Meditator, Know Thyself…Maybe

How well do you know yourself? Do you know what you’re like – alone or in a group – and what others think of you? Do you think you could predict what you would score on a personality test…do you think that your own description of your personality would match what a trained psychologist would observe?

According to a recent Perspectives on Psychological Science article by Erika Carlson, most people don’t know themselves that well…but if they wanted to find out, they might take up mindfulness. She reports two barriers to knowing ourselves,  information and motivation, and argues that mindfulness can help with both.

Information is a bottleneck to knowing ourselves because we just can’t observe ourselves as well as we can observe others. I remember watching a friend acting in a play get feedback from a director about how often he shrugged his shoulders – which was something like every third sentence, and he had no idea until it was pointed out, because frankly most of us have better things to do than watch our shoulders. Thoughts are even harder to observe, because any time your thoughts are potentially interesting and revealing, you’re probably in conversation with someone else, and therefore busy paying attention to their thoughts, or at least their words and their body language.

The problem of information can be overcome because of mindfulness training’s well-documented cognitive benefits: with mindfulness we will be more likely to pay attention to our actions, shoulder shrugs and all, and also have the memory capacity to listen to someone else and recognize and store our own reactions to consider later.

Even if you’re able to pay attention to your own mind and actions, though, you might not want to, because of the second barrier, motivation. Honestly, it’s a little scary to look too closely: What if we don’t like what we find? (Answer: We’ll probably forget it, or lie to ourselves about it). Mindfulness training might help with this, too, because of “nonevaluative” emphasis, more commonly known as the pillar of non-judging. Mindfulness training emphasizes recognizing thoughts, good or bad, and putting them aside instead of reacting to them. In doing this, mindfulness practitioners might be more willing to look inside and encounter potentially negative aspects of ourselves, and then less likely to get emotional even if we find out something we don’t like.

The evidence supporting Carlson’s argument about the barriers and mindfulness’s ability to overcome them is indirect and often correlational, but it does present a compelling case for looking harder with some more carefully designed studies.

The trick, of course, is whether people actually want to know themselves better. Many fans of mindfulness might have no problem with this idea, even see all of this theorizing as obvious, because the possibility of knowing your own thoughts better – at least, say, what triggers you to crave a cigarette or snap at a colleague, so you could avoid those actions in future –  attracted them to the practice to begin with. But not everyone necessarily wants to know themselves better; ignorance is bliss, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and self-knowledge might just be why mindfulness can trigger a psychological disturbance.

 One key question for future scientists, then, is whether mindfulness can have these self-knowledge benefits even for people who don’t necessarily think all that introspection is a good thing from the outset. A broader philosophical question those researchers might want to keep in mind is whether we should really be trying to get people to know themselves better. As a college professor I’m rarely a proponent of ignorance, and my first instinct it to propose a heavy dose of self-awareness for every first year college student out there…but I’d want to make sure the non-judging took a firm hold first. If we’re going to get to know ourselves that much better, we need to be prepared to like who we’re going to meet.
Carlson, E. (2013). Overcoming the Barriers to Self-Knowledge: Mindfulness as a Path to Seeing Yourself as You Really Are Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8 (2), 173-186 DOI: 10.1177/1745691612462584


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