zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » The speeds of thought, complexities of problems

The speeds of thought, complexities of problems

[ by Charles Cameron — instinct, rationality, creativity, complexity and intelligence ]

Guy Claxton, Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind
Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

You might think, taking a quick glance at their titles, that these two books would be in substantial agreement with one another about the speeds of thought. But consider these two comments, in one of which the deliberative, logical mind is “slower” than the intuitive and emotional — while in the other, it is the rational mind that is “faster” and the intuitive mind which is “slower”. Brought together, the two quotes are amazing — it would seem that either one or the other must be wrong:


Happily, I don’t believe either one is wrong — I think it’s more a matter of there being three speeds of thought, and the two books in question using different terminologies to emphasize different distinctions between them.

Here’s a more extended version of Guy Claxton’s position:

Roughly speaking, the mind possesses three different processing speeds. The first is faster than thought. Some situations demand an unselfconscious, instantaneous reaction. … Neither a concert pianist nor an Olympic fencer has time to figure out what to do next. There is a kind of ‘intelligence’ that works more rapidly than thinking. This mode of fast, physical intelligence could be called our ‘wits’. (The five senses were originally known as ‘the five wits’.)

Then there is thought itself — the sort of intelligence which does involve figuring matters out, weighing up the pros and cons, constructing arguments and solving problems. A mechanic working out why an engine will not fire, a family arguing over the brochures about where to go for next summer’s holiday, a scientist trying to interpret an intriguing experimental result, a student wrestling with an examination question: all are employing a way of knowing that relies on reason and logic, on deliberate conscious thinking. … Someone who is good at solving these sorts of problems we call ‘bright’ or ‘clever’.

But below this, there is another mental register that proceeds more slowly still. It is often less purposeful and clear-cut, more playful, leisurely or dreamy. In this mode we are ruminating or mulling things over, being contemplative or meditative. We may be pondering a problem, rather than earnestly trying to solve it, or just idly watching the world go by. What is going on in the mind may be quite fragmentary. What we are dunking may not make sense. We may even not be aware of much at all. As the English yokel is reported to have said: ‘sometimes I sits and thinks, but mostly I just sits’. […]

That third mode of thinking is the one Claxton identifies with “wisdom” — which is interesting enough. Just as interesting, though, is his identification of this slowest mode of thought with “wicked problems”:

Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill defined. Deliberate thinking, d-mode, works well when the problem it is facing is easily conceptualised. When we are trying to decide where to spend our holidays, it may well be perfectly obvious what the parameters are: how much we can afford, when we can get away, what kinds of things we enjoy doing, and so on. But when we are not sure what needs to be taken into account, or even which questions to pose — or when the issue is too subtle to be captured by the familiar categories of conscious thought — we need recourse to the tortoise mind.

I haven’t read either book, and I’d hope that Kahneman as well as Claxton actually addresses all three speeds of thought. But my immediate point is that the slowest of the three forms of thought is the one that’s best suited to understanding complex, wicked and emergent problems.

And that’s the one that can’t be hurried — the one where the Medici Effect takes effect — and the one which provides Claxton with one of his finest lines, with which he opens his book, a western koan if ever I saw one:

There is an old Polish saying, ‘Sleep faster; we need the pillows’, which reminds us that there are some activities which just will not be rushed. They take the time that they take.

More on that front shortly, insha’Allah and the creek don’t rise.

2 Responses to “The speeds of thought, complexities of problems”

  1. Lynn Wheeler Says:

    I’ve read Fast&Slow and its tie-ins with economic decision making are fascinating (author has nobel prize in economics) … also it is much more recent book and compliments Ramachandran’s books. A quote from Fast&Slow: “Since then, my questions about the stock market have hardened into a larger puzzle: a major industry appears to be built largely on an illusion of skill. Billions of shares are traded every day, with many people buying each stock and others selling it to them”

  2. Daniel Says:

    My uni had a major in logic and philosophy of science, which I did along with my math degree. I spent a few courses on logic, critical reasoning, rhetoric, and other related areas. It would make sense that using logic is slower, especially if you actually take logic as the use of correct inference patterns to eliminate ambiguity of natural language. To take some real world argument and break it down takes a lot of work and time. At an informal (critical reasoning) level, you would identify reasons and conclusions of a natural argument and map it out through argument diagramming. Taking it even deeper into formal logic, you could also break down the argument into propositional (P) and predicate (Q) logics (or even further into the modal, or other logics). Again, this takes a lot of time. There is a three step process of turning the natural language into statements and formal structures, then you need to work out if the argument is invalid at that level either through truth tables or (the quicker way) through truth trees. Finally, even if you prove invalidity via P or Q, it doesn’t mean that you have shown a natural language argument to be totally invalid, as there are valid arguments that cannot be captured by P and Q (for instance, modal arguments capturing time or necessity, or logics involving multi-truth values). All this backtracking to make sure you have assessed the argument correctly takes up a huge amount of time and attention that matches up with the slow-style thinking. That’s just formal logic as well, it doesn’t take into consideration inductive natural language arguments (arguments that make use of statistics, or inferences to best explanations), which needs a different analytic approach but still has that slow style of analysis.

Switch to our mobile site