Two systems. One brain.
“A magician rehearses every bit of their act to make it look spontaneous. But improv has to be spontaneous and made to look like it’s been rehearsed.”
Twenty-two years ago, Bob Bedore, faced a dark situation. At least his business was dealing with it. As the owner of a theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, he ran a reasonably successful operation that included both stand up and traditional plays. But the theater often remained dark for weeks at a time in-between shows.
He needed a reliable filler that could bring in a regular audience at a moment’s notice. As an actor himself, he finally decided to try something that he had learned in training years earlier. Something that had never existed in the state. Or even in any nearby states. Bob Bedore decided to bring improv to Utah.
At this point in the state’s history, people weren’t familiar with improv. It hadn’t become mainstream yet, and it was a struggle to get people to understand what it was and to make it viable. Improv theaters were only found in faraway locations such as Chicago or the two coasts.
So Bob started training actors and advertising his improv shows. At first, the shows were really just supposed to be a filler. But it soon became very apparent that the improv shows were outselling the plays. Bob no longer worried about the theater being dark. He now had a show that would light up his business for decades.
With this newfound success, Bob changed the name of the theater to “Quick Wits.”
“Oddly enough, the name of the theater was a spontaneous decision. I said it would be a name we would use for now because it kind of describes instant comedy. I planned to come up with a better name later. But after 22 years I still haven’t come up with a better name.”
Improv is a unique type of stand-up comedy. The actors are required to come up with characters, scenes, or dialogue in the heat of the moment. Often they are given a few random suggestions from the audience, but most of the acting is improvising. The scene or action will change at a moment’s notice. No two shows are ever the same.
This type of acting requires a unique set of skills. You can’t rehearse. You have no idea what character you will be playing. All you can do is prepare for constant change.
Needless to say, those who are successful at improv have learned to think in a completely different way. Bob explains the type of thinking improv requires.
“Improv actors need to be on the stage but not in their heads. They have to be truthful to the scene that’s happening right in front of them. I don’t want them in their heads thinking about improv rules. I don’t want them thinking I have this great joke that I’m going to put into this scene, because if they’re doing that, they’re not listening to the scene and the action that’s happening around them.
I need actors who are team players. This may sound counter-intuitive, but I need people who are going to make the choices that make sense, not the choices that get laughs. They have to part of a team that’s building a scene, rather than someone who’s trying to get a laugh. The comedy will come. You can’t force it, or it doesn’t work.
You have to have the ability to empty your brain and not think about anything. Then reboot your way of thinking instantly. You have to empty your brain and fill it up multiple times a minute. By being in the moment, you can feel what’s coming up and be ready to bounce off the new thing that just came in. You can’t get too far ahead of things. Things change quickly in improv. You may be thinking, OK, this scene I’m in right now is going great. Then boom, it changes. You have to start over and build up a new scene and be ready to stop on a dime and go a different direction.”
To those of us who are untrained in improv, this type of thinking can seem insane. How do you pay attention to the room and think logically about the rising action you have to build, and at the same time react instantly to new variables without seeming to think at all?
The answer is that every one of us have two systems at play in our minds. One that helps us think logically and one that helps us react based on instinct. One is rational and the other is emotional.
Two points of view.
The connection between logic and emotion goes much deeper than Damasio’s breakthrough. Since the late 1990’s, hundreds of neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral economists have performed hundreds of experiments to learn more about the role of logic and emotion in our decisions.
As discussed in an earlier chapter, the brain may not always split easily into creative and rational halves. However, within our giant mess of neurons, there are still two distinct functions. One that helps us with rational thought and another that provides emotional support.
Most agree that while the brain is extremely complex, these two basic functions are the simplest way to explain how it all works.
In their famous book, Nudge—Improving decisions about health, wellness, and happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein help us understand these two systems.[i]
“How can people be simultaneously so smart and so dumb? Many psychologists and neuroscientists have been converging on a description of the brain’s functioning that helps us make sense of these seeming contradictions. The approach involves a distinction between two kinds of thinking, one that is intuitive and automatic, and another that is reflective and rational.”
