Digital Introspection and the Importance of Self-Knowledge

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By Shelley Hayduk

As the world changes, for better or worse, we continue to assimilate new experiences and ideas that define who we are. With the advent of new social networking tools, we can join the web of digitized relationships to connect with people and share these views. But in addition to connecting outward we also need to turn inward to reflect on our ideas and the relationships that we hold implicitly in our own minds.

The connections we make in our head are unique to every individual. It's a fascinating journey to try and understand what they are. So how do we examine ourselves -- our thoughts and experiences? One method is introspection, and it's going digital.

Self-Analysis Through Language

words.pngLanguage and writing are key vehicles for introspection. Many people keep diaries of their thoughts and experiences to get to know themselves. Some people even write autobiographies. In fact, a key premise of psychotherapy (in the Freudian sense) is to become explicitly conscious of your feelings and subconscious beliefs by talking through them, i.e capturing your understanding in language. In expressing underlying forces of your life through words you can identify relevant psychological angst and formulate a better way to live. In each case, we capture our feelings and implicit views with words, articulating their meaning through language. Now technology gives us the ability to take this a step further, but before we get to that, a word about mental models.

Your Mental Model

mental-model 2.pngWe are the aggregation of how all our thoughts, feelings and experiences connect. This gestalt forms a perspective of the world as we see it. It's kind of like a miniature version of the world in our heads -- a "mental model" if you will.

We use our mental models to store, analyze and decide everything. When we make a decision we check our mental models and use them to try to predict what will happen in the real world. These models operate extremely fast even at an unconscious level as Malcolm Gladwell explores in his book Blink.  Mental models are at play in what Gladwell refers to as rapid cognition. This can lead to instant reactions that can be dead on, like that trusted "gut feeling."

We implicitly test our mental models through our experience in life. Conversely, inaccurate or perhaps even just wrongly applied mental models can lead to bad decisions, such as judging people by the color of their skin or hair style. But it is impossible for us to be completely aware of our entire mental model at play. Sometimes our mental models need to be updated, but if we're not aware of them, how much conscious control can we have over them? In order to know ourselves further, we can attempt to make our mental models more explicit.

Semantic Networks Capture Mental Models

awareness-map.png

To capture our mental models and thinking we need to visualize the relationships and connections between our ideas. Today we have developed graphical depictions of the relationships between words, what I referred to in my first blog post as a semantic network. Semantic networks allow the meaning between topics to be captured and visualized. You can literally map out and follow a train of thought as expressed in a semantic network. A scalable semantic network can be used to capture the basics of your mental model as illustrated in Jerry's Brain, referenced in my last post.

Better Self-Knowledge Through Explicit Mental Models

Technologies that enable us to see and explore our mental models can help us reinforce, analyze, and improve them. You can create a mind map or visual map of all your key assumptions, beliefs and projects. These maps can drive understanding. Visualization tools, semantic maps or more conventional mind maps can help us achieve a new level of self-awareness.

When you start to create a semantic network of your world view, it's never really complete. Your digital mental model is something that will grow and change, just like your real one. These dynamic networks are an effective way to formulate a new view of the world or to help come to terms with life changing events. For instance, after the collapse of the financial markets in 2008 I decided to visualize the Federal Reserve policy, government regulation, the financial industry, and key economic theories to bring together a view of the crisis with my PersonalBrain. This helped me understand and assimilate something that had a huge impact on me. These visual networks can also provide an interesting level of psychological relief because you are actively solving and mapping out problems, instead of just worrying about or dwelling on them in a passive way. 

Moreover, you can always return to your digital mind and update it when the world changes, as your beliefs change. When you explore various tools for capturing your mental model, it's critical that your choice is scalable. One of the key premises behind Harlan Hugh's design of TheBrain (my company) was the dynamic reconfiguration of the visual map. Clicking on a topic triggers all relevant connections so the map is not flat or static. It's actually not confined by spatial limitations and so can scale up almost infinitely.

Right now I'm adding many new thoughts in my digital brain about nuclear physics and the effects of radiation because it's something that weighs heavily on my mind and I need to understand it better. But there is no limit to what you can put in and just like your mind, anything goes and anything can be connected. For more information on how to use PersonalBrain for self-knowledge see my blog post "Your Autobiographical Brain."

Understanding Our World and Each Other

Now this fascinating mode of digital introspection can be shared with others to broaden a perspective on a topic. With the advent of cloud computing, "connection-based" or collaborative mind-mapping users are in the early stages of synchronizing each other's mental models. Beyond files and ideas, people are packaging up their thoughts and entire world views and collaborating with them online. We can exchange our knowledge and its very structure. This could have far-reaching consequences for our world. Seeing someone else's perspective through more expansive visual relationships can deepen conversations, empathy, and respect -- perhaps with the ultimate result of a more informed dialogue and elevated information exchange worldwide. 

But as Aldous Huxley wrote:

There is only one corner of the universe you can be certain of improving, and that's your own self.

So for now, that's the corner I'm focusing on with my own semantic network.

Shelley Hayduk is a cofounder of The Brain Technologies, makers of visual information management and dynamic mind mapping software.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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