Introspection refers to observing one’s inner thoughts and feelings. The process of engaging in introspection is often associated with self-reflection and discovery.
Schwitzgebel (2019), writes for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, that introspection is:
“…a process that generates, or is aimed at generating, knowledge, judgments, or beliefs about mental events, states, or processes, and not about affairs outside one’s mind, at least not directly.”
Often, the goal of introspection is for the individual to become more centered by developing a deep understanding of their true, inner selves.
When a person becomes more in touch with who and what they are, they become more grounded and stable. This means that negative external influences become less harmful. It is a means to achieving inner peace.
Introspection: Definition and Characteristics
Robbins (2006) identifies several characteristics of introspection that define what constitutes an act of introspection and distinguishes it from other cognitive processes.
1. Introspection is Effortful
First, cognitive processes are usually divided into those which are automatic and those which are effortful.
- Automatic processes occur without conscious intent or awareness. They absorb very little cognitive capacity and therefore they can occur in parallel with other forms of mental activity.
- Effortful processes require intentional focus of attentional resources. They absorb cognitive capacity and therefore cannot occur in parallel with other mental activity. Effortful cognitive processes occur within conscious awareness.
Robbins states that introspection is a process that is under voluntary control. It is selectively focused inward towards specific internal processes. Therefore, according to Robbins, introspection is not an automatic cognitive process.
2. Introspection allows for Insights about Self (Self-Awareness)
Introspection allows for self-attributions of mental events, typically in a first-person form. In fact, it only occurs in a first-person form and is defined as excluding knowledge about any else’s internal mental processes and states (Schwitzgebel, 2019).
This gives way to descriptions of the self as revealed through insights that occur during introspection. Those insights enhance self-identity and self-awareness.
See Also: Self-Awareness Examples
3. Requires Temporal Proximity
Schwitzgebel adds that introspection is characterized by temporal proximity, meaning that it involves reflection on events that happened close to one another.
The knowledge that is generated is in reference to currently ongoing internal activity. Although there is some flexibility with this criterion which allows for exploration of the immediate past, the introspective process should occur “within a certain narrow temporal window.”
4. Results in Attunement
Finally, introspection results in attunement to or detection of a mental state or activity. The knowledge attained through introspection depends on and is specific to the targeted mental phenomenon. Schwitzgebel refers to this as the detection condition.
However, it is important to note that not everyone agrees with the defining features delineated above. It is not unusual for scholars in this area to disagree as to what does and does not constitute “introspection.”
Even scholars disagree on what exactly constitutes an introspective event (see Schwitzgebel, 2019). Some prefer rigid definitions that exclude activities that lead to introspective self-insight, while others allow some flexibility.
If we define introspection as the process of looking inward, then the examples below can be considered ways to facilitate looking inward or setting conditions that allow what is inside to be released into conscious awareness.
- Stream of Consciousness: A stream of consciousness refers to a continuous flow of ideas, thoughts and feelings. By allowing oneself to let the mind wander aloud, without censorship or concern about being embarrassment, it can release one’s inner thoughts and feelings from the subconscious.
- Meditation: Some forms of meditation involve trying to exert as little control over one’s consciousness as possible. By relinquishing control, it is easier for the individual to tap into their inner-most concerns and anxieties. This enhances self-insight and understanding.
- Progressive Relaxation: Progressive relaxation involves tensing and relaxing various muscle groups and focusing on controlled breathing. It often starts at the feet and gradually progresses upward through the torso and neck. This process improves perception of bodily sensations and helps the individual become more acutely aware of what situations and factors make them feel anxious.
- Interpreting Artwork: Some art lends itself to interpretation. By observing their own patterns of interpretation, a person can develop an enhanced understanding of the underlying dynamics of their own psyche.
- Journalling: Journalling is the process of recording one’s thoughts and feelings, usually in a private notebook or diary. Journalling can be daily, weekly, or at random times when the mood strikes. As the individual writes, thoughts and feelings that are central to their being may surface.
- Creative Endeavors: Immersing one’s attention into an act of creative expression can help a person connect with their deep-seeded inspirations. These inspirations can sometimes emanate from dark recesses in one’s psyche and exist outside conscious awareness before pursuing the creative endeavor.
- Dancing: There is a saying among people that are a bit too self-conscious. It goes like this: “dance like no one’s watching.” It is the only way to be free of inhibitions and let go. Dancing can lead to the release of emotions that words simply can’t describe, nonetheless, they are insightful, and therefore introspective.
- The Freudian Slip: A Freudian slip occurs when a repressed thought or feeling escapes the subconscious and is released in the form of an unintended statement or utterance. At that instance, self-insight is achieved, if only for a moment.
- Writing an Autobiography: Introspection can take a long time. It can involve self-reflection, self-awareness, and in the case of writing an honest autobiography, it can involve a little self-criticism. We never learn more about ourselves than when we acknowledge our shortcomings. Writing an autobiography is an example of one long introspective venture.
- Filling-Out a Personality Inventory: Answering lots of questionsabout your personality characteristics will cause a person to reflect on their actions and typical thoughts and feelings. That process is introspective and may actually help a person learn about how they think and the underlying dynamics of their emotional reactions.
Benefits of Introspection
When a person looks inwardly to observe and examine their thoughts and feelings, it can improve their understanding of themselves. They learn something about who they are and the things that give them joy or displeasure.
This enhanced understanding can carry-over to other aspects of life. It can help a person be a better romantic partner, a better parent, and even a better colleague and leader.
