Rapid Cognition (Hunches, Insight and Intuition).

Learning beyond conscious volition. 

Our minds operate in many different and strange ways. Some operations we understand like logic visualization and reflection, while others are more mysterious and seemingly their operations are hidden from us. These other operations may function in ways that can be incredibly helpful to us in learning, creating and problem solving, but they seem invisible to us. This is because they seem to function unconsciously or below consciousness. We have words for this activity namely hunches, insight and intuition. All these words have sort of mystical connotations and this is because they are hidden and unknown and are therefor deemed mythical and supernatural. However, despite this it is well known that humans learn, create and solve problems with these hunches, insights, and intuitions and they are in fact essential to any type of learning.

Thin Slicing. 

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called "Blink" (2005) in which he discusses this hidden brain activity and attempts to make this process seem a lot less mysterious. In this book he ignores such words as hunches, insight and intuition in favor of rapid cognition and what he calls thin slicing. His reasons for doing this are obvious, in that, if you wish to explain how something works that is seen as mysterious, don't use mysterious words. The process works, as Gladwell points out, by taking in a very thin slice of information and making a very accurate prediction or assessment based on personal internal models.

Learning, experts and Thin Slicing. 

Gladwell's findings are fundamental to knowing how knowledge is used by the mind and therefore his findings are fundamental to learning. It seems that the people who are very good at this kind of activity are the experts of any field. An expert, it turns out, can make an informed guess about something in his subject without being able to explain it in any rational way. The information is there, but it is being processed behind locked doors and very quickly (in the blink of an eye). The expert just gets a feeling that something is so, but he knows this and is not afraid to act on it. Experts on Greek art get a feeling about a statue, veteran soldiers get a feeling about the battle, traders on the exchange floor get a feeling about the market and a fireman gets a feeling about danger in a burning building. These people have only one thing in common, that of having expert knowledge and experience in their respective vocations. Each of them is able to take a thin slice of information (the limited information available) and make an accurate guess that somebody not in their profession could not. This is what is meant by rapid cognition.

Less is more. 

What is important about rapid cognition is that it requires knowledge, experience and skill and that a lot of this is used to exclude distracting incoming data. This is because such data is unnecessary, confusing and unimportant to predicting, solving or whatever they need to know. The experts can make highly accurate and informed guesses, because they are able to exclude unimportant and distracting information and process a very small amount of data, which just happens to be the important data.

In his book "Blink" Gladwell refers to the actions of General Paul Van Ripper and how he was able, as a veteran and highly experienced general, to win the worlds most expensive war game (Millennium Challenge). He was up against a group of generals using state of the art computer tools such as (CROP) Common Relevant Operational Picture a comprehensive, real-time map of the combat situation. In fact, the Blue Team as they were called, had at their fingertips a full array of what they could do to affect the other team's environment - political, military, economic, societal, cultural and institutional. The red team, lead by general Paul Van Ripper, was practically feeling around in the dark by comparison, listening to little voices in their heads that were coming from their (and especially his) vast experience as combat veterans. Despite this, Van Ripper caused a massive upset by defeating the blue team. The problem lay not with blue team's state of the art information gathering tools, but in the fact that they were not expert in using them. They were trying to use all the information and having long drawn out discussions as to what to do, all of which was taking too long. They should instead have been able to make rapid decisions as Van Ripper did, based on their experience. The chaos of war is one area where instant decisions are necessary, and they must of necessity be made based on very little information. It is the information already in the mind (already learned) that is really important. It is this information that enables us to eliminate unimportant in-coming details and focus on only the essentials.

One may be tempted to think of General Ripper's style of command as old school seat of the pants style. But General Ripper's style was anything but. The old school style is to keep all the power, all the decisions, at the top. Far from keeping all the decisions at the top Van Ripper not only trusted his own inner thin slicing voice, but also allowed those under his command to listen to their own inner voices. General Ripper created a broad general plan but gave his subordinates permission to alter it in response to opportunities, and difficulties. General Ripper prepared his subordinates with as much information as he could, he honed their fighting skills as best he could, but in the situations of battle he trusted them to make skillful and appropriate decisions within a general plan.

The automatic responses that come to people in situations of stress. 

In situations of stress or danger there is evidence that the part of the mind responsible for rapid cognition tends to take over. This is clearly a survival mechanism meant to help protect us. When we are in a situation of extreme danger, we suddenly and automatically start making a series of rapid fire decisions based on very little information, that will probably save our lives. It was previously thought, that in such situations we simply reverted to instinct. However, it now seems likely that this is not so. Under such extreme stress situations, people seem to go into a mode of selective awareness. Our minds it seems, just begin to exclude any information that does not concern the immediate danger. The world seems to slow down, sound tends to disappear, and vision becomes a kind of tunnel vision which is perhaps enhanced or made more specifically clear. Time seems to slow down because the brain/mind has sped up. Because there is less information to process the brain/mind can process very quickly giving the impression of things in slow motion. In his book, Gladwell tells two stories where police were in such situations. One story was about a situation where rooky cops incorrectly killed an innocent man, and one where a cop very experienced in gun battles was able to judge a person with a gun in his hand and not shoot him. The difference again turns out to be existing knowledge, experience and skill. If we do not have the experience, skill and knowledge, the information that is filtered out can be important information, and the result can be decisions that are inappropriate, wrong and even fatal to ourselves.

Learning and Rapid Cognition. 

Rapid Cognition or thin slicing confirms a lot that is already known about learning. Namely that the contents of our minds alter, distort or refine our perception: That what we learn depends on what we know already. If we do not know much we cannot learn much: That people who have knowledge, experience and skills can use them well both consciously and unconsciously: That they can and do use them to effectively to make decisions and learn.

Learning and the unconscious. 

It may well be that learning takes place as a constant ebb and flow between the unconscious and conscious mind. That initially we learn things consciously and when we have learned them they pass to the unconscious where they can be acted on without much thought. Once there, we know these things and do not think about them when acting, but simply use them as in discrimination. We do not have to think something is bigger or differently shaped or of a different color, we simply experience it as being different. We may not make any of this conscious unless someone asks us to explain why or how the two are different. The following quote from Karl Popper has been produced elsewhere in this site because it has immense implications for learning. 

