Thinking Outside the Box: A Metacognitive/Theory of Mind Perspective on Concrete Thinking

(2011) Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 59:4, pp. 765-789

Photo by: Suzy Hazelwood

Abstract: Concrete thinking, an extraordinarily difficult condition to treat, has been psychoanalytically theorized to result from failures of symbolization—problems forming, linking or fathoming the meaning of symbols—and/or failures of differentiation, resulting in difficulties distinguishing symbols from the thing being symbolized, fantasy from reality, self from other. Though difficulties symbolizing and differentiating are clearly evident in patients whose thinking is concrete, this may not be the root cause of concrete thinking, rather, it may be a manifestation of such thinking. Childhood thinking is characteristically concrete and a persistence of such thinking into adulthood can be adequately explained as a failure to develop a more sophisticated theory of mind. Given that patients who exhibit such thinking tend to respond poorly to classic psychoanalytic interpretations, alternate technical approaches have been proposed. One such approach, “metacognitive” in nature, is illustrated by an approach used by gifted individuals that helps them “think outside the box” by dispensing with a typical pattern-recognition search so that novel meanings might then be discovered. Metacognition, thoughts about one’s thoughts and thought processes, facilitates symbolic thinking by creating sufficient distance from one’s thoughts to grant one perspective to consider alternate meanings.