The Nuance

Why Mental Self-Awareness Is Good for Your Brain

Mindfulness, cognitive behavioral therapy, and other related practices all prioritize this form of ‘self-monitoring’

Illustration by Kieran Blakey for Elemental

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.

In quantum physics, there’s a phenomenon known as the observer effect: Scientists have demonstrated that certain subatomic particles change their behavior when under observation. And the closer the observation, the greater the change. Brewer says that something similar seems to happen when people pay closer attention to their own mind.

“When we start observing,” he says, “we find that we can’t be as caught up in, or identified with, our thoughts and emotions.”

How mental awareness interferes with negative thinking

Like a neglected bonfire, negative emotions tend to die out if they’re not continually replenished with negative thoughts.

“Thoughts don’t always give rise to feelings, but they definitely keep feelings going,” Newman says. “For example, you see something that’s unfair and you have an emotional reaction to it, and then your mind gets into this ruminative cycle where you think about unfairness everywhere, and those thoughts perpetuate the feeling.”

Along with this kind of emotion-shaded cherry-picking, a person’s thoughts can also become biased in ways that shape incoming information to one’s mood. “You can start discounting or discarding any information that goes counter to what you’re feeling,” she explains.

By paying closer attention to how all this happens in the brain — something that is achievable with practice — Newman says that it’s often possible to make helpful changes. You can learn to stop this whole process in its early stages and to redirect your thoughts in ways that suffocate negative feelings and the unhelpful or unhealthy behaviors they encourage.

Like a neglected bonfire, negative emotions tend to die out if they’re not continually replenished with negative thoughts.

While CBT techniques use mental self-monitoring to identify and address problematic thought patterns, proponents of mindfulness say that simply observing the mind’s inner workings can accomplish many of the same happy outcomes without the need to judge or effortfully reroute one’s thoughts.

“By default, most of us spend almost every waking second of our life thinking without knowing that we’re thinking,” says Sam Harris, PhD, a neuroscientist, author, podcast host, and early proponent of mindfulness meditation. “We feel identical to our thoughts, and so we’re held hostage by them.”

Learning that we each have the ability to observe our own thoughts is Mindfulness 101, and a concept that Harris explores on Waking Up, his guided-meditation app. But one of the major insights that comes with practice, he says, is the realization that you and your thoughts are not one and the same. “Once you can get out of the stream of identification with thought, even for brief moments at a time, you can cease to suffer in many of the ordinary ways,” he says. “It’s tremendously freeing.”

This concept of identity-thought decoupling goes by a lot of names, including “ego dissolution.” And the benefits of creating some space between one’s thoughts and one’s identity comes up again and again in the research on mental wellness and treatment. For example, some studies — a lot of them conducted at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine — have found that psychedelic drugs may be a powerful form of treatment for depression and other mood or substance-use disorders. That work on psychedelics has identified both thought self-monitoring and ego dissolution as core components of the therapeutic experience.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the cultivation of mental self-awareness — whether through CBT, mindfulness, or magic mushrooms — is now at the center of psychology’s most prominent and promising therapeutic practices.

But while paying attention to one’s own thoughts has great potential to provide comfort and to prevent pain, that potential often goes untapped.

A little mindfulness may go a long way

There are countless ways to wield mental self-awareness to one’s advantage. The payoffs can be truly life-changing, but they require regular practice.

Even if you never make that kind of training a long-term part of your life, Brown University’s Brewer says that even a taste of formal practice — for example, an introductory mindfulness course — may offer some durable insights. “I don’t know that that’s the case, but I suspect it is,” he says. “Once we know that we can pay attention in this way, I think that helps us notice when we get stuck in these negative thought loops.”

This noticing, he adds, is often enough to set one’s thoughts on a different and healthier course.

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store