"Learning by 'repetition' or 'practicing', as in learning to play an instrument or to drive a car. Here my thesis is that (a) there is no genuine 'repetition' but rather (b) change through error elimination (following theory formation) and (c) a process which helps to make certain actions or reactions automatic, thereby allowing them to sink to a merely physiological level, and to be performed without attention."

Perceptual learning. 

We all do it. We extract useful patterns just by seeing or hearing or using any of our senses. Sometimes this takes place purely through sensory intake and other times it is guided by thinking about what the incoming sensory information means and how it could be varied for improvement. When no thinking is involved this is called perceptual learning. Masters of sports and chess have learned to extract the most useful patterns at a glance from a vast array of incoming data. They perceive this almost instantaneously in the moment, but it is the result of learning over very long periods of time.

The baseball player is moving to hit the ball long before he is able to think about it. In fact the ball is about ten feet away before he even becomes aware of whether he is swinging at it or not. The player sees the movement of the pitcher, the beginning of the ball's flight, and reacts. No thought takes place. The player barely has time to stop the swing, if needed, in the time left. It is just pattern recognition and reaction. Yet we cannot just do this. We have to train so that each variation of swing we try becomes progressively a better iteration of the activity or practice. With the baseball player this normally has to take place without thought but even when it takes place with thought involved it still has to sink into an unconscious automatic action before it becomes a useful action.

The chess master also extracts patterns. After glancing at the board for five seconds or less the chess master sees the whole pattern and reacts to it. The novice player might have to think about how to react, but the master normally does not need to. Unlike the chess playing computer that must test many possible moves and run various scenarios, the chess master simply knows how to react.

This perceptual learning was first suggested by Eleanor Gibson in her work "The Principals of Perceptual Learning and Development". She explains that this is an active process. We do not simply see we look and the more we look at things the better we are able see them. The better we see them the better we are able to discriminate between that thing and other similar things. Thus it can become a cue to automatically activate an appropriate response. We do not need to be rewarded to learn in this way we are genetically programed to do it. This perceptual learning enables us to pick out the important details of a situation. It enables experts in many fields to make instant decisions without thought.

There are now computer programs called perceptual learning modules that are thought to greatly accelerate this kind of learning. They are basically limited simulations that concentrate on quick presentation of every possible scenario with immediate feedback as to its correctness or incorrectness in the learner's perception.   

Letting learning sink to an unconscious level.  

When reading Josh Waitzkin's book "The Art of Learning" it seemed the process he was describing in learning 'chess' and 'Tai Chi' was this same kind of perceptual learning but guided by conscious thought and a process called chunking. This explanation is as good as any in understanding how skills develop and become refined. Josh's ideas are applicable to all learning, and are especially easily demonstrated in the learning of any skill.

Before getting into Josh's examples, let us first try and explain the idea through breaking down the process of learning to play a musical instrument. The first thing you have to learn to understand in playing a musical instrument is how to make the instrument make the sounds you want it to. Some teachers teach students to play notes or scales. Other teachers teach by encouraging students to learn whole pieces of music. But whatever is taught, what is learned is the physicality of the instrument. You learn where to place you hands, where to place your mouth, how hard to blow or hit etc. in order to have the instrument produce the noises you wish it to.


This is learned by trial and error. You try to make the note. If the sound comes out wrong you vary what you are doing to make the note and try again until you get it right. When you get it right, you try immediately to do it again and again till it becomes second nature to you. You do all these things consciously. But here is the interesting part, when it is fully learned, it can sink to an unconscious level where it no longer needs attention and does not need to be thought about any more. It becomes what Piaget has called a schema but is now usually called chunking. Josh puts it like this:

"The question of intuition relates to how the network is navigated and used as fuel for creative insight. Let's begin the plunge into this issue with chess serving as a metaphor for all disciplines.

The clearest way to approach this discussion is with the imagery chunking and carved neural pathways.

Chunking relates to the mind's ability to assimilate large amounts of information into a cluster that is bound together by certain patterns or principles particular to a given discipline....in a nutshell, chunking relates to the mind's ability to take lots of information, find a harmonizing/logical consistent strain, and put it together into one mental file that can be accessed as if it were a single piece of information."


"By 'carved neural pathways' I am referring to the process of creating chunks and the navigation system between chunks. I am not making a literal physical description, so much as illustrating the way the  brain operates. Let's say that I spend fifteen years studying chess. During those thousands of hours, my mind is effectively cutting paths through the dense jungle of chess. The jungle analogy is a good one. Imagine how time-consuming it would be to use a machete to cut your way through thick foliage. A few miles would take days. Once the path is cleared, however, you could move quickly through the clearing. If you were to make a road and ride a bike or other vehicle, the transportation would get faster still."

Chunking and carved neural pathways.  

Let us return to our piece of music. After this chunk (of being able to produce notes correctly and beautifully) has sunk into the unconscious, or perhaps at the same time, you begin to learn a piece of music. This is the learning of, which sound follows which sound to comprise a piece of music, so it can be reproduced on demand. Again this is absorbed consciously by trial and error elimination until fully learned. Obviously a musician would learn a large number of these, and all of them when learned would sink to an unconscious level, where they no longer need thought or attention. Here is how Josh explains this happening in chess:

"Now let's turn to the learning of chess and see how these functions really operate. We will start with day one. The first thing I have to do is internalize how the pieces move. I have to learn their values. I have to learn how to coordinate them with one another. Early on these steps might seem complex. There is the pawn, the knight, the bishop, the rook, the queen, and the king. Each piece with its strength and weaknesses. Each time I have to look at a chess piece I have to remember what it is and how it moves. Then I look at the next piece and try to remember how that one moves. There are initially thirty-two pieces on a chess board. To make a responsible chess decision, I have to look at all those pieces and check for captures, quick attacks, and other obvious possibilities. By the time I get to the third piece I am already overwhelmed. by the tenth piece I have a headache, have already forgotten what I discovered about the first nine pieces and my opponent is bored. At this point I will probably just make a move and blunder."


