Rapid Cognition (Hunches,
Insight and Intuition).
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
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.
Malcolm Gladwell has written a
"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
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
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.
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
The automatic responses that
come to people in situations of stress.
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.
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 by 'repetition' or
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
'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
and carved neural pathways.
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:
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."
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
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
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
"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:
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."
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."
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
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
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:
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."
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
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
thought only momentarily to deal with some anomaly.
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:
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."
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
conscious thought where most of the time one simply trusts unconscious
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
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."
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
"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."
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
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."
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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:
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
A safe place.
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
Desires and prejudice.
"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.
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).
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
"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.
trust rapid cognition.
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
"An environment that is sufficiently regular to
"An opportunity to learn these regularities
through prolonged practice."
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.
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
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
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.
decisions and problem solving.
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.
factors affecting conscious and unconscious decisions.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
"Sources of Power" Garry Klein discusses this model, how it
functions and how it is used. He says:
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
third strategy 'The
Singular Evaluation Strategy' not only works best for most situations
involving some time pressure, but curiously enough, also works best for
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
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.
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.
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
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 in order to prevent them slipping away into oblivion. This
repetition would widen the pathways of these memory traces so to speak.
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
Rational Emotive Therapy.
Cognitive Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy
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.
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
slicing rapid cognition and life long learning.
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.
intrinsically motivated with a desire to learn because their early and
continuing experience with learning has been one of joy and
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.