2. Emotional Self-Regulation
A secondary, but still very substantial, benefit of increased self-awareness is increased emotional self-regulation (Herwig, et al., 2018). Being able to control one’s emotions is necessary in a wide range of contexts.
Emotional self-regulation can help someone resist temptations, avoid substance abuse, avoid interpersonal conflicts, and help manage stress. These are valuable benefits of introspection.
3. Stability and Feeling Grounded
The personal insights gained through introspection can lead to a much deeper understanding of the self. When a person understands who they are and what their strengths and weaknesses are, they develop a sense of stability and feeling grounded.
This is a luxury that many people miss out on, but is especially important when living in a highly competitive and judgmental culture. When a person is grounded, a lot of external noise fails to impact the self in its usual harmful way.
Drawbacks of Introspection
1. Introspective Bias
Although learning about the self through introspection can be very revealing, what is learned may not apply to others. One risk of introspection is that the individual may assume that what applies to themselves is the same for others.
This can lead to misinterpreting the actions of others, result in miscommunication, and even cause interpersonal conflict. Therefore, it is important that the person that values introspection as a means to understand themselves also recognizes that those insights may not apply to anyone else at all.
One central debate in modern psychology regarding introspection revolves around the issue of how accurate are the insights derived from introspection.
In a seminal study by Nisbett and Wilson (1977) demonstrated that in many contexts, people are quite limited in accurately understanding the cognitive processes they engaged when making judgments (Berger, et al., 2016).
Although on a personal level this may not pose great harm to society, there are professional contexts in which this form of inaccuracy may be more consequential, such as when making key life decisions or in psychotherapy.
Psychological and Philosophical Origins of Introspection
The word introspection is derived from the Latin term introspicere, which means “to look within.” It refers to the process of observing one’s mental processes with the goal of discovering the principles that govern the mind.
This was a method practiced by many philosophers such as David Hume, John Locke, and Thomas Hobbes.
Danziger (1980) describes the history of introspection as a battle of philosophical schools, centralized in British and German academic circles.
The British school was more open to the concept of introspection as a theoretical construct, while the German school was more interested in developing research methodologies.
The study of sensation and perception was practiced and advocated by Wilhelm Wundt, but in his later writings he rejected introspection itself as a method of study.
Wundt’s criticism was based on the fact that introspection lacked the objectivity that is central to scientific observation. “In this context, we find Wundt adopting a stance that would practically have qualified him as a good behaviorist” (Danziger, 1980, p. 247).
Edward Titchener arrived at Cornell University in 1894 after being trained by Wundt at the University of Leipzig. He established a research laboratory at Cornell and thus began a movement in psychology known as structuralism.
As psychology became more formally studied in the United States, it experienced a struggle for self-identity. Eventually, introspection became out of favor and the behaviorism of Watson and Skinner emerged as the dominant orientation.
Introspection vs. Interoception
Whereas introspection is the process of observing one’s thoughts and feelings to acquire knowledge and understanding of those mental activities, interoception refers to the ability to perceive internal bodily states and signals.
Interoception has been linked in neuroscience research as playing a role in several mental disorders. For instance, individuals suffering from depression lack interoceptive abilities. They may misidentify bodily signals which then contributes to their misinterpretation of their emotional state (Harshaw, 2015).
people with depression often exhibit decreased interoceptive accuracy. They may struggle to correctly identify their bodily signals, leading to a misinterpretation of emotions, contributing to mood dysregulation (Harshaw, 2015).
Füstös et al. (2012) found that interoceptive accuracy was associated with better affective regulation: “the more aware a person is of ongoing bodily processes, the more successful this person’s emotion regulation in response to negative affect will be” (p. 5).
Introspection has a long history, beginning in philosophy, leading to different schools of thought in a science of psychology struggling for legitimacy, and extending into the 21st century as still a subject of debate, research and slight mystery.
Despite a couple-hundred years of discussion and analysis, even today scholars can disagree on what exactly constitutes introspection.
Even so, this difficulty hasn’t prevented various experts from identifying the numerous benefits of introspection, such as increased self-awareness, improved emotional regulation, and as a research tool that can help propose future lines of study.
Of course, drawbacks exist as well. Introspection can be inaccurate, misleading, and create a false sense of knowledge that actually only applies to a sample of one.
Anders, A. I. M. (2019). Introspection and Psychotherapy. SFU Forschungsbulletin, 55-70.
Berger, C. C., Dennehy, T. C., Bargh, J. A., & Morsella, E. (2016). Nisbett and Wilson (1977) revisited: The little that we can know and can tell. Social Cognition, 34(3), 167-195.
Brock, A. C. (2018). The history of introspection revisited. In Self-observation in the social sciences (pp. 25-44). Routledge.
Danziger, K. (1980). The history of introspection reconsidered. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences, 16(3), 241-262.
Füstös, Jürgen & Gramann, Klaus & Herbert, Beate & Pollatos, Olga. (2012). On the embodiment of emotion regulation: Interoceptive awareness facilitates reappraisal. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 8. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nss089
Harshaw C. (2015). Interoceptive dysfunction: toward an integrated framework for understanding somatic and affective disturbance in depression. Psychological Bulletin, 141(2), 311–363. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0038101
Herwig, U., Opialla, S., Cattapan, K., Wetter, T. C., Jäncke, L., & Brühl, A. B. (2018). Emotion introspection and regulation in depression. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 277, 7-13.
Nisbett, R. E., & Wilson, T. D. (1977). Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review, 84, 231-259.
Robbins, P. (2006). The ins and outs of introspection. Philosophy Compass, 1(6), 617-630.
Schwitzgebel, Eric, “Introspection”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).