Thaler and Sunstein call these two systems the Automatic System and the Reflective System. But many other psychologists simply call them System 1 and System 2.
Here are a few brief descriptions of the two systems from Thaler and Sunstein, “The Automatic System is rapid and is or feels instinctive, and it does not involve what we usually associate with the word thinking. The Reflective System is more deliberate and self-conscious. One way to think about all this is that the Automatic System is your gut reaction and the Reflective System is your conscious thought.”
For the purposes of this book, I’m going to use names for these two systems that feel less academic as this book is written for a marketing and business audience, not psychologists. I’ll refer to these two systems as our conscious and subconscious.
Our conscious function is easy to understand. It’s basically what makes you a human. It covers your awareness of the world around you. The alertness of speaking with another person. The day-to-day thoughts that are top of mind. The senses that you are experiencing right now as you are reading this book. It’s the knowledge of being alive.
Our subconscious is more mysterious. We know more is going on behind the scenes, but because we aren’t always aware of it, it can be more difficult to comprehend.
Your brain is performing a million tasks without you knowing about it. Your subconscious is directing your breathing and coordinating all your muscles in order to walk. It’s managing a million little actions within your body. Even more, it’s processing millions of pieces of data coming in from your senses. Your vision alone is one of the most complex pieces of nature and requires a huge part of your brain’s processing power.
Yet we have no idea how it’s all working. It’s a black box. The subconscious is the playground where scientists are focusing a herculean effort to better understand how our brains think.
The tip of the brainberg.
Another good metaphor that helps us grasp how these two systems work together is the iceberg. Your conscious thought, led by your prefrontal cortex is the small section that floats above the water. You can see it. But our conscious only handles a small part of our thinking.
Our subconscious is that massive chunk of grey matter under the water. We can’t see it, but we know it’s lurking underneath the surface.
And here’s the interesting twist. Just because we can grasp our conscious, we assume it’s doing the heavy lifting. After all, it’s the one in charge, right? The truth is that the real thinking is being handled by our subconscious and the lightweight noodling is delegated to our conscious.
In the book Incognito, David Eagleman[ii] writes about the massive machine of the subconscious and how powerful it really is. He describes how the subconscious is more essential than we think, even though our conscious thoughts feel more important.
“To the extent that consciousness is useful, it is useful in small quantities, and for very particular kinds of tasks. It’s easy to understand why you would not want to be consciously aware of the intricacies of your muscle movement, but this can be less intuitive when applied to your perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, which are also final products of the activity of billions of nerve cells.”
Think about it. If we had to consciously think about making ourselves breathe. To focus on every muscle and molecule so that it worked in perfect harmony, every day, every second, we would either go crazy or mess everything up and perish.
Bad idea. Instead, our subconscious calmly manages every aspect of keeping our bodies working. It’s like a million little programs and computers inside, processing and calculating and ensuring that we go on living everyday.
Our conscious brains only handle the simple things that aren’t as critical. Like philosophy. Or rocket science. Or brain surgery. The real work is going on beneath the surface.
It seems counter intuitive, but in reality, the easy thoughts to process are tasks that our conscious can handle. The job of our subconscious is much more neutrally complex.
Cosmides and Tooby in their study, Evolutionary Psychology: A primer, wrote, “It was (and is) common to think that other animals are ruled by "instinct" whereas humans lost their instincts and are ruled by "reason", and that this is why we are so much more flexibly intelligent than other animals. [iii]
Human behavior is more flexibly intelligent than that of other animals because we have more instincts than they do, not fewer. We tend to be blind to the existence of these instincts, however, precisely because they work so well -- because they process information so effortlessly and automatically.
But our natural competences — our abilities to see, to speak, to find someone beautiful, to reciprocate a favor, to fear disease, to fall in love, to initiate an attack, to experience moral outrage, to navigate a landscape, and myriad others — are possible only because there is a vast and heterogenous array of complex computational machinery supporting and regulating these activities. This machinery works so well that we don't even realize that it exists — We all suffer from instinct blindness.”
