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

March 2, 2012 by
Filed under: Social Brain 

Recently I attended a mindfulness training day and instead of actually doing the practice, which is much about spending less time in our heads and more time 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 as 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 ‘social aspiration 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. Through experience S1 allows us to become experts who can make fast, intuitive and mostly good decisions. For example, it allows 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 into a sense of intuition.

This sense is an integral part of making good decisions 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 becoming stressed and caught up in all sorts of unhelpful thinking. I may think ‘I really screwed up this one’ or ‘I am just not good enough at that’. 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 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 many other reasons I hold mindfulness to be an integral part of the RSA’s neurological reflexivity that allows closing the ‘social aspiration gap’. One must be aware of one’s conditions manifesting moment-by-moment in order to allow one’s awareness to transform the effect of these conditions. This moment-by-moment attention paves way for different decisions, which in the long run have the power to change 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 to come back to the cushion. This also served as good exercise on the long path of becoming more of a ‘skilled user’, a master if you will, of my own mind and less of a slave of its unhelpful patterns.

Comments

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  • MatthewMezey

    Hi Egidijus,

    I definitly think you’re on to something here.

    Improving the quality of our attention, enabling us to make more timely decisions in the moment etc must all be part of closing the ‘aspiration gap’. Somehow… ;-)

    Would expertise in mindfulness actually reduce one’s automaticity, habitual patterns, and bring more of experience out of the ‘fast’ system and into the ‘slow’ system?

    Matthew

    PS Nice to meet you at that RSA lecture last week! :-)

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    • Egidijus Gecius

      Nice to meet you too, Matthew :)

      yes, I am convinced that improvements in mindfulness also reduce one’s automaticity and brings more of experience out out of the less concious fast system and into the more conscious slow system.

      This process of reclaiming your experience from automaticity is well discussed by the Director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre Mark Williams in his book:
      http://oxfordmindfulness.org/ 

      Also, I am also definitely seeing it in my own experience how things are shifting for me and how easier it is becoming to make my own choices rather than leaving it for the fast system to make the same habitual choices again and again. Planning to post more blogs on this later

  • http://www.tellmetxt.com/ Philip Wattis

    I’ve been practicing mindfulness for about 3 months or so, I know there is no ‘wrong’ way of doing it, but I definitely need more practice. I find accepting experiences ‘as they are’ no matter whether good or bad is very difficult to do without a conscious effort. I would say “hopefully practice makes perfect”, but then I would not be accepting things “as they are”!

    That said, Mindfulness receives big tick from me. It has had a most profound effect on the way I see certain situations, it is a real ‘enabler’.

    • Egidijus Gecius

      yeah, it changes the way we see things, doesn’t it? a different way of being in the world, as strange and New-Age’y as this may sound to those who have not committed themselves for long enough time to see the changes that come, provided one drops expectations to achieve some sort of state. A very paradoxical thing to explain in words.

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  • Theo Masters-Waage

    I personally practice meditation and have done for many years now. Equally I am an avid fan of Daniel Kahneman and particularly his book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’. Much the same as you i spent much of my time reading it cross-referencing the ideas with ideas from The Dharma and the words of my meditation teachers.
    Now as a psychology student on university i would like to do my dissertation/ research in a similar area, connecting the two. I feel as you have a similar interest you may be able to share some resources with me, or just point me in the right direction.
    Thank you for any help that you can be
    Theo

  • Mike Abbott

    Hi Egidijus, thank you for your post. I could not help but spot the irony (that I think was not lost on you :-)) of a detailed analysis of thinking patterns while on the “cushion”. It seems you dwelled on this distraction long enough to form the content of this article before returning to do ‘proper’ meditation. I would humbly offer that the analysis above is the antithesis of mindfulness but yet your meditation was in fact proper as you had to use your awareness to return to the “cushion”. If that lesson has taken root you might find yourself less lost in thought about mindfulness and more mindful in practice. Lofty analysis loses it’s purpose in the bright light of mindfulness. Therein lies the good stuff!

    All the best
    Mike Abbott