As we learn more about the brain, one of
the biggest surprises is how it changes,
develops and processes information.
Until recently, neuroscientists thought
our brain finished developing when
we reached our 20s. They now realize
our brain never stops changing. It
develops through a lifetime (with the
biggest bursts in early childhood and the
teen years) and can change minute by
minute. These small changes can add up
to big changes over time.
Better understanding how our brain
works can help us be healthier and make
positive changes in our lives.
In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow,
Daniel Kahneman says our thinking
can be divided into two types: fast
and slow. Fast thinking, what he calls
System I, is comfortable, automatic and
where our brain likes to be at all times.
For example, if you’re walking with a
friend and she asks: “What is two plus
two?” you will immediately think of the
answer four without missing a step.
Slow thinking, or what Kahneman
calls System 2, takes more effort. For
example, you are walking with your
friend and she asks: “What is 24 times
237?” For all but the most math-gifted,
answering this will mean having to stop
walking, shutting out distractions and
concentrating so hard it almost hurts
your brain. Try it!
The answer is 5,688, but you knew
Your brain goes both fast and slow
WRITTEN BY DR. LAURA CALHOUN AND TERRY BULLICK
ILLUSTRATED BY CARL WIENS
Functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) shows what parts of the
brain “light up” when we think. System
2 thinking lights up many more areas
of the brain than System 1 thinking,
indicating that more energy is involved
and therefore more effort.
System 2 thinking is so demanding
that our brain tries to avoid it, but both
types of thinking are needed every day.
You wouldn’t want to have to stop and
think carefully when a car was coming
straight at you—System 1 springs you
into action to avoid it. System 2 thinking
helps you work through complex
thoughts and actions, such as long
division or writing an essay.
How we think, along with everything
we feel, comes from our brain’s neural
connections and its collections of
connections called neural pathways.
For example, when you think about the
word “snow,” a whole chain of thoughts
and feelings associated with your
memories and experiences of snow is
David Rock, the author of Your Brain
at Work and Quiet Leadership, says our
default mode for trying to change a habit
(or well-established way of thinking
and acting) is to try and unwire what is
already there. That, he says, is like trying
to get rid of the Grand Canyon.
It is far easier, says Rock, to cut a
small new path in the rock and grow
it over time. Rather than try to stop a
behaviour, we can be more successful if
we start a new behaviour, and let the old
behaviour fade away. The more we do
the new behaviour, the more ingrained
new neural connections and pathways
We create new neural connections
and pathways all the time: by reading,
talking with someone or doing a new
activity. We create stronger neural
connections and pathways (which can
easily be accessed by System 1) when,
over time, we think about these things,
talk to someone about them, picture
them in our mind or write about them.
Getting new learning into System 1
ensures that it is readily available for
you the next time it’s called upon.
And when that happens, you’ll
know you’ve successfully changed your
BRAIN BOOKS WORTH
• Your Brain at Work and Quiet
Leadership by David Rock
• Conversational Intelligence
by Judith Glaser
• Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman
• The Brain that Changes Itself
by Norman Doidge.