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”:

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