Because our conscious thought is accessible, we assume it’s more important. And more powerful. But in reality, our subconscious is the more dominant half. It handles all our mission critical programs and regulation of the functions that keep us alive. The systems that support life aren’t up for micromanagement. They are safely regulated by our subconscious brain.
Our subconscious isn’t a passive weak link. It powers more calculation and thought than we give it credit. Once we come to terms with the fact that our subconscious is more powerful than our conscious brain, we can learn to trust it. And hopefully we can learn to use it more often with intuitive and creative thinking.
How data drives our ability to think.
Referring back to our metaphor of the computer, our conscious is like our CPU or RAM. It can only hold a small amount of working memory. The subconscious is much more robust. It’s the large hard drive.
But first, how much data can our brains retain? A recent study by the Salk Institute[iv] gives us a window into how much memory our brains can really hold. They studied models of neurons where they attach to other neurons in areas called a synapse. Each neuron can have thousands of synapses that connect with thousands of other neurons. Electrochemical activity at each synapse is where signals travel and communicate throughout the brain.
By focusing on those micro connections and measuring the amount of data that passes through, this new study estimates that each synapse is capable of handling more data than we previously imagined, up to a factor of ten. And they discovered that the size of each synapse can adjust to fit the signal, which helps increase the amount of information it can communicate, about a petabyte of data per synapse. Because the memory capacity of a neuron is based on the size of its synapses, this discovery of more size categories means that our previous estimates of synapse capacity were far too low.
To put it into easy-to-understand terms, they suggest this means our brains can hold much more data—like the equivalent amount as the entire Internet. Think about how much data that includes. Every website. Every YouTube video. Even the entire voice-over track of Zombo.com. That’s an incredible amount of data.
Yet every newborn child has that amount of space built in their heads. It’s just hidden in our subconscious brain. Unless you’re a megasavant like Kim Peek and we can literally see how much data he can remember. Needless to say, our subconscious memory is capable of holding a massive amount of data.
In contrast, other studies have measured the capacity of our conscious brain, in particular the prefrontal cortex. These studies have shown that our short term memory, or our slow system, can only hold an average of seven separate variables.
Psychologist George A. Miller in his famous essay, The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, built a classical case around the idea that our conscious mind can only hold an average of seven variables.[v]
Miller studied the amount of data the average person can hold in their short term memory. He based his report on many experiments by others in his field, as well as his own experiments. In one study, he measured how many random tones associated with a number that people could hold in their conscious mind without mixing any of the tones or numbers up.
When a subject held only a few variables, they succeeded. As the variables moved beyond that magic number seven, people would fail. The average for multiple experiments always landed on the same number of variables. No wonder we use seven-digit phone numbers. Much longer than that and it would be difficult for us to remember.
Miller also explained that we use other techniques to get beyond seven variables, such as grouping variables into certain categories or recoding them into smaller chunks. This is why we often have phone numbers grouped into sets of three or four.
“Let me summarize the situation in this way. There is a clear and definite limit to the accuracy with which we can identify absolutely the magnitude of a unidimensional stimulus variable. I would propose to call this limit the span of absolute judgment, and I maintain that for unidimensional judgments this span is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of seven.
We are not completely at the mercy of this limited span, however, because we have a variety of techniques for getting around it and increasing the accuracy of our judgments. The three most important of these devices are (a) to make relative rather than absolute judgments.; or, if that is not possible, (b) to increase the number of dimensions along which the stimuli can differ; or (c) to arrange the task in such a way that we make a sequence of several absolute judgments in a row.”
Over the years, other researchers have challenged the number of variables. Some feel that young adults are limited to three or four variables.[vi] Or that this number changes over our lifetime and certainly each brain has different capacities.
In a recent study by Nelson Cowan of the University of Missouri, he presented research that shows how limits to our working memory is predictable at a capacity of three to five chunks.[vii] He presented more sophisticated research that isolated our working memory by creating tests that would eliminate a person’s ability to use grouping or structuring tactics.
