[PODCAST #4] Thinking, and why it is harder than you think?




Thinking is a cognitive activity you perform to process information, solve problems, make decisions, and create new ideas. You use your thinking ability and skills when you try to make sense of experiences, organize information. Or make plans and engage in other numerous exercises that impact your life one or another way. Although it sounds like thinking is a universal process our brains conduct for many needs, this perception is wrong. There are several types of thinking. To list some of them: Creative, Analytical, Concrete, Abstract, Divergent, Critical, Holistic etc. Any thinking type makes your brain tune into a specific setting that filters in the information you are receiving, analyze, process and produce an end result. How amazing is that, right? The process we generalize as “thinking” is in fact a huge mechanism comprising numerous settings we can use in our daily lives, experiment around and get desired results! That’s right, thinking as a subject is important, and interesting one. Although it sounds like we are engaged in the thinking process all day long, it is not always true. In fact, thinking is quite harder than we imagine. And most people don’t really engage in thinking process that often.  George Bernard Shaw once remarked:

“Few people think more than two or three times a year. I’ve made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.”.

Allright, this sounds exaggerated, I know, but thinking as an individual human skill has received remarkably little attention in our societies. Overall, thinking as a process is harder than we can imagine. Our brain tissue is expensive to maintain. It is same for all mammals by the way. As adults, our brains use about 20% of our total energy budget, which is more than any other organ. Such an expensive organ couldn’t come with no complexity, for sure.

Let’s talk about the science of thinking. Our brain conducts thinking process in two ways, and those ways are System 1 – the one that executes faster processes and snap decisions, and System 2 – owner of more careful thinking. For sake of simplification of the further read, lets give those systems a character:

  • We’ll call System 1 – Speedy John
  • And System 2 – Slow Dan

Names are quite straightforward, John acts fast, while Dan does things way slower. Ok, lets proceed: Speedy John helps us to navigate through our daily lives by finding mental shortcuts and taking care of a small amount of information processing. He also assembles complex set of information into coherent narrative as quickly as possible. Why? Because, Speedy John can handle only a tiny number of tasks simultaneously, and for him, it is easier to simplify everything, create batches of information for the immediate analysis.

In sharp contrast, Slow Dan is latent and methodical. He needs time to process information more carefully and perform complex analysis. Whereas Speedy John is more likely to make mistakes because of faster approach in thinking, Slow Dan has a more open-ended approach. But in fact, Slow Dan is lazy, so he requires conscious effort to engage. Most of our daily thinking process and decision making often relies on Speedy John. Most of the times he is sufficient, as we don’t really engage in complex information processing all day long, but for important decisions, Speedy John can be disastrous. The fact of Speedy John doesn’t take time to analyze things properly and rushes to come up with decisions fast is the problematic side of its dominance here. When it comes to decision of what is 5 + 5, it is perfectly fine to have Speedy John take ownership of the processing, and come up with a decision. But when you are trying to decide on how does the latest regulatory changes in the European Union can affect your business, and what you should do to avoid potential losses, relying on Speedy John would guarantee your bankruptcy. Similar complex thinking tasks are more of a Slow Dan type of job. When Slow Dan is engaged and processes the information, he refers to long term memory – gets references from past experiences, looks for answers and correlations of huge amount of data in your mental library you build up during your lifetime. Therefore, with the calculation of complex situations, Slow Dan takes over the job, gets comfortable with your brain resources and kicks the analysis.

Let’s make one thing crystal clear – having Slow Dan is engaged in more complex tasks doesn’t undervalue Speedy John’s fast and shallow-sounding work. They both are important for us as they are the results of millions years of evolution that brought up them to our service. In fact, those guys are cooperating together perfectly. As Speedy John has a limited capacity of performing only a small number of activities simultaneously, he delegates repetitive ones to Slow Dan. Doing so, he clears up his capacity for more onetime tasks. Here is the real life example: When you are first learning how to drive a car, it is a onetime activity for you until you learn to drive. In this phase, Speedy John takes the full ownership of the process and makes sure you pay enough attention to the driving lessons to crack it soon. Once you learned to drive, and do it on a daily basis, Speedy John delegates this driving task to Slow Dan, and pays attention to a different thing that would benefit you more. For example, talking to your friend next seat while you are driving. Here Slow Dan takes care of driving while Speedy John talks to your friend.

Allright, finally, why thinking is harder that we think? (sounds like a word game, but it isn’t, trust me). Well, first, because in our daily lives, the main part of our thinking process is being handled by Speedy John. He is fast in this, and therefore when he does the thinking, it is not always feels like a full fledge thinking for us, or rather say, we don’t feel its impact. It is more like you are at Starbucks, and you think should I order an Americano, or I should go for a tea today? Although your decision can impact your day somehow, at least the next 3-4 hours of it, you don’t deeply care about its outcome a lot. The fact of having Speedy Jon doing our instant thinking activities is creating an image of us not thinking a lot as we identify thinking with a more deep activities. Something like the ones that are being conducted by Slow Dan. If you will evaluate the thinking by its outcomes and impact in our lives, Slow Dan brings up more critical outcomes for sure. In this sense, that is true – we are not being engaged in that deep thinking activities that often, and it is hard for us to do so. After all, it is very time consuming for us. And the world we are living in getting faster and faster bringing up opportunities for us to be instant in everything we do. However, the importance of slow thinking over fast thinking is quite a debatable topic, and perhaps one can argue about it many ways.

Though, I honestly believe both are equally important, and we should make sure of training both in a regular basis. How can we do it? With fast thinking (Speedy John) we can train our attention and do things that affect it. Meditation is a great tool for that. Also physical exercise, keeping yourself hydrated, and listening to music by paying attention to sounds help in increasing the level of attention and its span. Regarding the slow thinking (Slow Dan), brainstorming on topics that matter to you would help you a lot. I’m doing it myself, and conducting self analysis in a regular basis, and feel its lasting effect. You can go for analyzing your childhood, or bringing up memories you believe impacted you somehow, or perhaps just engage in planning your future? Everything would do unless you are mindful about the topic and planning.

If you are interested in learning more about thinking process, its importance and how you can improve yourself in this, I’d strongly suggest you to check below books out:

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