Know Thyself Book Summary - Know Thyself Book explained in key points
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Know Thyself summary

Stephen M. Fleming

The Science of Self-Awareness

4.5 (322 ratings)
19 mins
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    Know Thyself
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    Your self-awareness is hardwired into your brain. But you can always sharpen it.

    Let me ask you a question: What’s Elton John’s real name?

    Now, there are three ways you might respond.

    One: “I have absolutely no idea.”

    Two: “Reginald Dwight, obviously!”

    Three: “I know that I know that! It’s on the tip of my tongue, but I can’t seem to remember it.”

    This third reaction is a great example of a process that cognitive neuroscientists call metacognition

    What’s metacognition? Well, cognition is thinking. And that prefix, meta-, comes from the Greek for beyond. So metacognition is thinking that goes beyond thinking. It’s having an awareness of how and why we’re thinking something at the same time that we’re thinking it. Someone who thinks metacognitively is self-aware – someone who doesn’t just think things, but interrogates and reflects on what they think.

    In the eighteenth century, a Swedish botanist named Carl Linnaeus set himself a pretty big project. He wrote a book, Systema Naturae, where he began to outline a taxonomy of the natural world – in other words, labeling and categorizing every living thing. He wrote exhaustively long entries for all kinds of birds, insects, and plants. But when it came to humans, Linnaeus felt that three Latin words were enough. Nosce te ipsum. Meaning? Those that know themselves.

    It’s been over 250 years since Linnaeus wrote that – but ask any cognitive scientist and they’ll tell you, Linnaeus wasn’t wrong. Our capacity for self-awareness is a key part of what makes us human. It drives our actions to a powerful degree – and, harnessed properly, it can help us achieve extraordinary things. Here’s an example:

    Free divers are athletes who try to dive as deep underwater as possible without the use of any additional breathing apparatus, like an oxygen tank. During free diving tournaments, divers compete to reach the lowest depths. It’s a pretty dangerous undertaking. Go too deep, and divers risk passing out, sustaining lung injuries, and even drowning. 

    Successful free divers don’t just need physical stamina and a talent for diving; they rely on an exquisite level of metacognitive awareness of their abilities and limits. If they underestimate their abilities, they’ll stop before they need to, losing valuable inches from their final score. If they overshoot their limitations, the results can be catastrophic. The difference between a good free diver and a great one? Self-awareness.

    We’re all self-aware to some degree. Our aptitude for metacognition is hardwired into our brains and many key metacognitive processes are actually performed automatically. If you’ve ever set a drink down on the table, missed the table by an inch or two, and reflexively caught your glass before it shatters on the floor – well, that was your ingrained metacognition at work. We perform a lot of simple tasks, like drinking a glass of water, automatically. At the same time, we’re constantly self-monitoring. If a task doesn’t progress as predicted, we instinctively self-correct. 

    We can build on the metacognitive instincts hardwired into our brain by cultivating more explicit metacognitive strategies. Research has shown that some people are more naturally prone to metacognition than others; neuropsychologists call these people “metacognitively gifted.” But we’re all capable of developing and refining our metacognitive skills. And, as the next few chapters will show, boosting metacognition can lead to enhanced learning outcomes, better decision-making, and a more flexible style of thinking.

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    What is Know Thyself about?

    In Know Thyself (2021) cognitive neuroscientist Stephen M. Fleming lays out the basic principles of metacognition – the way we think about what we think. This revealing book shows by understanding of our metacognitive processes, we can turn them to our advantage, to make accurate, informed judgments.

    Who should read Know Thyself?

    • Psychology buffs 
    • People grappling with difficult decisions
    • Anyone who wants to know more about why they think what they think

    About the Author

    Stephen M. Fleming is a professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College, London and the author of over 75 scientific papers. He is the recipient of the Wiley Award, granted by the British Academy, and the Philip Leverhulme prize in psychology, from the Leverhulme Trust.

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