If you shut your eyes and notice things going on in your head, chest, and other parts of your body, you are introspecting. Some people are very good at this and will immediately understand exactly what I mean by it. Others won't understand, either because they don't like to introspect for one reason or another or because they don't understand the idea. Perhaps it isn't their nature to turn inward. For some, Introspection is natural, and, for others, it feels difficult or even unnatural.
A comparison with two other activities
We can compare someone introspecting with a soldier on guard duty on a moonless night and also with a field ornithologist listening, late at night, for the call of a rare bird. Introspection, being on guard duty, and waiting for a bird call are all activities, and they all involve effort or work. All three of them require alertness. The alertness for the guard and the ornithologist involves a readiness to be alert to sounds; the readiness, once sounds are heard, to try to discriminate between them; and the readiness to try to pick out and identify the sounds relevant to their goals. The guard must stay awake and cock his ears for sounds. When he hears a sound, say the crack of a small branch, he has to try to figure out what is making the sound. Is it an animal, a friend, an enemy soldier sneaking up on him and his outfit? The scientist, lying in his sleeping bag, note pad and time-piece at hand, is listening to the sounds of the night. He is waiting for the sound of the bird he is studying, and he is waiting for only that sound. When he hears the sound, he will note the time it occurred and the length of the sound and its characteristics.
Being on guard duty and waiting for the sound of a bird are both activities, and they are both work, and they require more or less full attention. Perhaps the guard or the scientist can eat and remain attentive to what they are looking for, but eating, especially if the food is enjoyed a lot, will probably pull the attention from the tasks and lead to the missing of critical sounds.
Introspection is a similar activity. It involves waiting and watching (in a metaphorical sense), and it is also an activity that requires pretty much full attention. It is easiest to do when withdrawn from the normal hustle and bustle of everyday life. It is nearly impossible to be involved in any normal activity, especially a complex one, and to introspect at the same time. To state this again, a little stronger, in order to introspect, it is necessary to withdraw from the hubbub of daily life. Introspection can only be done after the children are asleep and all other obligations are tabled for a time. Withdrawal to a private spot is necessary. One has to be alone. Introspection is often done late at night (or early in the morning) while lying in bed. The lower the level of stimulation the better. If it is daytime, and there is a myriad of sights and sounds, these stimuli grab the attention and make Introspection difficult or even impossible.
To put all this another way, a man fighting on a battlefield, with bullets whizzing around his head, can not be on guard duty at the same time (and there would be no need for him to be) or make careful scientific observations or introspect. It is only by withdrawing from the battle or after the battle is over that these less chaotic and less emotional activities become possible. As the world "disappears," it is possible to become watchful in the way necessary for guard duty, scientific observation, and Introspection. A painter who wants to emphasize a figure in a painting will make the background dark and the figure light. In this way the figure can stand out. It is similar with the three activities we are describing. They require a dark background (that is, minimal background stimulation) for the relevant material to come to the fore.
All three activities require an active waiting in a low sensory environment. And there is also another requirement which is a willingness to be passive, at least in a certain sense. The goal of guard duty, of scientific observation, and of Introspection, at least in their initial phases, is not to act but to wait and to receive information from the environment. The goal isn't to break twigs or to scare birds into making a cry or to cure a headache or solve a math problem. The goal is to wait and wait and wait until something happens, whenever it does, if it ever does. (It probably takes a certain type of personality to be willing to be passive and receptive in this way, but that is another issue.) What information the guard and the scientist and the person who is introspecting bring back is not what they want or what they choose or what they set up; it is what comes to them and what comes to them from nature, naturally. And what comes may surprise them, because they didn't make it happen and may not expect it.
In spite of the physically passive nature of the activities, they are, as stated, all activities, and all are work. And, like all work, none of these three activities can be done twenty four hours, seven days a week. There has to be time off to take care of other responsibilities and to relax and rest. As with other forms of work, it is possible to push oneself too far, even to the point of exhaustion. And all the neurotic mechanisms that can be associated with any other work can appear here also: Guard duty, scientific observation, or Introspection can be used as escapes; a person can be driven or overly competitive in doing any of them; a person can feel insecure about his or her skills; a person can find him or herself doing them in a frantic, manic state, and so on.
