Understanding the Brain


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Introspection is the self-observation and reporting of conscious inner thoughts, desires and sensations. It is a conscious and purposive process relying on thinking, reasoning, and examining one's own thoughts, feelings, and, in more spiritual cases, one's soul. It can also be called contemplation of one's self, and is contrasted with extrospection, the observation of things external to one's self. Introspection may be used synonymously with and in a similar way to human self-reflection. It is used greatly as a spiritual examination.

Introspection is like the activity described by Plato when he asked, "…why should we not calmly and patiently review our own thoughts, and thoroughly examine and see what these appearances in us really are?"[1][2]

As a method in science

Behaviorists claimed that introspection was unreliable and that the subject matter of scientific psychology should be strictly operationalized in an objective and measurable way. This then led psychology to focus on measurable behavior rather than consciousness or sensation.[3] Cognitive psychology accepts the use of the scientific method, but often rejects introspection as a valid method of investigation for this reason, especially concerning the causes of behavior and choice. Herbert Simon and Allen Newell identified the 'think aloud protocol', in which investigators view a subject engaged in a task, and who speaks his thoughts aloud, thus allowing study of his thought process without forcing the subject to comment on his thinking.

On the other hand, introspection can be considered a valid tool for the development of scientific hypotheses and theoretical models, in particular in cognitive sciences and engineering. In practice, functional (goal-oriented) computational modeling and computer simulation design of meta-reasoning and metacognition are closely connected with the introspective experiences of researchers and engineers.

Introspection was used by German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt in the experimental psychology laboratory he had founded in Leipzig in 1879. Wundt believed that by using introspection in his experiments he would gather information into how the subjects' minds were working, thus he wanted to examine the mind into its basic elements. Wundt did not invent this way of looking into an individual's mind through their experiences; rather, it can date to Socrates. Wundt's distinctive contribution was to take this method into the experimental arena and thus into the newly formed field of psychology.

Inaccessible mental processes and confabulation

Psychological research on cognition and attribution has asked people to report on their mental processes, for instance to say why they made a particular choice or how they arrived at a judgement. In some situations, these reports are clearly confabulated.[4] For example, people justify choices they have not in fact made.[5] Such results undermine the idea that those verbal reports are based on direct introspective access to mental content. Instead, judgements about one's own mind seem to be inferences from overt behavior, similar to judgements made about another person.[4] However, it is hard to assess whether these results only apply to unusual experimental situations, or if they reveal something about everyday introspection.[6] The theory of the adaptive unconscious suggests that a very large proportion of mental processes, even "high-level" processes like goal-setting and decision-making, are inaccessible to introspection.[7]

Even when their introspections are uninformative, people still give confident descriptions of their mental processes, being "unaware of their unawareness".[8] This phenomenon has been termed the introspection illusion and has been used to explain some cognitive biases[9] and belief in some paranormal phenomena.[10] When making judgements about themselves, subjects treat their own introspections as reliable, whereas they judge other people based on their behavior.[11] This can lead to illusions of superiority. For example, people generally see themselves as less conformist than others, and this seems to be because they do not introspect any urge to conform.[12] Another reliable finding is that people generally see themselves as less biased than everyone else, because they do not introspect any biased thought processes.[11] These introspections are misleading, however, because biases work sub-consciously. One experiment tried to give their subjects access to others' introspections. They made audio recordings of subjects who had been told to say whatever came into their heads as they answered a question about their own bias.[11] Although subjects persuaded themselves they were unlikely to be biased, their introspective reports did not sway the assessments of observers. When subjects were explicitly told to avoid relying on introspection, their assessments of their own bias became more realistic.[11]

Eastern spirituality

In Eastern Christianity, some of the concepts critical to addressing the needs of man such as sober introspection, called nepsis, are specific to watchfulness of the human heart and address the conflicts of the human nous, heart or mind. Also noetic understanding can not be circumvented nor satisfied by rationalizing or discursive thought (i.e. systemization).