According to Cowan, “In a broad sense, working memory ability varies widely depending on what processes can be applied to a given task. To memorize verbal materials, one can try to repeat them in one’s mind (rehearse them covertly). One can also try to form chunks from multiple words. For example, to remember to buy bread, milk, and pepper, one can form an image of bread floating in peppery milk. To memorize a sequence of spatial locations, one can envision a pathway formed from the locations. Though we cannot yet make precise predictions about how well working memory will operate in every possible task, we can measure storage-specific capacity by preventing or controlling processing strategies.”
We can see practical applications of Cowan’s estimate of three to five variables in current marketing situations. For example, on a web page, if we give more than five options in a global navigation, it can create choice overload and in user testing, people quickly become confused with too many navigation options. Or whenever we present campaigns to a group, if there are more than five concepts, it’s very difficult for decision makers to weigh the options and remember the benefits of all campaigns at the same time. The sweet spot is three to five options.
The contrast between the amount of information that our rational brain and emotional brain can hold is striking. Our conscious aptitude isn’t as powerful as we thought. In fact, our prefrontal cortex may control our actions, but it still has limitations. It’s just a limiting function of our biology.
Jonah Lehrer wrote in his book, How We Decide,[viii] about the need to be cautious with placing too much stock in our prefrontal cortex. (Don’t worry, I won’t use any Dylan quotes.)
He writes, “The prefrontal cortex can handle only so much information at any one time, so when a person gives it too many facts and then asks it to make a decision based on the facts that seem important, that person is asking for trouble. We all need to know about the innate frailties of the prefrontal cortex so that we don’t undermine our decisions.”
Of course, he also explains that our emotions aren’t perfect either, but that by knowing about the limitations, we can make better decisions. What’s important is knowing how each system works, both rational and emotional, so we can use both in the right way.
Holding a petabyte of data verses only five to seven variables is a key distinction between the two systems, but the speed at which they operate is even more important.
Different speeds for different jobs.
The short answer is that our logical brain is slow. It requires deliberate thought and focus. We try to push out other distractions and really think about a problem. On the other hand, our emotional system is extremely fast. It happens with very little effort and feels as if thoughts come to us instantaneously.
Back to David Eagleman in Incognito,[ix] we get a wonderful description of the differences in the speed of these two systems.
“When trying to understand the strange details of human behavior, psychologists and economists sometimes appeal to a “dual-process” account. In this view, the brain contains two separate systems: one is fast, automatic, and below the surface of conscious awareness, while the other is slow, cognitive, and conscious. The first system can be labeled automatic, implicit, heuristic, intuitive, holistic, reactive, and impulsive, while the second system is cognitive, systematic, explicit, analytic, rule-based, and reflective. These two processes are always battling it out.”
Eagleman also discusses a pivotal study by James McKeen Cattel in a paper titled “The time taken up by cerebral operations.” At the time of the paper, nobody was thinking about how the speed of thought, but his study was remarkably simple. He measured how quickly people react to questions based on the type of thinking required to answer the question. [x] Cattell measured people as they answered questions that required both rational thought and emotional responses.
According to Eagleman, “Cattell’s approach confronted the thinking problem head-on. By leaving the stimuli the same but changing the task (now make such-and-such type of decision), he could measure how much longer it took for the decision to get made. That is, he could measure thinking time, and he proposed this as a straightforward way to establish a correspondence between the brain and the mind.”
The results help us understand that rational thought takes tens of milliseconds longer than an emotional response that clocks in at a mere 160-190 milliseconds. And while measurements in milliseconds still seems pretty fast, when making a split second decision, milliseconds can make the difference between success or failure.
When to use the right system?
This concept of a slow logical brain versus a lightning fast emotional brain is played out in many examples. As we learned from Bob Bedore in our improv example, there are times when you need to use your fast emotional brain and times when you must rely on your slow rational system.
Here’s Bob again on using both systems. “You have to live in the moment, not in your head. What’s happening right now in this exact moment—that’s what’s important. In improv, there’s a mixture of having to think both logically and emotionally. Logically, I need to know what’s the next thing that’s happening? You have to be paying attention to where things are going, what the emcee is throwing at you, and you have to follow the rules of the game.
