I was recently asked “Is mindfulness the same as metacognition?”

It is a reasonable question.  The concepts are closely related.  However I think they should be teased apart.  They are more like cousins than identical twins.

Mindfulness in the everyday sense is something like “having your mind on the job” which I would translate as doing something attentively and carefully.

This is not exactly what Ellen Langer meant by it.  Langer is the academic who brought the concept of mindfulness to prominence in social science, and more widely, with publications like Mindfulness and  The Power of Mindful Learning.  In the former book she says

the key qualities of a mindful state of being [are]: (1) creation of new categories; (2) opennness to new information; and (3) awareness of more than one perspective. (p.62)

Metacognition is basically just thinking about one’s own thinking, though the term generally also has the connotation that the thinking one is doing about one’s thinking is aimed at or being used to improve that thinking.

So with these definitions on the table, it seems fairly clear that metacognition is not the same as mindfulness in either of its senses.  Metacognition is concerned what you’re thinking about.  Mindfulness is concerned with how you think as you go about what you’re doing.

You can be engaged in your work mindfully, in the ordinary sense, without going up a level, so to speak, and attending to your thought processes themselves – that is, without any metacognition.  And I think the same is true for mindfulness in Langer’s sense.  I can create new categories, be open to new information, and be aware of more than one perspective, without  “stepping back” and thinking about whether and how I am actually doing these things.

In fact I’d go further and say that “expert” mindfulness – the mindful behavior of someone who had truly mastered mindfulness – would not be metacognitive.   The truly mindful person would not need to reflect on her thinking, and indeed doing so would actually interfere with mindful activity.

Generally it is beginners who need to think about what they are doing.  The learner driver needs to pay lots of attention to even the most mundane aspects of driving, such as where the gearshift is.  The experienced driver pays very little attention to driving, and can carry on a lively conversation instead.

The same is true for thinking.  “Beginner” thinkers – that is, thinkers who have only just begun to try to rise above ordinary (in)competence – will need to pay lots of attention to their thinking, with the intent to understand how they are thinking and to modify that thinking in line with certain guidelines. As they master those alternative patterns of thought, the need for metacognitive reflection as a steering mechanism diminishes.

When you first attempt to cultivate Langerian mindfulness, you would need to pay attention to how you are going about your tasks, and in particular how you are thinking as you go about them; and you would have to be thinking about how that thinking could be modified in a “mindful” direction.  Thus, metacognition would be an essential activity.  But as you mastered mindfulness, you could just be mindfully engaged without needing to think about it (the thinking).  This is good because whatever mental energy you might have put into reflecting on your thinking can instead be devoted to the primary task, deepening your mindful engagement.

Coming from the other direction, metacognition can be “un-mindful”.  I can think about my thinking without (1) creating new categories, etc..  In fact a beginner’s metacognition is likely to be quite “mindless” in this technical sense.   But just as you will, say, exercise better if you do so mindfully, so you will cognize and indeed metacognize better if you do so mindfully.

Thus mindfulness and metacognition differ in this respect: novice mindfulness is metacognitive; expert metacognition is mindful.

All this reminds me of an issue in the definition of critical thinking.  If you look in the academic literature, there are lots of different definitions of “critical thinking.”  My feeling is that nobody has every really improved on Francis’ Bacon’s account back in 1605:

For myself, I found that I was fitted for nothing so well as for the study of Truth; as having a mind nimble and versatile enough to catch the resemblances of things … and at the same time steady enough to fix and distinguish their subtler differences; as being gifted by nature with desire to seek, patience to doubt, fondness to meditate, slowness to assert, readiness to consider, carefulness to dispose and set in order; and as being a man that neither affects what is new nor admires what is old, and that hates every kind of imposture.

However for most people this definition is too wordy, too complicated, and just too… old.  Surely these days we can pin down the essence of critical thinking more precisely and succinctly?  If you really want the concept in a nutshell, then my version is

The art of being right

which may not capture every nuance, but is, I sincerely maintain, “better than any other definition that short.”

Anyway, one of the better known figures in the field, Richard Paul, has defined critical thinking as

The art of thinking about your thinking, while you’re thinking, so as to make your thinking more clear, precise, accurate, relevant, consistent, and fair…

This seems to me almost exactly wrong.  Sure, critical thinking is thinking that is clear, precise, etc..  But there should be no requirement that you have to think about your thinking.   Just think clearly, precisely, etc. about your topic – your health, the financial crisis, or whatever.   The beginner critical thinker will have to reflect on her thinking, in order to improve that thinking.  But the expert critical thinker just will be clear, precise etc. in thinking about the matter at hand.  Requiring the sharp thinker to think about her thinking would be like requiring the expert tennis player to think about her stroke while playing.  It would immediately degrade her game.

So Richard Paul, my advice is – chop off the first phrase and you’d have a good definition.  You might then add that if you’re a novice, then in order to make thinking more clear, etc., you may have to do some reflecting on your thinking.  But your goal will be to get beyond that stage as quickly as you reasonably can.