The capabilities of our adaptive unconscious are really quite amazing. In an earlier post, entitled Intuitive Thought, I covered the general relative strengths of this silent supercomputer running outside of our awareness. It has long been believed that rational thought, the application of logic and reason, over intuition, is the key to a successful life. One wonders, given the recent revelations about the importance of emotion and intuition, how reasoning capabilities would fair in a head to head (pun intended) competition with emotion?


Believe it or not, a research team from the University of Iowa devised a rather ingenious way of holding such a competition. In 1994 neuroscientists Antonio Damasio, Antoine Bechara, Daniel Tranel, and Steven Anderson developed the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT) to facilitate the identification of decision-making errors in individuals with prefrontal cortex damage. Both Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) and Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) highlight this study in their powerful books on how we think. The IGT website describes the IGT as “a computerized experiment that is carried out in real time and resembles real-world contingencies. The task allows participants to select cards from four decks displayed on-screen. Participants are instructed that the selection of each card will result in winning or losing money. The objective is to attempt to win as much money as possible.” Sounds straight forward – although there is a catch. The participants are not aware that the decks are rigged in such a way that two decks consistently offer modest cash advances ($50) and rare penalties. These are the “good decks.” The two other decks, the “bad decks,” provide bigger advances ($100) but also devastating penalties ($1250). Playing the good decks is a slow but sure road to substantial winnings. The bad decks lead to disaster.


As participants began selecting cards, they tended to draw from all four decks (in a random fashion). However, as card selection proceeded and the consequences of their choices were realized, on average it took the typical participant about 50 cards before they started exclusively drawing from the “good decks.”  After drawing 50 cards, most participants developed a hunch that there were deck specific patterns in rewards and penalties and they began responding to those patterns. But It took on average about 80 cards before the typical subject could explain why they favored the good decks. That is 80 draws before most people concluded, rationally and logically, that there were good and bad decks.


In their original study, Damasio and his colleagues were interested in the emotional responses the subjects had to the task.  Participants were hooked up to a machine that specifically monitored their stress response (nervousness and anxiety) associated with each and every card selection.   What they discovered was that their subjects responded emotionally to the bad decks long before they changed their behavior or developed any rational understanding of the card distribution. On average most subjects exhibited a stress response to the bad decks after ten draws, a full 40 draws before their behavior changed and 70 draws before they could identify the reason for avoidance of the bad decks. Lehrer noted that “Although the subject still had little inkling of which card piles were the most lucrative, his emotions had developed an accurate sense of fear. The emotions knew which decks were dangerous. The subject’s feelings figured out the game first.”


On the IGT, neurotypical individuals almost always came out well ahead financially. Ultimately the emotions they experienced associated with draws from the various decks clued them into the correct responding pattern. However, individuals who were incapable of experiencing any emotional response – typically due to damaged orbito-frontal cotices – proved incapable of identifying the patterns and often went bankrupt. As it turns out, our emotional responses serve a very crucial role in good decision making – much more so than reason and logic. Again from Lehrer: “When the mind is denied the emotional sting of losing, it never figures out how to win.” The adaptive unconscious and the associated underlying emotional capacity of the brain serve an essential role in the decision making process. “Even when we think we know nothing, our brains know something. That’s what our feelings are trying to tell us.” (Lehrer, 2009).


It really is quite amazing that we strive for, and so greatly value, rational thought as a savior of sorts; yet it is our intuition and emotions that really serve as our most effective advisers. The acceptance of the inferiority of rationality is literally and figuratively counter-intuitive. Of course this does not mean we should devalue rationality and go with all our impulses. There are limits and dangers associated with such thinking, and our emotions are kept in balance by our reasoning capabilities. It is crucial that we understand the capacity and strengths of both reason and intuition, as well as their downfalls. I am devoted to this pursuit with growing passion and will continue to share my insights.




Gladwell, M. 2005.  Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Little, Brown and Company: New York


Lehrer, J. 2009.  How We Decide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: New York.


I saw it with my own two eyes!” Does this argument suffice? As it turns out – “NO!” that’s not quite good enough. Seeing should not necessarily conclude in believing. Need proof? Play the video below.



As should be evident as a result of this video, what we perceive, can’t necessarily be fully trusted. Our brains complete patterns, fill in missing data, interpret, and make sense of chaos in ways that do not necessarily coincide with reality. Need more proof? Check these out.


Visual Illusion - A & B are the same shade of gray

Visual Illusion – A & B are the same shade of gray

Illusion - Notice the perceived motion around the green circles.

Illusion – Notice the perceived motion around the green circles.


Convinced? The software in our brains is responsible for these phenomena. And this software was coded through progressive evolutionary steps that conferred survival benefits to those with such capabilities. Just as pareidolia confers as survival advantage to those that assign agency to things that go bump in the night, there are survival advantages offered to those that evidence the adaptations that are responsible for these errors.


So really, you can’t trust what you see. Check out the following video for further implications.



Many of you are likely surprised by what you missed. We tend to see what we are looking for and we may miss other important pieces of information. The implications of this video seriously challenge the value of eye witness testimony.