And another similarity is that all three activities can be considered separate from their objects. The guard is observing the enemy. His observations take place a split second later than what he is observing, and they are distinct from the enemy. The same for the scientist. The observation of the scientist is distinct from the bird and takes place a split second after its cry. And the same is true for the person introspecting. The Introspection is distinct from the experience being examined, and it takes place after it — even if the "after" is only a split second after.
(It seems to me that this may not always be true with Introspection. I think that some introspective experiences may be merged with the experiences themselves, but this is a topic tangential to our present purposes.)
Before the reader begins to think that Introspection is exactly the same type of activity as guard duty and scientific observation, here is a difference: The experiences the guard has in watching for the enemy are not the enemy, and those of the ornithologist listening for birds are not birds. On the other hand, the introspective experiences a person has while monitoring his (or her) experiences are themselves experiences. Introspection is an experience, an experience of experiences.
A brief story to illustrate how Introspection differs from guard duty and bird watching
Four men went in search of wolves. One was the guide. Another was a scientist interested in studying wolf calls. The third was a psychologist interested in the effects of wolf calls on the human psyche. The fourth was the patient of a heart doctor. The heart doctor was having trouble diagnosing the heart problem and wanted the patient to put himself in a dangerous situation to see how his heart would react in a real-life stress situation (this last is far-fetched, but I am using it to make a point).
The guide brought a gun. The scientist brought a note pad. The patient brought a blood-pressure monitor. The psychologist brought nothing.
During the night the wolves began to call. The guide grabbed his gun and stood up. The scientist reached for his note pad and sat up. The patient sat up and reached for his monitor. The psychologist remained lying down, motionless.
The guard shook himself to become more alert and tuned in to the sounds, trying to establish their distance. The scientist listened to the sounds carefully for the number of wolves, to see if he could identify their feelings and their position in the pack. The patient listened to his own heart beat and wrote down any variations from normal, and every five minutes he wrote down his heart rate and blood pressure. The psychologist wrote nothing and did not move from his lying down position. He focused on the sounds of the different wolves, tried to figure out how he knew there was more than one wolf, tried to focus on the feelings he was feeling, tried to notice if the cries he was experiencing were similar to his memories of cries he had heard in films. Even though the cries went on for over an hour, each man continued with his own task for the whole time.
Summary of the features of introspective experiences
Introspection is an action. It is work. It requires focused attention. It requires alertness and the ability to discriminate and the ability to identify. It requires withdrawal from the activities of everyday life. It can only be done in a condition of minimal stimulation. It requires the ability to wait and the willingness to be receptive to whatever experiences come along. It is an experience. It is a second level of experience, different from the experience it is observing. It takes place at least a split second later than the object of its experience. It's goal is to observe experiences and gather data about them and note features about them. It differs from reflecting on what is collected and noted, though reflection often is intermixed with Introspection.
The use of the word "Introspection" in Psychology
E. B. Titchener used Introspection as a primary tool in his psychological research. In an article published in 1912, The Schema of Introspection, E. B. Tichener introduces his definition of the word and his view of its importance in psychological research.
Even though Introspection has fallen out of favor as a research tool, it remains central to insight oriented psychotherapy and even in cognitive therapy. Whenever a therapist asks, “What are you feeling?” or “What are you thinking?” or “What did you dream last night?” the therapist is asking for an introspective report.
In the last few years a school of psychotherapy has developed based on the idea of Mindfulness. This approach seems to have begun with therapists interested in Buddhism and who practiced meditation. The idea is that half the cure for a psychological problem, say an anxiety condition, is for the anxious person simply to observe the feeling (including all the bodily sensations) without trying to change it or do anything about it. Whatever the origin of this approach, it seems to be a certain kind of Introspection.
Dovetailing with the use of Introspection in psychotherapy is the fact that it is an activity done more while a person is suffering than while happy. When we are happy, optimistic, invigorated, full of life, active in the world, and feeling we are accomplishing our goals, the last thing we do is stop and look within. There's no energy or time or attention for it. Introspection requires full attention; it requires stopping what we are doing, stopping cold in our tracks, sitting or lying down, perhaps shutting our eyes and letting our attention wander; this is where we start noticing the "creatures" of our inner worlds, and then the inner observations of this "wild-life" and the recordings of what we "see" can begin.
