Get to know the power of extrospection.
In psychology, introspection has a long history as a key to understanding how the mind works. It was the method advocated by German physiologist Wilhelm Wundt (1832-1920) who is considered to have founded the first experimental psychology lab. Wundt believed that by gaining insight into his own thought processes, he could gain understanding of the structures that make up our mind. In his Leipzig lab, founded in 1872, he advocated the use of introspection even as he designed what we now regard as primitive experimental tools to understand perception.
We now think of introspection, a fundamental process used in mindfulness, more generally as “thinking to yourself.” According to mindfulness advocates, when you think to yourself, you become not only more self-aware, but more aware of your environment.
I’ve often wondered if there is a parallel process, what we might call extrospection, that occurs when you articulate your innermost thoughts to others. Like oversharing, or too much information (TMI), perhaps you blab at length about what’s going on inside your mind. Extrospection could make you seem more approachable, but it can also get you into trouble. If your words reveal your inner state when that inner state is angry or critical of others, you’re better off keeping your thoughts to yourself until the situation is appropriate.
Introspection has social aspects that often do concern the behavior and possible feelings of other people. According to the notion of Theory of Mind, we are constantly formulating propositions about the thoughts and motivations of people in our lives. We can use introspection to gain data to feed those propositions, as we try to understand other people by measuring our own reactions. For example, if you’re watching a news story in a public place, such as a waiting room covering a violent murder, you most likely are feeling fearful and sad. Given the content of that news story, by defining your own feelings, you are likely to assume other people are experiencing similarly negative emotions.
Wundt believed that introspection could provide the data needed to understand the structures of the mind, but he didn’t have many tools to use to peer directly into those structures. Nearly 150 years later, we still can’t observe exactly what neurons are doing in the brain, but we can see at a more general level which brain structures become activated under particular experimental instructions.
Ute Kreplin and Stephen Fairclough (2015), of Liverpool John Moores University in the United Kingdom, designed an intriguing experiment to examine introspection as a tool to understand the feelings of others. They measured the activity of regions of the brain thought to be involved in Theory of Mind, which is when we use our own thoughts to understand those of others. Their young adult participants were exposed to two types of artistic images designed to evoke positive and negative emotions. In the “self” condition, participants were instructed to think about how the image makes “you” feel, whether, sad, happy, or angry. In the “other” condition, they were asked to think about how the artist felt while painting the picture, and what type of person the artist was—happy, angry, or sad.
The paintings designed to evoke positive emotions were pleasant and attractive, such as a still life of fruit. The negative paintings were ugly or disgusting. The example the authors show in the article, for example, was of a pair of androids apparently committing sodomy on some kind of animal, something I’m pretty sure anyone would see as repulsive.
While viewing these images, participants were hooked up to a brain scanning machine that measured blood flow through the regions of the brain involved in Theory of Mind activity. The researchers expected greater activation of these regions during the “self” condition, but instead found that the “other” condition evoked greater neural activation. However, the elements of the painting turned out to play a critical role in determining which brain areas rose to the occasion. It was while viewing the negatively-valenced paintings that participants became more aroused under the “other” condition instruction. When viewing the positive paintings, their brains were more likely to become activated in the “self” condition.
The upshot of the study is that we seem to become more mentally and emotionally engaged when we imagine others to be sad or angry. This study suggests that our empathy is more engaged when others are in pain. We use our mental energies to understand how they’re feeling, putting aside our own possible distress or anxiety. Seeing pleasant images leads us to engage in more introspection regarding our own emotional state.
The findings also suggest why we are so drawn to beautiful images in art—and why we find them soothing. When you look at Van Gogh’s sunflowers or Monet’s water lilies, do you feel inwardly happy and relaxed? This study suggests that art can help you engage in self-soothing if you allow yourself to experience those positive emotions.
Fulfillment in our relationships may depend heavily on our ability to understand how others are feeling. As stated by the authors, the Theory of Mind perspective proposes that “empathy and perspective-switching is fundamental to one’s ability to navigate the social world” (p. 39). Examining your own reactions when the person you love is feeling upset or angry may provide you with the mental tools you need to be a better listener, and partner.
Kreplin, U., & Fairclough, S. H. (2015). Effects of self-directed and other-directed introspection and emotional valence on activation of the rostral prefrontal cortex during aesthetic experience. Neuropsychologia, 7138-45. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.03.013