How to Think

January 22, 2016 | By Cognadev

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Every day we are faced with a multitude of problems. Deciding what to wear to work, navigating the traffic and reading a paper presents us with many mental challenges:

  • How should I dress for that important meeting?
  • Should I turn left or right?
  • What does that word mean in this sentence?

And when we get to work, whether you are a bricklayer, a clerk or a business analyst, there are more problems that need to be solved:

  • Am I still laying the bricks level?
  • How much change do I need to give?
  • Does my model capture the problem effectively?

A great deal of our mental activity revolves around solving a variety of problems that have different levels of complexity. We cannot avoid problems as they will find us on our days off, during our holidays and in all forms of work and even play. We have the power to change how we face these problems and how effectively we solve them. While personality can make a difference, here we will be focusing on how people think through and conceptualise issues.

How people think

Maretha Prinsloo’s holonic model of thinking processes offers a perspective on how cognition works. Holons consist of embedded systems that increase in complexity. They can be described as evolving, self-organising, soft hierarchies where subsequent systems include and transcend previous systems.

A nice example of a holon is how living cells eventually form a society. Cells are systems, but cells are included and transcended by organs. Organs are included and transcended by organisms, which are included and transcended by societies. In fact, the universe primarily consists of interrelated holons, which are maintained by a constant exchange of matter, energy and information.

Thinking processes and the way they are applied reflect a holonic structure. Memory is the foundation and enables other thinking processes. Memory is included and transcended by other systems of increasing complexity: Exploration, Analysis, Structuring and Transformation. These processes are not applied step-by-step, but simultaneously in an integrated and interactive way.

Memory, Exploration, Analysis, Structuring and Transformation are functional processes that are applied purposefully to solve a problem, conceptualise an idea or create a solution. These processes are guided by Metacognition, which can be defined as thinking about thinking, awareness of thinking or questioning one’s own thinking processes.

While Metacognition guides thinking, these questions need to arise out of the problem-solving task currently being dealt with. For each of the functional processes, there are associated Metacognitive Criteria. An awareness of these criteria will guide the type of Metacognitive questions asked.

Figure: The holonic structure of functional processing categories


To show how these cognitive processes work in practice, imagine someone called John. John is responsible for checking, controlling and fixing a bottle conveyor belt in a factory.

If everything goes according to plan, John will only have to rely on his Memory in order to produce bottles. He does this by focusing on the relevance of his actions and his recognition of the familiar:

  • Am I doing this correctly?
  • Is everything fine, as usual?

Now there is a problem and bottles stop coming on the conveyor belt. John will need to Explore to discover what the problem is. John looks at the clarity of the problem as well as whether greater depth of investigation is needed:

  • What is the problem?
  • Do I need to investigate further?

John is now confused. He does not understand what has gone wrong. He now needs to Analyse the problem. He does this by focusing on the details, rules and causalities involved:

  • What is involved here?
  • Why did it break?
  • How can I fix it?

By using Analysis, John has acquired a lot of information that is fragmented and disorganised. Someone asks him to explain what has happened. John then needs to Structure the problem. He looks at the information and asks what makes sense and what is meaningful. He will also question the coherence of his thinking:

  • What are the core issues here?
  • How is this related to other issues?
  • How can I best represent this information (diagram / flow chart)?

It is now John’s responsibility to fix the problem and make sure that this does not happen again. He now has to use Transformational reasoning to formulate a creative solution. He will focus on whether he is finding an appropriate, applicable and purposeful solution. He must also keep the implications of the options in mind:

  • What solution is actually required?
  • What are the various options?
  • What solution is most effective?
  • Will this solution create more problems?

How to improve thinking

Learning is a result of Metacognitive awareness. If a similar problem had to occur to John, he should not start solving the problem from the beginning again, but use what he has learnt to improve his performance. We can often recognise problems as similar or falling into a category. To improve his problem-solving next time, John would have to contextualise his acquired knowledge and skill and start to use intuitive insights:

  • Where did I go wrong last time?
  • What did I not know?
  • How can I use this information next time?
  • What is my gut feeling about this situation?

Metacognitive awareness and the application of Metacognitive Criteria result in improved problem-solving. It includes and transcends all the previous thinking processes. We actually engage naturally in metacognition every day. Metacognition develops as we advance our problem-solving strategies and become self-aware of how we complete certain tasks and our level of skill in resolving issues.

Almost all people will use Metacognition while solving a difficult task, but some people use it more or more effectively than others. Metacognition is improved with relative ease and has been linked to intelligence, effective learning and problem-solving. Putting effort into asking yourself these guiding questions may slow thinking down for a while, but eventually it becomes quicker and more automatic.

While this article is a simplification of complex theories, hopefully you can start practicing the art of applying Metacognition in your everyday life.

How the theory is applied

The strengths of the theory have been built upon to create a psychometric assessment tool that measures a person’s problem-solving behaviours via a computerised simulation. It is called the Cognitive Process Profile (CPP) and the assessment provides a report that indicates a person’s thinking preferences and capabilities according to the holonic model. The theory is also used in cognitive development programmes, such as the Analytical Thinking Skills and Systems and Strategic Thinking courses.