Our bodies do a whole lot of things we didn’t ask them to.
Eventually they get old, but even before that, our bodies produce all kinds of urges, pains and stomach growls in highly inopportune situations. Of course, usually this is right when we’re on that important date or business meeting.
Likewise with our minds. When we go through, say, our everyday morning routines, we can go through the movie we watched last night in our minds while our hands go through the motions of making coffee. We can also go through the movie in our minds during an important work meeting and miss the part where the boss told us what we’re supposed to for the project do this afternoon.
Our minds have an inseparable connection with our bodies, or more accurately, our nervous systems. We can focus on the part of our surroundings and our bodies that we need to observe or control really closely, but the vast majority of what is going on in our bodies is unconscious. Likewise with our minds: thoughts seem to follow a certain track of their own unless we expend conscious effort to make them do otherwise.
A lot of the time our thinking consists of just noticing what pops up in our minds and going along, whether it is to remind ourselves to book an appointment to the dentist or to act in a welcoming manner around the new guy at work. Even what our minds are drawn to, what grabs our attention, happens without us ever making conscious choices. To illustrate the only partially conscious nature of what is going on in our minds, Carl Jung likened our consciousness to an island in the middle of a sea of unconsciousness.
All thought is not alike
Research in cognitive psychology suggests that our thinking falls into two broad categories. These are the autonomous but quick-acting, and the consciously controlled but slower kind, which are often called Type 1 and Type 2 thought (or cognition).
Type 1 thought is what we would call intuition. It is based on previous experience and decision-making rules-of-thumb or heuristics. It doesn’t require mental effort, and in fact happens all the time whether we want it or not. So, most of the time we end up operating under Type 1 thought. Learned skills become automatic as the brain codes experience into connections between different areas of the brain. Eventually we no longer need to pay attention to things we have done countless times. We also learn to perform complex tasks like driving a car, by making parts of it automatic under conscious practice. This is how our common thought-patterns form: by repetition.
However, Type 1 thought is based on what we already know. As such, it is prone to lead to mistakes in novel situations. It will give us the kind of answer that has always worked for us in the past, but that’s not always what we need.
For situations that require a new kind of response, we use Type 2 thought. It is effortful and has a limited capacity, so we won’t be able to engage in it for too long and we cannot use it to work on infinitely complex problems. This kind of thought never happens without conscious control, but it is our only way of reaching new kinds of solution and to correct the behaviors and thought patterns that are giving us bad results. This way, we are able to relate new ideas to our behavior and try new things – which we will then be able to use under autonomous Type 1 thought once we repeat them often enough.
A good description of the relationship between the two types of thought is that Type 1 gets us in the right neighborhood, while Type 2 gets us at the right door. Also, since Type 2 thought requires us to think actively, and as we experience every thought-operation that we take under it, we identify with Type 2 thought. Type 1 thought, on the other hand, feels like it ‘just happens’ so it doesn’t produce a similar feeling of agency, of being in control of our thoughts.
The broad strokes of thought
The overall situation with our thinking seems to be that whatever our minds are drawn to and what motivates us to act ‘happens to us’; if we can get it using the means we have always used we will do that. If we don’t, we have to formulate a new strategy, learn a new skill and apply it under Type 2 thought. If it works, we will keep using it in similar situations, which will cause the strategy or skill to become automaticized so we will be able to use it under Type 1 thought. We will then have learned something new that will enable to get results that we didn’t have access to before.
Importantly, Type 2 cognition includes our highest-order thought, known as the executive functions. These include self-regulation, inhibition, strategic thinking and reasoning – how we control our own track of thought. Overall, Type 2 cognition is what we want when we try to make sure we are doing the things that produce the kinds of result that we want in the long run.
Another implication of the dual-process view is that unless you stop and engage in consciously controlled thought before you act, you will do the same thing as you have always done. If you engage in Type 2 thought you will definitely know you did, just because it doesn’t happen otherwise and it is effortful and demanding. For the same reason, as a rule you don’t do so. Instead we tend to keep trying to apply old answers to new problems, and often it doesn’t cross our minds that we could do things differently.
Research on these dual cognitive processes tends to emphasize the fact that Type 1 cognition produces errors in thinking when compared to logical rules or probabilities. This is, of course, important in the context of professional decision-making.
To understand how our minds operate, I like to think that the primacy of Type 1 cognition means we shouldn’t assume that people generally follow formal decision-making rules. Instead, these are valuable skills that must be learned and then applied again and again in specific contexts, and they cannot be taken for granted indefinitely. Doing the smart thing is usually hard, but it tends to produce better results.
The correct reference point of ‘correct’ thinking
Using whether people follow formal decision-making rules or not as the norm is not the correct point of view for understanding how any of us think. For that purpose, our social roles and performance are not the correct starting point. These roles form the exception and not the rule, though we often evaluate the quality of thought based on them since in professional situations we except people to perform according to their roles.
The correct point of reference in this sense is our organisms that form part of the flow of time and nature, as that is who made the choice to acquire this particular profession and made its associated skills and knowledge part of its nervous system by learning it. Looking at who we are in terms of social roles or thinking learned in social contexts and basing our expectations on them is putting the cart before the horse.
We make use of socially acquired and shared knowledge, roles and decision-making skills, but we aren’t them. Society runs on the active effort required to act according to its conventions, but the effortless, autonomous existence of not trying to make a certain end result happen is the basic, default state. Following our language-based socialization, we tend to pay attention to the thoughts in our head more than the world right in front of us.
The socially acquired, language-based thought is only parts of the whole situation going on at any given moment. They exist in our minds and in patterns of social interaction. But even when we only see our thoughts, the rest of what is going on does not simply vanish. It is just that our awareness is fused with our thoughts and their meaning, and as a result we lose awareness of the rest that is there. For avoiding cognitive fusion as well as the higher-order executive control of our thoughts, we have to be aware that we have the ability to change our thoughts.