Metacognition reading list


I was reading The soul of money by Lynne Twist, and thought of making it the first book to actually write about here in this blog. (Note: I’m using Audible links here because that’s where I’ve got them and it’s easiest for me to pull them from my library there. There are surely text versions available as well.) I was going to say that for the most part I do agree with it, and wish more people would learn its central ideas, but that I can’t imagine recommending it to anyone who isn’t properly prepared. It smells too much like The Secret.

But I don’t think people know about The Secret (which of course is a good thing!) so I can’t use that as a guidepost. And thinking about this I remembered again how that particular piece of nonsense played a role in my personal learning experience about metacognition. And in fact, how I can’t start writing about the books I read, and the points I want to make, without explaining where I’m coming from.

Starting in 2007, I was depressed. I was always functional, and all in all it was pretty mild compared to many, but I still was. In my interpretation it was caused by the chronic severe stress that I put myself through by finishing my PhD, divorcing, moving to a foreign country, and starting to work in a new place that I never really accustomed to, all in one go. It’s normal to fall down under a heavy burden. It becomes depression if you can’t get back up after the burden goes away.

I understood that, and oh how grateful I am that depression was talked about openly enough already back then. I could name it. I could understand that I was not supposed to feel like that. So I did what became naturally to a research nerd such as me. I went online to search for happiness. Literally.

And I found, among other things, The Secret. To quote Wikipedia,

The Secret is a best-selling 2006 self-help book by Rhonda Byrne, based on the earlier film of the same name. It is based on the pseudo-scientific ‘law of attraction’ which claims that thoughts can change the world directly.

It’s the idea that if you just want something enough, the universe will grant it to you. The framework is tempting but I didn’t have to peruse the web page very long until my bs-meter hit critical levels. (And I never ended up reading the book.) I can’t quite remember how, but related to that search, and that finding, I also found the podcast Skeptic’s guide to the universe. And the rest is personal history.

Listening to SGU introduced me to the concepts of skepticism and critical thinking in the active, hobby-like way. That lead to reaching out for the local skeptics and hanging out with them (and I knew that meeting people is good for your mental health — it is bittersweet to remember now the anxiety I felt before the first meeting and how wonderful it turned out to be). It lead to other podcasts around the subject. Listening to that stuff weekly, and occasionally discussing such things with others, is bound to make you learn. I learned about fallacies and biases in human thinking, but the crucial point — which I think many who call them skeptics miss — is that you have to point that skepticism first and foremost to yourself. To your own thinking. You can’t take your own feelings and thoughts and conclusions about them at face value, without examining them.

That was an extremely important idea for me at the time. Some days were better, other days were desperate. In reality, when I looked at it objectively, I could see that there was nothing different in my situation or in the world on the good days and on the bad days. But I felt different. So totally different in fact that I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t reach the other emotional state from one. I tried both ways, I really tried. The moods happened close enough to each other that I could clearly remember, as a disembodied fact, that it was different the other day. But in the desperate mood, I simply couldn’t see how it would ever be possible to feel any joy or optimism. In the good mood, it was equally impossible to grasp that utter conviction of the futility of everything. I described it as a closet, with a tight, solid door. On either side of the door, you know as a matter of fact that the other side exists. But you can’t see through the door.

With time, some professional help and a tiny bit of medication I got better. But I like to think that for a significant part, I reasoned myself out of it. By questioning my own feelings and thoughts. By not believing them just because I had them.

But the podcasts stuck. I’ve since stopped listening to SGU in particular, but there are others now (Radiolab, You are not so smart and Freakonomics are the main ones at the moment), and then there are audiobooks. I’ve noticed that somehow I can’t focus on reading but when someone reads for me, I devour book after book.

So I’ll put down here a brief summary of my reading list and the themes they cover, grouped roughly by concept and in the order I have recognized them.

The first audiobook I listened to was Guns, germs and steel by Jared Diamond. By the same author, The world until yesterday and The third chimpanzee (so far I’ve skipped Collapse), as well as Sapiens: a brief history of humankind by Yuval Harari consider the pre-modern, evern pre-historic, evolutionary context of the human animal, its behaviour and culture.

The second book was Predictably irrational by Dan Ariely, and it opened the now rather well-known field of behavioural economics for me. This sublist also includes: Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman (of course!), Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Misbehaving by Thaler.

Interestingly, Debt: the first 5000 years, by David Graeber kind of falls smack down in the middle of those two categories, behavioural economics and the long history of culture evolution.

Then there was Steven Pinker. Pinker is kind of a category to himself: How the mind works, The blank slate, The stuff of thought and The language instinct will have you covered about how the human mind actually works. The better angels of our nature will tie all that to the first theme of long history of species/culture evolution. Throw in some Robert Sapolsky – Why zebras don’t get ulcers and Behave – (there’s also a full lecture series on Youtube) and you’ll also have the messy “wet” biology side of it too (and some criticism on Pinker for balance). In the other direction, Daniel Dennet’s Consciousness explained will sort out why all that is troublesome for philosophers, and why it need not be.

Then there’s, hmm, let’s call it the scientific self-help category. This is where you really have to be careful because the line between a nuanced, humane, dare I say soft but still realistic understanding (that is, such that involves no angel dust or mystical energies) of the human condition, and the total bs is very very thin. Carol Dweck’s Mindset was mentioned in the previous post. Brene Brown’s I thought is was just me (but it isn’t) and The gifts of imperfection clearly go here, as well as Gretchen Rubin’s The happiness project. Then there are those that sound a lot less like self-help, but still kind of are: The paradox of choice by Barry Schwartz, Practical Wisdom by Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, Stumbling on happiness by Daniel Gilbert, Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton and even Drive, and To sell is human, by Daniel Pink.

It may not be obvious, but to me the connection between these “self-help” books, and the books on the more technical side of the human behaviour is clear and strong. The self-help is the applied side of it: what to do when you’re stuck with a human mind. The overarching message in both is that we have next to no idea how and why we do what we do, and are in fact so clueless about it that most of the time we can’t even see that. But if we manage to acknowledge that, then there can be some progress after all.

There are also some recurring ideas. Prisoner’s dilemma is one of them. It is an amazingly clear and simple device compared to how much there is to say about it. I have even made one scary and life changing choice with courage, after I recognized it as a form of prisoner’s dilemma. This interactive presentation is an easy and entertaining introduction and well worth the time even if you are aready familiar with the concept. (And there is more like that on the same site.)

For more straightforward giggles in a similar context, I dare you to search for trolley problem memes.

P.S. There is one person who has patiently listened through absolutely all of my musings about all of these books and podcasts and everything, and actually paid attention. Please join me in showing respect and gratitude to my nom-sharing back-scratching partner in life, and our 10 years together.


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