"So let's say that now, instead of launching from the standard starting position, we begin on an empty board with just a king and a pawn against a king. These are relatively simple pieces. I learn how they both move, and then I play around with them for a while until I feel comfortable. Then, over time, I learn about bishops in isolation, then knights, rooks, and queens. Soon enough, the movements and values of the chess pieces are natural to me. I don't have to think about them consciously, but see their potential simultaneously with the figurine itself. Chess pieces stop being hunks of wood or plastic, and begin to take on an energetic dimension. Where the piece currently sits on the chess board pales in comparison to the countless vectors of potential flying off in the mind. I see how each piece affects those around it . Because basic movements are natural to me. I can see all the pieces at once. The network is coming together."

Layers of the onion of learning. From the conscious to the unconscious. 

So what happens then in music? From there are many ways to go with music. One way is to learn to read musical notation. There is only one usual convention for doing this in western culture but of course in other cultures there are many ways to notate music and all of them can be learned. At first you simply learn the connection between notation and sounds, again by trial and error, and then this too can then sink to an unconscious level where it needs no attention. From there one can proceed to actually hearing the notes when reading musical notation, just as you hear the words in you head when reading a book. Once mastered this also sinks to an unconscious level where it is simply accessed and not consciously thought about. Probably at the same time another schema is being learned, and that is the schema of rhythm, of how to move gracefully from one note to the next so that it sounds pleasant to the ear. Once this is learned fully, it too will sink to an unconscious level where it no longer needs to be considered consciously. In "The Art of Learning" Josh Waitzkin shows that in highly complex skills like Chess or Tai Chi this process takes place again and again as the person learns more and is able to approach his skill on increasingly more intricate levels. He exposes this process rather like peeling back the layers of an onion. He explains as follows:

Next I have to learn the principles of coordinating the pieces. I learn how to place my arsenal most efficiently on the chess board and I learn the road signs that determine how to maximize a given soldier's effectiveness in a particular setting. The road signs are principles. Just as I initially had to think about each chess piece individually, now I have to plod through the principles in my brain to figure out which apply to the current position and how. Over time, that process becomes increasingly natural to me, until eventually I see the pieces and the appropriate principles in a blink. While an intermediate player will learn how a bishop's strength in the middlegame depends on the central pawn structure, a slightly more advanced player will just flash his mind across the board and take in the bishop and the critical structural components. The structure and the bishop are one. Neither has any intrinsic value outside of its relation to the other, and they are chunked together in the mind."


"This new integration of knowledge has a peculiar effect, because I begin to realize that the initial maxims of piece value are far from ironclad. The pieces gradually lose absolute identity. I learn that rooks and bishops work more efficiently together than rooks and knights, but queens and knights tend to have the edge over queens and bishops. Each pieces power is purely relational, depending on such variables as pawn structure and surrounding forces. So now when you look at a knight, you see its potential in the context of the bishop a few squares away. Over time each chess principle loses its rigidity, and you get better and better at reading the subtle signs of qualitative relativity. Soon enough, learning becomes unlearning. The stronger chess player is often the one who is less attached to a dogmatic interpretation of the principles. This leads to a whole new layer of principles - those that consist of the expectations to the initial principles. Of course the next step is for those counterintuitive signs to become internalized just as the initial movements of the pieces were. The network of my chess knowledge now involves principles, patterns, and chunks of information, accessed through a whole new set of navigational principles, patterns, and chunks of information, which are soon followed by another set of principles and chunks designed to assist in the interpretation of the last. Learning chess at this level becomes sitting with paradox, being at peace with and navigating the tension of competing truths, letting go of any notion of solidarity."

Free flow.  

The final outcome for music, like any highly refined skill is an almost mystical experience. We have all these chunks or schemas at an unconscious level that are all interconnected and are brought into consciousness by the act of playing music. There is no thought if things go well, because every element of an action has been sown seamlessly together into a schema and activated by tiny cues in the environment or the performance itself. But if mistakes are made they interfere with the internal flow and there may be adjustments made consciously or actually made at an unconscious level. The errors themselves may act as cues to activate smaller schemas that course correct and bring the action back to a smooth state of flow. When these schemas and cues have become etched securely in place in our brain they can act to adjust themselves, eliminate errors and even perhaps make improvements all without conscious thought. This is most evident in learning to play something like pinball. You have so little control and so much is left to chance that conscious thought about what to do at any point simply gets in the way. The main learning that takes place in playing pinball, for instance, does so on an unconscious level. Finally Josh explains how it is at the highest levels of chess:

"This is where things get really interesting. We are at the moment when psychology begins to transcend technique. Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered. This is a nuanced and largely misunderstood state of mind that when refined involves a reintegration of the conscious mind into a free-flowing unconscious process. The idea is to shift the primary role from conscious to the unconscious without blissing out and losing the precision the conscious can provide."

So this is quite understandable when learning a skill, which while it can always be improved, is for the most part performed without much conscious involvement. But maybe just may be all learning takes place somewhat in this manner. If that is so then no matter what we are doing if we are doing it well there may be little need for conscious thought. That conscious thought may be needed for dealing with a tiny bit of new and unexpected information while our unconscious mind deals efficiently with the rest. This I believe is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi means by flow. When this state occurs we are probably in the process of performing most actions without conscious thought returning to conscious thought only momentarily to deal with some anomaly.

A thin slice. This brings us full circle and back to the ideas of Malcolm Gladwell and rapid cognition of a thin slice of information. Josh Waitzkin puts it this way:

"Most people would be surprised to discover that if you compare the thought process of a Grandmaster to that of an expert (a much weaker but competent chess player), you will often find that the Grandmaster consciously looks at less not more. That said the chunks of information that have been put together in his mind allow him to see much more with less conscious thought. So he is looking at very little and seeing quite a lot."

