I like to drive in silence. It’s negative space. An easy way to denarrate. A period I can use to decompress and escape the constant barrage of words. In the quiet and stillness, I can think. I can reflect.
Last night, I was on the motorway, just cruising in the slow lane. I created a game of concentration: maintain an exact distance between me and the car in front. When it slows, I slow. When it speeds up, I accelerate. Instead of allowing my mind to wander, I forced myself to focus on keeping the gap the same.
But in the darkness, focusing on the two tail lights, I started to think. “How far away is the car in front?” I pondered it and came up with an estimate. Twenty metres? Thirty?
Then I went one step further (At this point, I lost the game). I asked myself, “how did I come up with that estimate?” There’s no reliable markers of distance in front of me. I know how bad we are at estimating space and time without a benchmark. Did I get to that estimate by imagining the size of a car and calculating how many cars are between me and the one in front? Maybe. But I didn’t do it consciously.
This process is something called meta-cognition. I was thinking about thinking.
In the coffee shop, I watch people coming up to the counter. There’s a man there with his son. He looks stressed. The kid looks like he needs a cookie. There’s an old couple behind him. They’re talking quietly. They’re both overweight but have small grins on their faces as they converse. Like they’ve finally figured out the secret to this thing called life. Behind them, there’s a woman who looks like she’s fresh out of a legal drama. Heels. Bag. Crisp skirt and blouse. Foot tapping and head swivelling with impatience.
But how did I form those judgements? What makes me think the dad looks stressed? What compels me to think that the old, joyful couple are really that happy? Where does my stereotype of what a hotshot professional women looks like come from?
I’ve agreed to meet some friends for lunch. But now, it’s getting ridiculous. They said they’d be here forty minutes ago. So I send a sarcastic-but-obviously-angry text and leave. What has made me angry? Is it their disrespect for my time? Or am I overstepping the mark? They don’t usually do this. It’s an anomaly in an otherwise stellar friendship.
Meta-cognition seems like philosophising. It sounds like a self-indulgent, vain waste of time and energy. “Why should I devote more time to thinking about what I think about?” Because without meta-cognition, you can’t analyse your own thoughts, ideas and beliefs. You can’t test their strengths and weaknesses. If you don’t think about thinking, you can’t get better. And if you can’t get better, that means you’re going to remain at your current level.
Are you happy with where you are? I’m not. Are you done with seeking to improve yourself? No way.