents, about tasks, about actions or strategies, and about how all these interact to affect the outcomes of any sort of intellectual enterprise. Metacognitive experiences are conscious cognitive or affective experiences that occur during the enterprise and concern any aspect of it—often, how well it is going. Research is needed to describe and explain spontaneous developmental acquisitions in this area and find effective ways of teaching metacognitive knowledge and cognitive monitoring skills. (9 ref) (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
This article describes the interplay between psychological and philosophical approaches to consciousness. The role of empirical evidence from psychological research on metacognition is emphasized. The metacognitive approach to subjective reports is helpful for circumventing some fundamental shortcomings in early introspectionist approaches. A central claim of the article is that subjective reports can be useful for testing hypotheses if the way in which they are used is reformulated, and specific reformulations are offered. Illustrative findings about metacognitive monitoring and metacognitive control demonstrate how research on metacognition can produce synergy between the psychological and philosophical approaches to consciousness, by furnishing constraints on the range of acceptable theories and by producing clues to inspire new theories. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)
A distinction is drawn between non-conscious (unexperienced), conscious (experienced), and meta-conscious (re-represented) mental processes. There is evidence for two types of dissociations between consciousness and meta-consciousness, the latter being defined as the intermittent explicit re-representation of the contents of consciousness. Temporal dissociations occur when an individual, who previously lacked meta-consciousness about the contents of consciousness, directs meta-consciousness towards those contents; for example, catching one's mind wandering during reading. Once meta-consciousness is triggered, translation dissociations can occur if the re-representation process misrepresents the original experience, such as when one verbally reflects on non-verbal experiences or takes stock of subtle or ambiguous experiences.