Thinking Never Fast


When I was a child in primary school, the nightmare for me was to be asked to read aloud in front of the class, because I then could not read without a bump, even though I had previewed the passage in advance. I feel ashame of my reading ability. Until my 20s, I did not find the reason behind my poor performance.

In a discussion several years ago, my friend, Tracy, said, “Rene, you think too fast, I can not follow you and you have started babbling. Slow it down, so that you can speak clearly. ” Her comment instantly opened a door for me to dig deeper about myself.  I start to recall how my brain proceed information when I read aloud. Usually I scanned faster than I spoke, so what I was reading was usually behind what I was looking at. In the other word, the word that I need to say was usually out of my sight, and what I was reading aloud was eventually a meaning left in my brain from scanning, which usually might not be the exactly same word that appeared in the material.

Reading seems not a big deal, but each time when you read out loud, you are making tiny choices on which tone to use, which word to say, and which meaning to deliver. My then poor reading performance is an example how thinking too fast might  hinder your performance.

I am not saying that thinking fast is a bad thing. On contrary, it is a mechanism that protected ancestors. Because they were living in natural environment filled with danger. So they need to react fast to what is happening. This demand created fast react system, a system that is called system 1 by psychologists. It extracts the most vital information from the torrent flowing through all your senses, such as vision and hearing,  abandons the rest, mostly the most of the information flood, and then make a quick decision according to your experience. As the result, human beings survived. There was an experiment to prove the existence of system 1. It is called Invisible Gorilla, in which six people-three in white shirts and three in black shirts-pass basketballs around. While subjects watch, they must keep a silent count of the number of passes made by the people in white shirts. At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves, spending nine seconds on screen. Most of the subject do recall that a gorilla appeared in the game that they just watched.

However system 1 did not lead us from hunting to agriculture, from man power to machine, or from your fingers to computers. It was the system 2 that give us the power to address problems and invent tools, which defines us.  System 2 takes all the information and analyses it, and draws a logical conclusion.

But system 2 is not the one that we usually use, because we are lazy and thinking takes a lot of effort and energy — anyone had the feeling of hunger when cracking down some hard questions in your work? To save effort, our brain delegates those tasks that seem to be simple to system 1. Once system  1 finishes its job, no part of our brain will check the result. That is where most of the mistakes come from and why I can not read aloud when I was a kid.

You might be thinking how we get the experience that system 1 uses to make a decision, as most of the time we use system 1 and whether the using system 1 can be an experience based on which later system 1 can make a decision?  The experience here can only be generated by system 2, which is the only place learning happens in our brain. That is why learning consumes so much time and effort.  Once you repeat the same experience over Andy over again. System 2 will memorize it and hand it over to system 1, when next time you encounter the same situation, another evidence to prove that practice makes it perfect.

Now, we know how these two systems work, but how can we use system 2 more to perfect our performance? The answer is that we can not force it. System 2 will jump in, if system 1 can not handle the question that is complicated enough.  Have you blamed yourself that you can solve the last question in  a mathematic examination, but missed the first question in which you only need to add up a bunch of numbers? I did.

One way to trick system 2 to do the work is to challenge yourself with difficult question when you have already learnt about the topic. For example, to change the condition that you usually have, to change the question that you are usually asked, or to even combine with other questions that might come along.

As for my reading skill, since I started to learn English language with my heart, it has improved a lot. Because I gradually get used to put more effort on thinking about which word I am looking at and how I should pronounce it. This new addtion also extended to my readings in other languages.

More resources about how we think:

Think, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

The Science of Thinking, YouTube Video by Derek Muller. Derek did great job to explain this concept, as well as other intriguing science phenomena.

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