This may be a better way of putting the idea that the unconscious mind takes in and eliminates what is unimportant and allows the conscious mind to focus on what is important.

The soft zone. The state of flow Josh refers to above is where action takes place with little conscious thought where most of the time one simply trusts unconscious processes to perform actions from cues in the environment. This is a high state of concentration and focus that produces the most optimal moves. But it also serves as an arena for yet another level of learning. This is learning how to stay in flow or stay in the zone. In sports players will sometime enter the zone where they can seem to do no wrong but this often last only a few short moments and never very long. In chess the ideal would be for this state of flow to last the whole game and certainly as long as possible. It is also necessary, perhaps essential for certain critical moments in a game which can bring an advantage. Here is what Josh has to say about it:

"Eventually, by systematically training oneself, a competitor can learn how to do this [enter a state of flow] at will. But the first obstacle I had to overcome  as a young chess player was to avoid being distracted by random, unexpected events - by the mini earthquakes that afflict all of our days."


Josh explains that the soft zone is where the body learns to ignore every little change in the environment and only breaks flow to surface into conscious thought for truly dangerous and violent changes in the environment. Even then the trained body is able to quickly resume flow and reenter the soft zone when the alert is accessed to be non life threatening.

Josh again:

"Kids have trouble for so long and strange things can happen to a young mind straining under intense pressure. One day I was working my way through a complex position in a tournament at the Manhatten Chess Club and a Bon Jovi song I had heard earlier in the day entered my mind. I tried to push it away and return to my calculation, but it just wouldn't leave me alone."

This became a big problem for josh as all kinds of music and songs began to invade his focused states. His eventual solution was to expose himself to more music and songs. In other words he realized you cannot simply push it away as is it would be like trying not to think of something. The more you try not to think about something, the more you think about it, till you can hardly think of anything else. In other words he treated it like a phobia where instead of avoiding the the fear inducing thing the person is slowly and carefully exposed to it or immersed in it. So Josh exposed himself to all kinds of music and songs both ones he liked and ones he disliked and while he did this he also tried to study chess and play chess. This worked well so he began to use this exposure idea for all kinds of distractions. He began to play chess in environments he disliked and and ones he liked. He says:

"During this period of time, in my early teens, I frequented shops near and played speed chess in clouds of smoke, which I have always hated. Of course I also played in Washington Square Park, where constant kibitzing and a steady stream of chess banter is part of the game. There was no blocking out the noise or smoke  and my only option was to integrate my environment into my creative process."


Gamesmanship in chess. Part of getting used to distractions in chess also meant getting used to gamesmanship. 


In "The Art of Learning" Josh Waitzkin explains about his first encounter with gamesmanship in chess:

"One of the more interesting tactics was implemented by a Russian boy whom I had trouble with for a period of months before I caught on to his game. He was a very good player so our clashes were always tense, but for some reason I tended to make careless errors against him in the critical positions. Then one day an old Bulgarian Master named Rudy Bloomenfeld approached my father in the Marshall Chess Club and asked if we were aware of what this boy was doing to me. We were not."


"He explained that in the climactic moments of the struggle, when I had to buckle down and work my way through the complications to find a precise solution, this boy would start to tap a chess piece on the side of the table, barely audible, but at a pace that entered and slightly quickened my mental process. This subtle tactic was highly effective and I later found out that it was an offspring of the Soviet study of hypnosis and mind control. ...Once I was aware of what was happening, I was able to turn the tables on our rivalry."


Josh then goes on to enumerate many of the other tricks he has encountered. This included being kicked under the table at critical moments in the game and having an opponent who would get up during the game and converse with his trainer in Russian at critical moments.


 Josh Waitzkin and slowing down time.  

In 2001 Josh Waitzkin broke his hand in a bout of Tai Chi. What surprised and inspired him at the time, was the fact that he found that he was able to continue to fight, and fight better with one hand. Time seemed to slow down, and while his opponent seemed to be stuck in molasses, he was able to move at full speed, blocking and out maneuvering every move his opponent made. From that point on Josh maintained a goal to experience this heightened perception and movement again, but without suffering from something like a broken hand. Threat, danger and pain all seemed to be factors contributing to the apparent slowing down of time. Threat, fear and pain all seemed to push the body into a heightened state where the brain seemed to work faster and thus time appeared to slow down. It is now fairly well concluded in science that this is caused by the brain processing less information and therefor able to process it far more quickly. 

After much time, Josh finally realized that this could be effected at the highest level of learning of this skill. He realized, that in learning a skill you are approaching this heightened state all the time, but that it is difficult to recognize at a low level. He exposes this process through explaining his experience with learning a particular Judo throw as follows:

"Consider one of my favorite judo throw techniques, a variation of a sacrifice throw - or sutemi-waza. ...The first time someone has this counterintuitive throw done to them, it will all be a blur - one fast vertiginous experience of being flipped onto the floor and landed on. ...I was on my feet, then I was head over heals and on my back before my brain knew what to make of the situation. I hadn't been blindsided like this in quite some time. I immediately asked Ahmed [his opponent who had just thrown him] to break down the throw for me and soon enough I saw that the blur involved five or six steps, the foundation of which was a Brazilian Ju Jitsu sweep I had not really understood. I decided that this was a throw I wanted to cultivate at a very high level. I figured that if it could catch me, it would catch other people. So I started practicing. First I worked on each step slowly, over and over, refining my timing and precision. Then I put the whole thing together, repeating the movements hundreds, eventually thousands of times.


Today this throw is my bread and butter. In time, each step of the technique has expanded in my mind in more and more detail. The slightest variations in the way my opponent responds to my first push will lead to numerous options in the way I will trigger into the throw . My pull on his right wrist will involve twenty to thirty subtle details with which I will vary my action based on his nuanced microresponses. As I sit back on the ground and trip his right foot, my perception of the moment might involve thirty to forty variations.

