The Two (Almost Opposite) Ways of Learning: System 1 and System 2

humans' dual cognitive processor

In my recent posts, I’ve insisted on the importance of deep thinking. I even said that there’s no peak learning without effective thinking.

Well, this is not exactly true.

In some cases, thinking can actually hamper your learning. The popular Malcolm Gladwell even wrote a whole book (Blink) to show that deliberate thinking often reduces performance.

Really? How can that be?

That’s because humans have two separate learning mechanisms, often called System 1 and System 2. In fact, this idea of a dual process is applied to many cognitive functions such as memory, attention, social cognition, reasoning and decision-making.

By the way, the prominent psychologist Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for his research on this topic, which he summarized in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

System 1 is fast, automatic, intuitive and unconscious. It’s an old system based in the limbic system and shared by all animals. Thanks to this system, babies learn languages, you fine-tune your movements when playing a sport or musical instrument, and you update the map of your city without being aware of it.

System 2, on the other hand, is slow, effortful, logical and conscious. It’s located in the prefrontal cortex, and enables you, for instance, to learn foreign languages, change a behavior and operate a new machine.

Of course, we take pride of System 2, which has produced most of our culture, knowledge and expertise. In comparison, we often look down on system 1 as primitive and prone to error.

But brushing aside System 1 like I’ve done so far in this blog is wrong. This system is fast, powerful and most of the time reliable. Unlike System 2, it can process tons of information at the same time.

Many studies have shown that experts mostly rely on pattern recognition (S1) rather than analysis (S2) to solve typical problems. That’s why experienced doctors, chess masters and top football players are so quick at spotting the best solution, and that’s also why musicians’ and athletes’ performance suffers as soon as they start thinking about it.

In certain domains, peak learners need to move beyond academic learning, and turn their system-2 analytic skills into system-1 intuitive expertise.

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