I'm about halfway through reading Stephen Fleming's Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness. Basic concepts of the book are mind reading, in the sense of inferring what is in someone else's mind, and metacognition, literally thinking about our thinking, or more broadly, being aware of ourself.
Since Fleming, a British neuroscientist, cites many research studies in his book, reading it can take some effort. However, Fleming is a good writer, and frequently uses examples from everyday life, so on the whole I'm liking it a lot.
The title, Know Thyself, points toward a fact I've marveled at for a long time. We humans can turn our attention upon ourself in a way that other animals can't. Fleming's idea, which makes sense, is that this metacognition and mind reading (another term for the more usual "theory of mind") are closely related.
Meaning, many of the same brain processes are at work when we think "I feel bad that I got so angry" (metacognition) and "I believe that she thinks I'm mad at her" (mind reading). One is directed inward at our own mind; the other is directed outward at other minds.
And the same sorts of problems can arise in both metacognition and mind reading. We can be wrong about our own mind, and we can be wrong about other people's minds. Fleming writes:
First of all, it is important to distinguish between the capacity for metacognition and the accuracy of the self-awareness that results.
The capacity for metacognition becomes available to us after waking each morning. We can turn our thoughts inward and begin to think about ourselves. The accuracy of metacognition, on the other hand, refers to whether our reflective judgments tend to track our actual skills and abilities.
...In fact, metacognition is likely to be even more susceptible to illusions and distortions than perception. Our senses usually remain in touch with reality because we receive constant feedback from the environment.
If I misperceive my coffee cup as twice as large as it is, then I will likely knock it over when I reach over to pick it up, and such errors will serve to rapidly recalibrate my model of the world. Because my body remains tightly coupled to the environment, there is only so much slack my senses can tolerate.
The machinery for self-awareness has a tougher job: it must perform mental alchemy, conjuring up a sense of whether we are right or wrong from a fairly loose and diffuse feedback loop. The consequences of illusions about ourselves are usually less obvious.
If we are lacking in self-awareness, we might get quizzical looks at committee meetings, but we won't tend to knock over coffee cups or fall down flights of stairs. Self-awareness is therefore less moored to reality and more prone to illusions.
Those illusions basically involve us feeling that we know something that we actually don't know, or failing to feel that we know something which we actually do know.
There are lots of gradations, of course. The ideal is to feel uncertain about knowing things that our knowledge really is uncertain about, to feel confident about knowing things we really do know about, and to feel not at all confident in things that we don't know about.
That last "feel" is what makes us call a plumber when we know we don't know how to fix a leaky faucet. Lacking it makes us attempt a repair when we're not competent to do the job, something I have some familiarity with.
(One sadly vivid memory is giving up on a faucet repair, calling a plumber, and have him simply reverse one of the parts I had backward. When I joked that this 30 second repair now was going to cost me $80, or whatever, he said "You're forgetting what it took me to learn how to do that 30 second repair," which was absolutely true.)
At an extreme, this sort of thing is called frontal lobe paradox.
The paradox is that people with frontal lobe damage may have significant difficulties with everyday tasks such as cooking or organizing their finances, but because their metacognition is impaired, they are unable to recognize that they need a helping hand.
Without metacognition, we may lose the capacity to understand what we have lost. The connection between our self-impression and the reality of our behavior -- the reality seen by our family and friends -- becomes weakened.
A less extreme example is how most people believe they are an above-average driver, a statistical impossibility.