Recall that initially I experience the throw as a blur, too fast to decipher, and now we are talking about a tiny portion of a throw involving many distinct movements. When it felt like a blur, my conscious mind was trying to make sense of unfamiliar terrain. Now my unconscious navigates a huge network of subtle programmed technical information, and my conscious mind is free to focus on certain essential details that, because of their simplicity, I can see with tremendous precision, as if the blink in my opponent's eyes takes many seconds.

The key to this process is understanding that the conscious mind, for all its magnificence, can only take in and work with a certain limited amount of information in a unit of time - envision that capacity as one page on your computer screen. If it is presented with a large amount of information, then the font will have to be very small in order to fit it on the page. You will not be able to see the details of the letters. But if the same tool (the conscious mind) is used for a much smaller amount of information in the same amount of time, then we can see every detail of each letter. Now time feels slowed down."

"The key is to understand that my trained mind is not necessarily working much faster than an untrained mind - it is simply working more effectively, which means that my conscious mind has less to deal with. Experientially, because I am looking at less, there are, within the same unit of time hundreds of frames in my mind, and maybe only a few in my opponent's (whose conscious mind is bogged down with much more data that has not yet been internalized as unconsciously accessible). I can now operate in all those frames that he doesn't even see.

This is why profoundly refined martial artists can sometimes appear mystical to less skilled practitioners - they have trained themselves to perceive and operate within segments of time that are too small to be perceived by untrained  minds."

Josh then asks a question. Does this type of trained perception come from the same places as his experience when he broke his hand? His answer is yes and no:

"The similarity is that a life-or-death scenario kicks the human mind into a very narrow area of focus. Time feels slowed down because we instinctively zero in a tiny amount of critical information that our processor can breakdown as if it is in a huge font. The trained version of this state of mind shares that tiny area of conscious focus. The difference is that, in our disciplines of choice, we cultivate this experience by converting all the other surrounding information into unconsciously integrated data instead of ignoring it. There is a reason the human mind rarely goes into that wild state of heightened perception ... In most situations, we need to be aware of what is happening around us, and our processor is built to handle that responsibility."

A safe place. 

A fighter like Josh can only allow himself to go into such a state of heightened consciousness with the belief he is in a safe place during a bout, where the only danger is from his opponent. In a life or death situation a person may not be in a safe place but he has no choice in the matter, as this is how our bodies and minds automatically function in life and death situations, it is after all life or death.

The flaws in rapid cognition.

Desires and prejudice.

In his book "Blink" Gladwell says, rapid cognition because it is not a rational process, can be corrupted or distorted by our desires and prejudices. The Getty Museum people so wanted their kouros (a Greek statue) to be real that they failed to listen the little voices in their heads that would otherwise have told them it was a fake. They were experts on Greek art, but their stake in the proceedings made their rapid cognition unreliable. Malcolm Gladwell himself half Jamaican, was surprised in tests that forced rapid cognition to find that he himself was somewhat prejudiced against blacks. He thought he was not prejudiced and consciously he probably was not. Yet in making rapid decisions as to where to place blacks and what to associate with them he was prejudiced. While many highly skilled people can look at a situation and get the correct rapid cognition feeling about it, there are others that are just as skilled, who have these feelings distorted by their own desires and prejudices.

Listening with your eyes. (Filtering the Mind).

In the mid 1960s there was a revolution in classical music. Some of the people in the orchestras and operas began to realize the selection process for musicians was hopelessly corrupted and began to demand screened auditions. The introduction of screens had two remarkable affects.


Firstly, the orchestras and operas got better musicians and sounded much better. Secondly, the orchestras etc. began to fill up with women musicians. Previous to this, the selection comities would have only to have closed their eyes in order to stop an inflow of irrelevant information and make better thin slice judgments, but they did not. They listened with their eyes and heard weaker music when women played.


This is a very important outcome in that it shows us how we can control rapid cognition. If we have prejudices we can allow for them and weed them out of the thin slice. Thomas Hoving, one of first people to predict the kouros was a fake, would go to the trouble of eliminating his desires when judging potential acquisitions. He would have others place the objects in unexpected places or whip a black cloth off them when he walked into the room. This way he would get a thin slice impression before he could think about buying the object.


Learning to control Rapid Cognition (Priming the Mind). 

The test that Gladwell took is called the Implicit Association Test (IAT). One of the students that took this test decided to take the test every day to see if his prejudice changed over time. For a while there was no change then one day surprisingly there was a marked change for the better. It appears that in the morning he had been watching the Olympics, watching black athletes performing. Other tests that followed, showed that we can temporarily change these hidden prejudices, just by thinking about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King before hand.

This kind of psychological preparation for testing, is called priming, and shows yet another way we can prepare to use rapid cognition. Priming can do far more than allaying prejudices or ameliorating desires. It can in fact, improve or make worse, our general efficiency in thin slicing. One of the first experiments in this field of testing, dealt with exposing two groups, one to a list of rude words and one to a list of polite words. The idea being to prime one group to be rude, and one to be polite, and have a couple in conversation blocking a door, where the groups were sent. The experiment worked in a spectacular fashion, with the group primed with polite words hardly interrupting at all, while those in the other group interrupted rudely. Other tests showed that just making people think about being clever (they were primed by thinking about what it would mean to be a professor) actually made them smarter at trivial pursuit, while another group (primed by thinking about soccer hooligans) actually got stupider. Its as if the priming material prepares a kind of framework for the later material to be processed in.

When not to trust rapid cognition. 

In his book "Thinking Fast and Slow" Daniel Kahneman refers to rapid cognition as System 1 and conscious thought as System 2. Kahneman who with Amos Tversky made many of the important discoveries in the area of human bias is a person not well disposed to the idea of trusting rapid cognition. Kahneman understood that rapid cognition was central in how the mind made decisions, choices and solved problems in everyday experience, and that its ability to do this well was a matter of expertise. However his studies of various kinds of, so called experts and their lack of ability to make successful rapid cognitions, had left him very suspicious of such experts. Kahneman had been studying so called political experts, people who predict stock trends, manage stock portfolios, people who predict economic trends, etc. Such people were not only subject to biases but any study of their predictions showed results that were usually worse than random chance. In other words their so called expert advice was actually worse than useless, and better advice would usually be to do the opposite of what they had suggested.

