The human brain possesses a remarkable capability that most take for granted and few fully appreciate: It can watch itself work.
With effort, you can observe what your brain is thinking about and also what it’s doing with those thoughts — the feelings, ideas, emotions, and urges it’s producing. This capability falls into a category that psychologists sometimes call metacognition. (Basically, thinking about thinking.) And there’s evidence that practicing this sort of mental self-awareness holds immense therapeutic power.
“Introducing this idea of self-monitoring is one of the first steps in cognitive behavioral therapy,” says Michelle Newman, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at Penn State University. “When you have a greater awareness of what the brain is doing, you can take a step back and take a more objective view of the world and your reactions to it.”
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is among the most evidence-backed and effective treatments for depression, anxiety, addiction, and related afflictions. And Newman says that the kind of objectivity that self-monitoring produces is a critical component of CBT in all its forms.
Mental self-monitoring also lies at the heart of mindfulness practices, which have moved to the fore in the battle against mood and substance-use disorders. “Something about observing our own thoughts changes our relationship to them,” says Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, a mindfulness researcher and associate professor of psychiatry at the Brown University School of Public Health.
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