The disadvantage of good cognition

As a culture, we value our cognition. Intelligence is a virtue in a certain way, and we work at developing our intelligence and the intelligence of our children. We have cognitive therapies because we like to believe that what we know is the most important part of being ourselves. Being smart makes us believe that we have total access to our minds, our reasons, and our self regulation.

The problem is, over time we realize that we have parts of our minds that we cannot easily access. We may do or say things that surprise us. We may vow to do something and then not do it. The problem with becoming more and more adept with our intellects is that it gives us the illusion that we know our own minds fully and we can regulate what we do or think.

We need to believe we have some self-regulatory capacity. This is what makes me feel like me: I can make choices about how I think and behave. The capacity for choice and the basis of my choices is what forms an important piece of my identity: who I think I am. For example, if I consistently choose to exercise, I see myself as a person who is physically fit, who can take care of herself, and who can regulate her choices. These perceptions form a part of how I understand myself.

At the same time, with a little reflection, I can see that at times my mind has effects that I am not consciously choosing. I eat that donut I had decided not to eat; I argue about something petty, or I have a really really good idea and I don’t know where it came from. In different ways, wanted and unwanted, our minds deliver to us thoughts, feelings, and motivations that are surprising and that represent parts of our minds that we are unaware of.

Our cognition matters–our capacity to think, our capacity to learn, our capacity to understand. Our emotions matter also. It is just that thoughts and feelings are not all there is to us. We have complex networks of meanings just underneath our awareness and these meanings impact the motivations and abilities that we generate. We may have meanings that are at odds with each other. For example, we may believe that exercise is important for health while at the same time we feel that resting and not exercising is better to restore ourselves. Or we may feel that pushing ourselves to exercise is self critical or unpleasant, and we avoid it. All these meanings are clashing under the surface and we end up making choices that represent only one meaning and not others.

Our cognition helps us reflect on the part of our mind that is not conscious. It develops explanations and analyses of what our minds our doing by paying attention to the effects of these underlying meanings. As long as we can recognize that our cognition is one part of our minds, and not the whole thing, we can take that reality into account and allow some space for the parts of our minds that we cannot directly introspect.

About norasblog

I am a psychotherapist with a private practice in downtown Chicago.
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