 When to trust rapid cognition.

The opposite position was championed by Gary Klein who had studied the choices decisions and problem solving abilities of experts who worked in life or death time pressured situations. They were experts at dealing with emergencies. Klein found that firemen, policemen, nurses etc. could make highly accurate decisions with rapid cognition. After studying Klein's work Kahneman contacted him and suggested that they work together to try to discover when rapid cognition could be trusted and when it could not. Kahneman writes: "I invited him to join in an effort to map the boundary that separated the marvels of intuition from its flaws." After much agonizing these two came to the conclusion that the only way to become the a real expert, who could who could make efficient use of rapid cognition, was by becoming highly skilled. They would have to absorb vast quantities of information in the form of various skills, especially the skill of recognition. Such skills they decided required two basic conditions.

1 "An environment that is sufficiently regular to be predictable." 

2 "An opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice."        

Regularity. By a regular predictable environment they mean an environment where certain features repeat the same way each time. For instance, there are certain aspects of fires that happen each time there is a fire. The true expert fire fighter not only is very familiar with these 'normal' aspects of fires but has developed skills for dealing with some of them automatically almost like a reflex reaction. The other normal aspects of fires such experts would completely ignore, such that the firemen are not even aware of them. Their system 1, which produces rapid cognition, filters out this information and suppresses it, and by doing this is able to focus on information that is not normal, and alerts system 2 (conscious deliberation) to deal with it.

Prolonged practice. By opportunities to learn through prolonged practice, they mean situations where learners can perform and get fairly instant feedback. The important thing about learning skills is, that the longer the interval between an action or prediction and the feedback from its outcome, the more difficult it is to learn the skill. Also the amount of time involved increases the the number of variables especially in a prediction. Consequently the political pundits, stock pickers, economists simply do not usually get the feedback necessary to learn the skills they would need. What they try to do is almost impossible, and can often create a self delusion where they take credit for random occurrences. 

However it is possible to predict stock movements, economic trends and political outcomes with sufficient knowledge reliably, but only for short periods of time.  Weather forecasts are a good example of how variables increase with the time interval. Weather forecasters or meteorological experts can predict the weather quite well for the next five minutes. Predictions for the next five hours will be less accurate. Predictions for the next five days will be less accurate again and the next five months more so. When they start to try and predict the weather for the next five years it becomes rather impractical and useless. This also holds true for politics, economics, and the stock market.  

Real experts are truly highly skilled and can usually rely on their rapid cognition, but they are still likely to fail on occasion. This is because, as good and useful as rapid cognition is, it is not a perfect system and has many flaws.

Choices, decisions and problem solving. 

Rapid cognition is capable, not only of making good choices where people have real expert knowledge but sometimes it is the only system that can be used. In such situations rapid cognition can really prove invaluable. Decisions may involve a singe choice or may constitute a group of connected choices. Problem solving usually involves rapid cognition making novel connections that are then made conscious and worked on consciously, but sometimes what rises up from the unconscious is a complete or nearly complete solving of the problem.

Other factors affecting conscious and unconscious decisions. 

There are other conditions to consider when deciding whether to trust in rapid cognition or not and when it is optimal to use it. Likewise conscious logical reflection or deliberation also has criteria for optimal use. It turns out that research shows there is a range of things to consider.

  1. Simple and complex choices. If the elements we have to consider, when choosing among options are too complicated, it will overwhelm the conscious logical part of the brain. So the conscious choices we make, when using the rational conscious part of our brain, should be simple ones. On the other hand, we should use the large reservoir of unconscious expertise we have built up to make complex choices. Also, if there are too many learning options to choose from they will also overwhelm the rational mind. So, the rational mind is best used for a small range of options, while the unconscious can process large numbers of options.

  2. Novel and common choices. When we have to choose among options that are similar, related or alike, the common sort we have encountered before, it works out that our unconscious mind can deal with these very nicely. On the other hand, unprecedented choices, ones we have no previous experience with, require rational analysis of the conscious mind. 

  3. Creative and uncreative choices. Being creative or uncreative does not just involve choices as such, but it does involve some choice. Research has shown that being creative is best dealt with by the unconscious part of the brain, while uncreative activities can usually be best dealt with by the conscious part of the brain. Now at first sight this might seem to contradict what was said about novel and common choices, because creativity is about the new and novel while uncreative products are familiar. But it all comes back to the idea of dealing with large amounts of knowledge or small amounts. Creative people, in order to be creative have to have expert knowledge of the domain in which they are to be creative. To put it simplistically, creators need to have knowledge of what exists in their domain and how it can be constructed, before being able to bring something new into existence, or invent a new way of constructing it. Thus creativity requires vast quantities of experience which can only be dealt with effectively by the unconscious part of the mind. Uncreative production needs no such experience as it only requires the ability to copy others.

Simulation, diagnosis and creative choice.

Creativity, as explained above, comes mostly from the unconscious part of the mind. But this can happen in one of two ways. It can spring almost unbidden from the unconscious mind to the conscious mind, whole and ready to be implemented, or it can come more as a many dimensional model suddenly transferred to consciousness, to the area referred to as working memory. This is sometimes referred to as the visual-spatial sketch pad. So how does this magic happen? Well, the unconscious brain's main function is always to assemble only what is necessary for the conscious mind to deal with. The more expert the person is in the situation the better it can do this. In situations of imminent danger our brains tend to eliminate all extraneous incoming sensory information that is not concerned with the problem at hand. In less dangerous situations instead of eliminating this information, the unconscious mind pushes it aside, so that it is not focused on. It then assembles, from the person's experience in long term and recent memory, a model of the situation of the problem in the form of a mental simulation. In his book "Sources of Power" Garry Klein discusses this model, how it functions and how it is used. He says:

"...mental simulation, that is, the ability to imagine people and objects consciously and to transform those people and objects through several transitions, finally picturing them in a different way than at the start...

