Saturday, March 03, 2012

Egidijus Gecius - Mindfulness as Using Kahneman’s ‘Fast and Slow Thinking’ Skillfully

If you have not read Daniel Kahneman's most recent book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, I highly recommend the book (and thanks to a regular reader of this blog who gifted me with a copy!).

In this article from The RSA, Egidijus Gecius looks at Kahneman's model of fast and slow thinking in relation to mindfulness practice, concluding in part that mindfulness is one effective way to close what the folks at RSA call the aspirational gap - the space between who we are and who we want to be as human beings.

More importantly, however, he examined the relationship of mindfulness to the two systems Kahneman outlines in the book – the super fast, automatic, intuition-based System 1 (S1) and the agentic, reasoning-based, and much slower System 2 (S2). Read the article for his take on this (with which I am in full agreement).

Here is my brief take:

We might think of S1 as the part of our brain that works beneath our awareness, without our active involvement (this is the part of the brain that causes so many neuroscientists to dismiss free will as wishful thinking). This allows us to do an incredible number of things without having to focus our attention on those tasks.

One downside of how our brains work is that S2 can be not only the rational and aware part, it can also be the irrational part working from cognitive distortions or faulty beliefs.

One of the benefits of mindfulness practice is that it can help us bring more of those S1 functions into our consciousness, into S2, giving us greater control over our thoughts and behaviors, essentially increasing the degree of our free will. By closing this gap, and having greater access to the maps and schemas created by S1, we are better able to  examine those cognitive distortions and faulty beliefs in S2 and bring them into agreement with the experiential maps in S1.

Mindfulness as using Kahneman’s ‘fast and slow thinking’ skilfully

March 2, 2012 by
Recently I attended a mindfulness training day and instead of actually doing the practice, which is about spending less time in my heads and more in the real world, I found myself  analysing the training itself. I was sitting on a meditation cushion and doing old-fashioned left-brain-type analysis. I found myself making different connections between mindfulness and brain-related sciences. I thought I had found some interesting links between mindfulness and Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s ‘fast and slow thinking’. This led to me to believe that one way of looking at mindfulness is a skilful engagement of Kahneman’s both ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ thinking. Also, sitting on that cushion I came to believe that mindfulness is an important part of closing the RSA’s ‘aspirational gap’ to become more of a person one wants to be.

According to Kahneman, we can think about our brains as having two systems – super fast, automatic, intuition-based ‘system 1’ (S1) and effortful, reasoning-based, and much slower ‘system 2’ (S2). Most of our daily decisions are produced by S1, are automatic and are based on habits. They require little attention or effort. S1 allows us to become experts by allowing us to make very fast and good decisions through gaining experience, e.g. driving a car in heavy traffic while maintaining a conversation. You can try to imagine the chances of you being able to do that by having only read lots of books about driving (i.e. by having only engaged reasoning-based S2). What S1 is great at is tapping into our vast experience and packaging a multitude of calculations in a sense or intuition.

This sense is an integral part of making good decision informed by our experience. It has been found that people who don’t feel emotions struggle to make even the simplest decisions. This intuition bit is where mindfulness training becomes very useful. From time to time I find myself for various reasons being stressed and caught up in all sorts of unhelpful thinking. I may think I really screwed up or about the consequences that may follow. This not only distracts me from focusing on the real problem (disturbs reason-based S2 thinking) but also obscures my ability to ‘read’ my intuition.

What mindfulness allows me to do is to see through the forest of emotions and maintain connection to this intuition, leading to better decisions. What it also allows me to do is to become aware of unhelpful thinking patterns in S2 and not to take them at face value. Another dimension of mindfulness is openness to experience, be it pleasant or unpleasant experience. This openness stops vicious circles in their tracks, the circles of getting stressed about getting stressed, about getting stressed…

For these and other reasons I hold mindfulness to be an integral element of RSA’s neurological reflexivity that allows closing the ‘aspirational gap’. One must be aware of one’s conditions manifesting moment-by-moment in order to allow this awareness to transform the effect of their conditions. This moment-by-moment attention paves way for different decisions, which in the long run have the power to change our habits.

Sitting on that cushion and having made such links for a while I felt a bit too excited to meditate properly. I had to use some mindfulness to calm my analytical mind down and come back to the cushion. This also served as good exercise on the long path of becoming more of a ‘skilful user’, a master if you will, of my own mind and less of a slave of its unhelpful patterns.

Related posts:
  1. Thinking, fast and slow
  2. Mindfulness (5): Is ‘a bit’ enough?
  3. Mindfulness(2): What is it?
  4. Mindfulness(3): Doing and Being
  5. Mindfulness(4): Huxley’s Reminder Birds
  6. Mindfulness(1): Teach us to Sit Still
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