The Trick to Making Your Relationship Stronger
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 fearfuland 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.
Fulfillment in our relationships may depend heavily on our ability to understand how others are feeling. 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.