In diagnosing a situation, people construct mental simulations of how the events have been evolving and will continue to evolve. The more experienced the decision makers are, the more clear cut the expectancies. By checking whether the expectancies are satisfied, the decision maker can judge the adequacy of of the mental simulation. The greater the violations and the more effort it takes to explain away conflicting evidence, the less confident the decision maker feels about the mental simulation and diagnosis.

...Key points.

• Mental simulation lets us explain how events have moved from the past to the present.

• Mental simulation let us us project how the present will move into the future.

• Constructing a mental simulation involves forming an action sequence in which one state of affairs is transformed into another.

• Because of memory limitations , people usually construct mental simulations using around three variables and around six transitions.

• It takes a fair amount of experience to construct a useful mental simulation.

• Mental simulations can run into trouble when the situation becomes too complicated [for the degree of expertise] or when time pressure, noise, or other factors interfere.

• Mental simulation can be misleading when a person argues away evidence that challenges the interpretation.

• There are methods for improving mental simulations, such as using crystal ball and postmortem strategies and decision scenarios.

[Crystal ball.] [They are asked to]...describe an explanation in which they felt high confidence. ...Then they pretend to peer into a crystal ball and inform them that their explanation was wrong. [They]...have to sift through the evidence and come up with another explanation and perhaps another. In doing so, they see that the same evidence can be interpreted in different ways.

[Postmortem.] Our exercise is to ask planners to imagine that it is months into the future and that their plan has been carried out. And it has failed. That is all they know; they have to explain why they think it failed. ...The idea is that they are breaking the emotional attachment to the plan's success by taking on the challenge of of showing their creativity and competence by identifying likely sources of breakdown.

[Decision scenarios.] These scenarios are like mental models except they are written down, charted out, and developed to change the way executives think. [The requirement was to create 3 different scenarios, the one currently in vogue and two others] The other two scenarios showed different ways of seeing the world. The point of these scenarios was not to get it right but to illustrate the forces at work."

Making good decision strategies.

So how do people go about making good decisions? In his book "Sources of Power" Gary Klein studied how people make decisions under extreme time pressure involving life and death situations. He found that there are various strategies we can use when making a decision as to what action to take to solve a problem where there are life and death consequences. It works out that these strategies can be applicable for any kind of choice.

  1. The hunch or recognition strategy. The first option is to allow your conscious mind to be open to hunches, insight etc. the often unheeded signals that come from the unconscious mind. In situations where there is too much extraneous information to be sorted out or where information is vague, and especially if you have expertise, it can be a good strategy to just go with a hunch or with what feels good or alternatively avoid what feels bad. This can be thought of as simply recognizing what to do. In this case the only conscious decision made is to accept the hunch or recognition.

  2. The first idea strategy. Sometimes when a mental simulation of ongoing events pops into consciousness as described above the first idea that we have for dealing with the situation can have many advantages. Although there may be other or better solutions, if there is danger or other types of time pressure, the first idea, if it works in the simulation has the advantage of dealing with the problem quickly. This is important, even necessary where time can mean life or death. Also, if you are truly an expert and the simulation is highly accurate, the first idea that comes out of all that experience may well be the best anyway. You decide to use the first idea you have.

  3. The singular evaluation strategy. If there is time it may be possible to run several ideas through the mental simulation. In this case you take an idea and mentally simulate it functioning in the mental model. Each idea is run through and evaluated as Klein says: "looking at one action at a time to see if it will work or can be made to work." This option also works well where there is some time pressure as the first workable solution is used. You decide to use the first idea that seems to work well.

  4. The comparative evaluation strategy. This analyze and compare each option in the simulation, is the strategy people used to think was used for all decision making. Although it is a valuable tool in decision making, it has some severe limitations. Firstly, it is only good for dealing with a small number of options. Secondly, it takes considerable time to do it well, so it can not be used much where there is time pressure. However, in situations where it is important to pick the best option, rather than one that works well, this kind of strategy is the best. You make the best choice you can.

The best strategy.

The third strategy 'The Singular Evaluation Strategy' not only works best for most situations involving some time pressure, but curiously enough, also works best for most situations of any choice. In his book "The Paradox of Choice" Barry Schwartz points out that even when making the most simple choices it is usually advisable to not to try and find the best choice. Why is this? It's because of two very important considerations.

  1. It takes a very long time to make a choice if we are trying to find the best object or the best solution. In most situations of choice especially unimportant ones we not only do not need to choose the best, but the amount of time we spend looking for it prevents us from doing more important things in our lives. Instead of being a joy, choice becomes a task, a drudgery. 

  2. If you try and select the best, getting the best becomes important to you. Firstly, it is unlikely you will ever find or determine what is best, if there are very many choices to choose from. Remember to compare all the advantages and disadvantages of each option against every other option can become a massive amount of unpleasant work. This really starts to mount up in time and complexity when the number of choices start to climb above six. Secondly, it is likely that if you try and choose the best, that you will end up unsatisfied with your choice, and regret that choice. Instead of making yourself happy with your choice you end up making yourself miserable.

Looking behind the locked door of the unconscious mind.

Self Hypnosis and the Power of Positive Thinking. john

Hypnosis, has always been known as a tool to reach that part of the mind that is behind the locked door, the part that is not conscious or rational, as we understand it. Hypnosis, although originally used to influence others, has been mostly used in this day and age as a tool to help ourselves. This was fully realized in the idea of self hypnosis. Writers of so called inspirational books, such as Norman Vincent Peel's "The Power of Positive Thinking", realized that people did not need to be in a receptive state in order for suggestion to work, and that in fact, we could influence ourselves simply by talking to ourselves. These books suggest that we can change a great deal about ourselves by making suggestions to ourselves, by talking to ourselves, and by consciously trying to control what we think about and talk about. They suggest we can change our emotions, our desires, and our behavior. This seems to be a very similar idea to priming.


