Metacognition Overview



By Joseph Shaffner,

North Rock Leadership


Have you ever sent an email out to a large group of colleagues when you are upset and tired and regretted it the next day? Have you ever spent time stewing over something someone said to you in a meeting recently? Have you ever lost your cool with someone? This is your caveman brain at work.


The oldest part of our brains (i.e., the caveman brain) is responsible for keeping us alive. This is called the limbic system or amygdala. Animals have these. It is in charge of fight or flight responses, eating, fear, and reproduction, which have allowed humans to survive and reproduce as a species. Although not everyone agrees, humans have more highly developed brains. We now live in a world where these survival skills are not required as much. They still help keep us out of harm’s way once and a while. The higher thinking part of our brains is called the pre-frontal cortex. This part of the brain is not fully developed until our mid-twenties. So, this is why we think teens are not rational. They are not fully rational until their pre-frontal cortex is formed.


Before your brain can process a feeling, emotion or reaction rationally and logically, it travels though the caveman brain. The diagram below from illustrates this.



The caveman brain also releases a chemical called cortisol, which recent studies show, is really bad for us. Understanding how to recognize and detect the caveman brain is a game-changer personally and professionally. It can be said that although you cannot kill the caveman brain, you can still it. Learning to do this is not easy. Metacognition is a technique that I use with my clients to try and learn to detect and manage your caveman brain.


Metacognition is literally “thinking about your thinking”. Being able to practice metacognition requires you to be able to recognize when your caveman brain is cranking up.


There are two very common activities (three, if you have kids) that most of us participate in frequently that can push your caveman brain into action and are excellent opportunities to lean and practice metacognition. One is driving. When someone pulls in front of you, does not signal or honks at you, your first instinct is to get mad. Some of us visualize catching up to that person and giving them a piece of our mind, or even worse! Your caveman brain always wants to be right. The second is going to the airport and getting on a plane. Your caveman brain likes to be in control. When you go through security and are strapped to a seat in an aluminum tube hurling through the air super, you are not in control. The third is dealing with children. Children love to test parents. When your son or daughter screams at you, throws a tantrum or drops a dish on the floor. Guess what?


Next time you experience one of the aforementioned experiences. Stop, take a deep breath and observe yourself like a hawk. Your pulse is high, you feel hot…. the caveman brain is looking out for you.


Let me give you a personal real-life example of practicing metacognition:


The first Saturday of June this summer I made a 7:00PM reservation at a local restaurant for my son and me. The restaurant is 10 minutes from our house. My son had just returned from college that afternoon. He was nowhere to be found at 6:45, and again at 6:50! He was not answering his phone (which I pay for, of course)! I started to get anxious and very angry. In my mind, I was developing the dialog of wrath that I was going to give to him when and if he arrived back home late. There it was, the caveman brain, front and center, ready to make me be irrational and upset over something really not all that important. More importantly, I was gearing up to be upset with my son who is sensitive and whom I have not seen in over two months.


Time to practice some metacognition!


I say to myself “Stop, take a deep breath, observe and inquire”


Q: Why are you feeling angry?

A: My son is going to make us late for a 7:00 reservation!!

Q: What is so bad about missing your reservation?

A: It is not polite, and he should be more respectful, this is a bad habit for him to have. I am always punctual; he should take after me!

Q: What will this bad habit do to him?

A: It will cause him some problems in school, socially and professionally, he will lose a job and he needs to have more discipline to succeed l just like I did!

Q: What happens if he has problems socially and professionally?

A: It makes me look like a failure as a parent! BINGO!

Q: Does that sound rational?

A: NO, I am a good caring parent and have done all I can to raise good kids. He is a good kid, and nobody has ever complained about him being late. He is getting decent grades in college.


Logical brain to caveman brain… “Calm down, and don’t worry about the reservation, it’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. Be grateful you have healthy son who is home from college safe and ready to spend some quality time with his father”.


We made it to the restaurant three minutes late and we had to wait for our table anyway! We had a good time. Otherwise, had I been derailed by my caveman brain, it would have been an unpleasant experience for the both of us and possibly damaged our fragile relationship.


Metacognition… the gift that keeps on giving! Try it, it will change the way you think, make decisions and react. It will also save you energy to focus on what is truly important.



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Executive Coach and

Professional Development Consultant