Thinking Fast and Slow with the Brain Modules You’ve Got

Over and Under thinking

On my walk this morning I was talking to my friend and linguist, Luke Wakefield, and I had an insight. For most of my life I’ve been deeply curious about how things work: everything from electronics to religion. I make models of the world to best fit the data of what I know and when I get new data I can’t really rest until I’ve expanded the model to make sense of it.

Most of the people I live and work with have come to understand this as part of my process. But I also regularly hear the phrases: “you’re overthinking it.” This always takes me by surprise as it usually comes when I feel like I’m getting close to actually understanding and articulating the dynamics of a thing from it’s underlying animating principles.

My “ah hah!” moment this morning came from the realization that what they may be expressing is that this thing I’m talking about, from their experience or way of thinking, comes easily, intuitively or automatically without the kind of conscious explanation or thought I’m articulating.

Which is to say, that it comes to them from what Daniel Kanneman calls system 1 thinking: a rapid, automatic, unconscious kind of thinking that runs in the background and gives us all kinds of useful predictions, intuitions and perceptions. This is contrast to system 2 thinking which we all tend to use when our system 1 thinking fails to make sense and we have to switch over to conscious, high cognitive load, high attention interrogation of what is going on here. Most of us can drive to and from work automatically, staying entirely in system 1 thinking. But if we have to negotiate a tricky merge in traffic or drive to a new location and find street parking? We’re likely to switch over to system 2.

The human brain even has dedicated functional areas or “modules” if you will, that specialize or can be trained to specialize and create automation or automaticity in certain tasks like: facial recognition, encoding and decoding writing, and more. This is pretty obvious from experience but what’s less obvious is that there is wide variation in the human population in the distribution and relative effectiveness of these modules.

Brain module diversity or disability?

Don’t have the module for facial recognition? We call that prosopagnosia or faceblindness. It doesn’t mean you can’t recognize faces. It just means that for you, it becomes a conscious, cognitive effort you have to spend energy, time and attention on, while for everyone else who has the module, it’s just a service their brain provides at no cost. Or in Kanneman’s framework, without the brain module to create the automation, the task moves from system 1 thinking to system 2 thinking.

Don’t have the module that does rapid automatic naming of written words? We call that dyslexia. It doesn’t mean you can’t read. It just means that it will cost you more. You’ll work twice as hard as people who have the module for half the speed and accuracy. And you’ll probably develop some hacks to get around needing to read with that part of your brain except when absolutely necessary.

The human brain is amazing. Even when the more common functional area doesn’t work, it can create new automations over time from practice and use. Or it can develop adaptive enhancements of other modules that do work well. My wife and 2 of my kids are faceblind. And they recognize voices faster than faces, which is especially fun when watching animated films. And while my two dyslexic daughters read more slowly than their classmates, they can run circles around most people in processing what’s being said and beating you to the punchline or the next point in the argument.

System 2 is Slower, but it can show its work

Another interesting consequence of having to develop conscious processes of doing the kind of processing that, for many, is unconscious and automatic, is that people who use system 2 thinking have more direct conscious access to the principles, values, and strategies that animate these actions. This means we can often put words to and describe them with more specificity and detail. But when we try to share this with someone for whom it’s simply an automatic and unconscious service their brain provides, it probably does sound like we’re overthinking it. While from the other perspective, their way of thinking and reasoning about it is:
1. not universally available to everyone

2. literally under thinking in that it’s thinking taking place below the conscious mind and inaccessible to it.

I see this dynamic operating among some autistic people who sometimes don’t have the kind of brain automation that can make perceiving and learning some unspoken social and cultural rules unconscious and intuitive. So instead they can become functional anthropologists, observing and studying in order to derive these complex rules and dynamics through observation. It’s no surprise then when, through this more conscious access to their thought process they are able to notice and describe bias, unfairness, and inconsistency in the social and cultural norms that are built up largely through unconscious system 1 thinking driving interactions between individuals and groups. By slowing down into System 2 thinking, we gain access to new insight we don’t have when we rely mostly on our brain’s System 1 auto-pilot.

Diverse neurologies enable a richer reality

The relatively new public discussion happening online and on social media about neurodiversity has done a great job of spreading a shared public vocabulary around attention, executive function, sensory differences. But what I’m hopeful about is the developing awareness of brain difference not universally as deficit from a default norm, but as normal variation in the population of a social species who is made stronger and richer by differences in ways of thikning and being in the world.

So the next time you hear someone talking in detail about something that to you seems obvious and automatic, before you accuse them of overthinking, pause and consider the opportunity to hear from someone who may have had to spend more energy to bootstrap their own brain function in this area from first principles rather than simply take what their unconscious mind has served up to them without effort.