As far as is known, nobody seems to have speculated as how and why these self help techniques might work. This site suspects, that these techniques work, because there is a mechanism in the mind (a part of how the whole mind works) which actually maintains certain ideas in the mind, because another function of the mind is trying to eliminate them. Each of our personal cognitive structures, or personal maps of reality are held together by thousands of links to every idea, concept, conjecture, or theory. However some ideas, which we have termed myths, while essential to the full functioning of the mind, are held in the mind rather tenuously, by just a few links. This is such that one might say that many of these memory traces would never reach a state of permanent storage in long term memory.

These memory traces are in constant danger of being eliminated from the mind, as they have so few links. However, because they are essential to the full functioning of the mind they may tend to be maintained by rote or intensional repetition. They are consciously gone over again and again in order to prevent them slipping away into oblivion. This repetition would widen the pathways of these memory traces so to speak. It would keep these connections easily able to be activated, and less and less likely to be dropped from memory, by willfully visiting them each time, before they can be forgotten. It seems not surprising then, that people with prejudices and other irrational ideas often feel compelled to sell those ideas to others. Perhaps their main reason for doing this, is so they can resell these ideas to themselves. These irrational ideas have very few links and quite well fit the idea of being in danger of being deleted from the mind. Similarly people, who's religious faith is recent and not deeply connected to the rest of their map of reality, may likewise feel compelled to preach and otherwise evangelize their religion.

Cognitive Therapy, Rational Emotive Therapy.

Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy take advantage of this idea above. Dr Albert Ellis and Dr Robert A. Harper published a book in 1961 called "A Guide to Rational Living". In this book they bought together for the first time all the principles they had been using in therapy to help their patients. At first, it seems that this therapy is just another cognitive therapy dealing with the problems in the here and now, and trying to get the patients to change their emotions, behavior and even their beliefs. What was different about what they called Rational Emotive Therapy, was its emphasis on internal dialogue. They would try first to make the patients aware of what they were saying to themselves in their thoughts and then suggest to them alternatives they might say to themselves instead. It was this internal dialogue that people had with themselves, that Ellis concluded maintained their irrational beliefs. What are you saying to yourself inside where nobody can hear you? Are you saying "I am a failure" or "I am a bad person" or "I am desperately unhappy"? Is it rational for you to say these things to yourself, or are you simply maintaining irrational ideas that are completely harmful to yourself? If these ideas, these things you say to yourself, are not rational, then you should try to change them, and say something to yourself that is rational. Cognitive therapy suggests something similar but without the emphasis on internal dialogue.

Behind the locked door.

We concluded elsewhere in this site, that only meaningful learning was real leaning, and that rote learning and drills were dangerous and required unlearning. However, this is only true of conceptual learning. Our beliefs or the myths that plug the holes in our personal maps of reality can only be reached by some form of repetition. We can and should however use that repetition to make these myths as rational as possible. This is a kind of learning which is about taking charge of our lives. What goes on behind the locked door can be modified, it can be made more rational, and if it is made more rational, this can only be beneficial to us, and produce better personal maps of reality.

The power of rapid cognition.

The power of rapid cognition can be an extremely effective tool in our lives, in both making decisions, and learning, and we can be in charge of how it is working. We can do this, by priming ourselves, and using other methods of compensating for our prejudices. In this way we can change our irrational beliefs into something more rational, or by make allowances for them when making a decision, or attempting to learn.


So how does this apply to purely mental activities such as solving problems, getting ideas or being creative? Maybe there is always an ebb and flow between consciousness and unconsciousness. Once the skills are in place in any creative field it is perhaps best not to think consciously at all, but rather simply let all our ideas bubble up from the unconscious. Trying to do it consciously as in brain storming and any other conscious ways of trying to mimic the unconscious, may be, as Gordon Torr suggests, counter productive.

Waiting at the locked door.  Creativity and incubation. 

In the above discussion of rapid cognition, we have skated around the concept of creativity. Rapid cognition clearly applies to creative decision making and we have touched on creative problem solving. The process by which rapid cognition solves problems is called incubation. It has long been recognized that if you are having difficulty solving a problem that you should stop thinking about it and go and do something else or rest for a while. Clearly this is an injunction to stop trying to solve the problem consciously and let the problem be processed behind the locked doors. Processing goes on behind the locked doors all the time anyway, but when we are trying too hard to solve a problem consciously we may get ourselves into a mental rut which we go over and over again. This not only prevents conscious processing, but interferes with unconscious processing as well. Doing something else stops the rut following.

Doing something else allows other input, which the unconscious mind can associate with the problem you are trying to solve. We can also improve the chances of including new associations by doing something we have not done before. Travel a different route, engage in a new activity, experience something new or go about something like work in a new manner. Then a bolt from the blue, insight, intuition, or a hunch and suddenly the problem seems to solve itself. Art and invention can be helped in much the same manner by stopping trying to come up with something and wait for it to bubble up from our unconscious. But again it is not enough if you just keep doing the things you always do. You have to change, do new things, have new experiences, try new tastes, meet new people. Basically get new and different input of any type.

Unlocking the locked door.

Some people it seems, can open the locked door. We should not be surprised to find that the people that can do this, are our most creative, the people we tend to call geniuses. It varies a lot. Some people can open the door just a crack. Real geniuses however seem to be able to manifest some of its workings into conscious thought. How can this be? To learn more click Here.

"In oneself lies the whole world and if you know how to look and learn, then the door is there and the key is in your hand. Nobody on earth can give you either the key or the door to open, except yourself." J. Krishnamurti

Thin slicing rapid cognition and life long learning.

Why do people learn and want to learn all the days of their life? The only answer that has the ring of truth is that people learn every day of their life because they are intrinsically driven to do so. They are intrinsically motivated with a desire to learn because their early and continuing experience with learning has been one of joy and pleasure. The thing about the hidden world of the unconscious, rapid cognition and its locked door is its potential for making learning the truly joyful experience of awe and wonder it should be. If anything is able to augment our experience of learning as being pleasurable it must be our ability to use rapid cognition.  

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
Genius Prodigies Creativity Social Creativity Observing Imaging Abstracting Recognizing Patterns
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