But improv isn’t really acting, it’s reacting. So emotionally, you have to respond to whatever just happened, or whatever new stimulus has just been brought to your attention. You have to react to that. So I’m never thinking three reactions, or even two reactions ahead. I’m just flowing and responding instantly to what’s happening right now. Sometimes, all I’m really thinking about is surviving the scene.”
Improv actors have to use both systems at the same time. But to be great, to really get the audience excited, they have to have lightning fast responses. And that means relying on their expertly trained improv guts to succeed. Without all the past experiences and practice, they won’t have the quick wit to bring down the house.
In many situations, we use our fast subconscious without knowing it. When you use your subconscious to rely on a feeling of what to do, you’re really tapping into hundreds of previous decisions and similar situations.
But there’s more to it than just accessing your experience library. Eagleman breaks the need for a fast emotional response system into two steps—speed and efficiency.
“When the brain finds a task it needs to solve, it rewrites its own circuitry until it can accomplish the task with maximum efficiency. The task becomes burned into the machinery. This clever tactic accomplishes two things of chief importance for survival.
The first is speed. Automatization permits fast decision making. Only when the slow system of consciousness is pushed to the back of the queue can rapid programs do their work. Should I swing forehand or backhand at the approaching tennis ball? With a ninety-mile-per-hour projectile on its way, one does not want to cognitively slog through the different options.
The second reason to burn tasks into the circuitry is energy efficiency. By optimizing its machinery, the brain minimizes the energy required to solve problems. Because we are mobile creatures that run on batteries, energy saving is one of the highest importance.”
The key takeaway is that we have two systems. Our conscious and subconscious. And that they both work at different speeds performing different jobs. Our conscious thought is slow and deliberate, leading the charge and guiding our actions. Our subconscious thought is fast and flexible, handling most of the legwork without us knowing how.
To get a personal idea of how these two systems work, try the following exercise. Let’s start with our fast system. Read the following list of words one at a time and pay attention to all the emotions that you instantly feel as you move through the list. Don’t read the list too quickly, but give yourself a few seconds to react to all the emotions and memories you have with each word. As this book is focused on marketing, they are a list of brands that many of us have experienced.
As you read the name of a few of these brands, hopefully your mind was instantly flooded with emotion about the brand. For some you probably had positive feelings or memories, others were perhaps negative. Either way, you can see how quickly a massive amount of information was communicated in your thoughts through those quick emotions.
Now let’s experience your slow system. Think about your current phone number. Take a moment and repeat that number out loud in reverse order.
(This pause brought to you by your conscious system…)
Now try adding one numeral to each of those numbers and again repeat it out loud. (So a 4 becomes a 5.)
You either took a few minutes to really focus and solve that problem, or more likely, you realized that it was going to take too much mental effort and you moved on.
For most of us, that experience of focus and logical thought took much more time than expected. We experience a brief stupor of thought followed by a conscious effort to solve the problem. Most likely your pupils grew in size. Your sweat glands kicked in. And your brain used up a bit of your energy. That’s your rational brain in action.
When your rational brain is really engaged, you have to slow down and pay attention. So much for multi-tasking. Your subconscious brain is handling a thousand different tasks every second, but when a single task requires your conscious brain, there isn’t much attention left for anything else.
Now that we recognize the two systems and know how differently they work, the next chapter helps us understand how our conscious and subconscious work together in making decisions. And we’ll discuss the different types of decisions that are best suited for each system.
[i] Nudge. Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. 2008 Yale University Press.
[ii] Incognito: the secret lives of the brain, by David Eagleman. 2011.
[iii] Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer, Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, 1997. http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html
[v] The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, by George A. Miller. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
[vi] Gilchrist, A.L., Cowan, N., & Naveh-Benjamin, M. (2008). Working memory capacity for spoken sentences decreases with adult aging: Recall of fewer, but not smaller chunks in older adults. Memory, 16, 773–787.
[vii] Working memory capacity limits. The magical mystery four: how is working memory capacity limited, and why? Nelson Cowan.
[viii] How we decide, by Jonah Lehrer. January 2010.
[x] The time taken up by cerebral operations, by James McKeen Cattell. 1887.