The first use of the word "Introspection"
The Oxford English Dictionary gives John Dryden the honor of introducing the word into English in his essay on poetry and painting published in 1695. Dryden translates part of an Italian book on painting, sculpture, and architecture. The author of this Italian book that Dryden found worthy of translating into English was Giovanni Pietro Bellori, a contemporary of his. In one paragraph, Bellori wrote about the famous Italian painter, Guido Reni. Bellori quoted from a letter Reni wrote to the Steward of the House of Pope Urban the Eighth about a painting he (Reni) had completed of the archangel Michael. The word Introspection appeared in English for the very first time in Dryden's translation of this Guido Reni letter, a letter presented in Bellori. Reni wrote (in Dryden's English translation):
I wish I had the wings of an angel, to have ascended into Paradise, and there to have beheld the forms of those beatified spirits, from which I might have captured my archangel [Michael — in Reni's new painting]. But not being able to mount so high, it was in vain for me to search his resemblance here below; so that I was forced to make an introspection into my own mind, and into that idea of beauty which I have formed in my own imagination. I have likewise created there the contrary idea of deformity and ugliness; but I leave the consideration of it, till [sic] I paint the devil: and in the mean time shun the very thought of it as much as I possibly can, and am even endeavouring to blot it wholly out of my remembrance.The Critical and Miscellaneous Prose Works of John Dryden ..., Volume 3; Edmond Malone; London: For T. Cadell, Jun. and W. Davies, 1800; page 301 — my emphasis]
It is interesting that a poet should introduce Introspection into our vocabulary and even more significant that he does this in relation to an artist scanning his imagination to come up with the subject for a painting. Introspection is different from observation or inspection where the goal is to describe exactly what exists in public reality and only what exists there. In Introspection we are, speaking metaphorically, "watching what is going on inside us" and only what is going on inside, and if we find angels or ghosts or God, Himself, the work of Introspection is to note it down and to describe it carefully. All experiences, even hallucinations, are the legitimate subject matter of Introspection.
Three problems with Introspection as a reliable tool
The main problem with Introspection is the difficulty or impossibility of checking its reports. Inner events come and then are gone forever. They can't be brought back (that is, the exact same one can't be brought back), and they can't be photographed to examine later or to show others. Sometimes they are unusual, maybe even one of a kind. Others can doubt our reports. They can think we are lying or exaggerating, or they can think we are telling the truth but are not good at introspecting or at putting what we find into words. We can doubt these things about ourselves. What can we turn to to check our introspective descriptions of yesterday or last week? It is possible that, one day, brain imaging will serve the function of validating introspective reports, but this possibility is a ways off.
Another problem, or rather limitation, with Introspection is that people who enjoy Introspection and find it valuable often think it can do more than it can. For example, whether or not you are a good person is not a question for Introspection. Introspection can tell you, if you carefully and honestly look within, what thoughts you have when you act or what feelings you have, but it can not tell you your real motives. Introspection can help the honest person look deeper into his or her motives, but why we do things is something often opaque to us no matter how honest we are and no matter how much we try. We are often not in a much better position to evaluate our own motives than other people are, and often, partly because of our natural desire not to see the bad side of ourselves, others can often see us better than we can.
A third problem with Introspection is that it can become so fascinating and absorbing that a person can begin to forget about everyday responsibilities.
In a similar vein, when we are not in an introspective mood, Introspection can seem a little crazy. I own a book of ancient Chinese Taoist breathing exercises that places a tremendous value on introspecting on ones in and out breaths (The Primordial Breath, Volume 1: An Ancient Chinese Way of Prolonging Life Through Breath Control (translator: Jane Huang; Original Books; Torrance, California; 1987). I think most active people who might be able to find a few minutes to read a few pages of this book, would find it "crazy" that people could spend their time as recommended by these mystics. And yet people did and do, and who is to say whether this is for the good or for the bad?
On the other side, with respect to breathing, it takes only a brief moment of thought to remember its importance in everyone's life, and the reflective psychologist will remember that the word anxiety seems to have come from the words choke and squeeze.