In fiction

Introspections (also referred to as internal dialogue, interior monologue, self-talk) is the fiction-writing mode used to convey a character's thoughts. As explained by Renni Browne and Dave King, "One of the great gifts of literature is that it allows for the expression of unexpressed thoughts…" (Browne and King 2004, p. 117).

According to Nancy Kress, a character's thoughts can greatly enhance a story: deepening characterization, increasing tension, and widening the scope of a story (Kress 2003, p. 38). As outlined by Jack M. Bickham, thought plays a critical role in both scene and sequel (Bickham 1993, pp. 12–22, 50–58).

See also

Further reading


  1. Theaetetus, 155
  2. J Perner et al (2007). "Introspection & remembering". Synthese. Springer.
  3. Wilson, Robert Andrew; Keil, Frank C. (Eds.) (2001). The MIT Encyclopedia of the Cognitive Sciences (MITECS). Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press. ISBN 0-262-73144-7. http://books.google.com/?id=-wt1aZrGXLYC&printsec=frontcover.  Cf. p.xx
  4. 4.0 4.1 Nisbett, Richard E.; Timothy D. Wilson (1977). "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes". Psychological Review 8: 231–259. , reprinted in David Lewis Hamilton, ed (2005). Social cognition: key readings. Psychology Press. ISBN 9780863775918. 
  5. Johansson, Petter; Lars Hall, Sverker Sikström, Betty Tärning, Andreas Lind (2006). "How something can be said about telling more than we can know: On choice blindness and introspection". Consciousness and Cognition (Elsevier) 15 (4): 673–692. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2006.09.004. PMID 17049881. 
  6. White, Peter A. (1988). "Knowing more about what we can tell: 'Introspective access' and causal report accuracy 10 years later". British Journal of Psychology (British Psychological Society) 79 (1): 13–45. 
  7. Wilson, Timothy D.; Elizabeth W. Dunn (2004). "Self-Knowledge: Its Limits, Value, and Potential for Improvement". Annual Review of Psychology 55: 493–518. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.55.090902.141954. PMID 14744224. 
  8. Wilson, Timothy D.; Yoav Bar-Anan (August 22, 2008). "The Unseen Mind". Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 321 (5892): 1046–1047. doi:10.1126/science.1163029. PMID 18719269. 
  9. Pronin, Emily (January 2007). "Perception and misperception of bias in human judgment". Trends in Cognitive Sciences (Elsevier) 11 (1): 37–43. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2006.11.001. ISSN 1364-6613. PMID 17129749. 
  10. Wegner, Daniel M. (2008). "Self is Magic". In John Baer, James C. Kaufman, Roy F. Baumeister. Are we free?: psychology and free will. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195189636. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic67047.files/2_13_07_Wegner.pdf. Retrieved 2008-07-02. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 Pronin, Emily; Matthew B. Kugler (July 2007). "Valuing thoughts, ignoring behavior: The introspection illusion as a source of the bias blind spot". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology (Elsevier) 43 (4): 565–578. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.011. ISSN 0022-1031. 
  12. Pronin, Emily; Jonah Berger, Sarah Molouki (2007). "Alone in a Crowd of Sheep: Asymmetric Perceptions of Conformity and Their Roots in an Introspection Illusion". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (American Psychological Association) 92 (4): 585–595. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.92.4.585. ISSN 022-3514. PMID 17469946. 


  • Schultz, D. P. & Schultz, S. E. (2004). A history of modern psychology (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  • Bickham, Jack M. (1993). Scene & Structure. Writer's Digest Books. ISBN 0-89879-551-6.
  • Browne & King (2004). Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print. New York: Harper Resource. ISBN 0-06-054569-0
  • Gillespie, A. (2006). Descartes’ demon: A dialogical analysis of ‘Meditations on First Philosophy.’[1] Theory & Psychology, 16, 761-781.
  • Gillespie, A. (2007). The social basis of self-reflection [2]. In Jaan Valsiner and Alberto Rosa (Eds), The Cambridge Handbook of Socio-Cultural Psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kress, Nancy (August 2003), Writer's Digest.

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