To add insult to injury you have to know that even our memory is vulnerable. Memory is a reconstructive process not a reproductive one.2 During memory retrieval we piece together fragments of information, however, due to our own biases and expectations, errors creep in.2 Most often these errors are minimal, so regardless of these small deviations from reality, our memories are usually pretty reliable. Sometimes however, too many errors are inserted and our memory becomes unreliable.2 In extreme cases, our memories can be completely false2 (even though we are convinced of their accuracy). This confabulation as it is called, is most often unintentional and can spontaneously occur as a result of the power of suggestion (e.g., leading questions or exposure to a manipulated photograph).2 Frontal lobe damage (due to a tumor or traumatic brain injury) is known to make one more vulnerable to such errors.2


Even when our brain is functioning properly, we are susceptible to such departures from reality. We are more vulnerable to illusions and hallucinations, be they hypnagogic or otherwise, when we are ill (e.g., have a high fever, are sleep deprived, oxygen deprived, or have neurotransmitter imbalances). All of us are likely to experience at least one if not many illusions or hallucinations throughout our lifetime. In most cases the occurrence is perfectly normal, simply an acute neurological misfiring. Regardless, many individuals experience religious conversions or become convinced of personal alien abductions as a result of these aberrant neurological phenomena.


We are most susceptible to these particular inaccuracies when we are ignorant of them. On the other hand, improved decisions are likely if we understand these mechanisms, as well as, the limitations of the brain’s capacity to process incoming sensory information. Bottom line – you can’t necessarily believe what you see. The same is true for your other senses as well – and these sensory experiences are tightly associated and integrated into long-term memory storage. When you consider the vulnerabilities of our memory, it leaves one wondering to what degree we reside within reality.


For the most part, our perceptions of the world are real. If you think about it, were it otherwise we would be at a survival disadvantage. The errors in perception we experience are in part a result of the rapid cognitions we make in our adaptive unconscious (intuitive brain) so that we can quickly process and successfully react to our environment. For the most part it works very well. But sometimes we experience aberrations, and it is important that we understand the workings of these cognitive missteps. This awareness absolutely necessitates skepticism. Be careful what you believe!




1.  169 Best Illusions–A Sampling, Scientific American: Mind & Brain. May 10, 2010


2.  Anatomy of a false memory. Posted on: June 13, 2008 6:25 PM, by Mo


3.  Simons, Daniel J., 1999. Selective Attention Test. Visual Cognitions Lab, University of Illinois.


4.  Sugihara, Koukichi 2010. Impossible motion: magnet-like slopes. Meiji Institute for Advanced Study of Mathematical Sciences, Japan.


In my post entitled Intuitive Thought I mentioned that rational thought is slow and arduous. I also mentioned in Spinoza’s Conjecture that vague or confusing information is processed in a portion of the brain that also processes pain and disgust. Rational thought, it seems, is not all it’s cracked up to be. In fact we are not very good at it. According to Daniel Willingham, professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia, “People are naturally curious but they are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, people will avoid thinking.


Willingham delved into this reality in his intriguing article “Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking.” He suggests that we are good at certain types of reason (relative to other animals), but that we are much better at other brain functions like seeing and moving. Both of these capabilities are highly complex; however, they are relatively automatic and we tend to take them for granted. We don’t have to think to see or generally to ambulate. A massive portion of our neurological terrain is dedicated to these activities because seeing and moving are actually much more complicated than working out a complex physics problem for example.


Working out novel and/or complicated problems requires concentration and the complete dedication of one’s attention. Think about a personal situation that necessitated solving an important and novel problem involving numerous and complicated variables. Recall how difficult and slow the process was – and how it demanded single minded dedication and supreme concentration. Do you remember how disruptive distracting stimuli became? Personally, I recall a complicated wood working project where for the life of me I could not work out the solution. Another situation that stumped me recently was trying to navigate the streets of Paris. Oy vey! Between the language difference that made reading street signs difficult, the meandering streets, and the uniform buildings I had a difficult time.


When the solution is not quickly evident or one lacks experience in solving similar problems, novel and complicated scenarios can become frustrating and downright unpleasant. Extraneous distractions can completely short circuit problem solving.


Another complication associated with thinking is that it is uncertain and even prone to error. So let’s see, slow, arduous, and error prone – not much of a selling point for rational thought.


These realities are responsible for us tending to avoid thinking when we can get away with it. So if this is true, how do we get through life? The answer is that we rely to a significant extent on memory including the adaptive unconscious. Willingham states:

“For the vast majority of decisions you make, you don’t stop to consider what you might do, reason about it, anticipate possible consequences, and so on. You do take such steps when faced with a new problem, but not when faced with a problem you’ve already encountered many times. That’s because one way that your brain saves you from having to think is by changing. If you repeat the same task again and again, it will eventually become automatic; your brain will change so that you can complete the task without thinking about it.”

In other words, exposure and repetition brings the task into the realm of the intuitive brain – the fast and frugal mind behind the locked door. And this adaptive unconscious is entirely dependent on memory.


Memory, it is important to note, is a multidimensional function involving working memory and long-term memory. This is a simplification of the process mind you, but it will do for this discussion. Working memory houses the information that is the focus of your active attention regardless of the source of that information (e.g., drawn from the immediate environment or recollections of past events). These memories are within your awareness and are the focus of your attention. Long term memory, which lies outside your awareness functions as a vast warehouse of your factual and procedural knowledge.


When you need the details contained in long-term memory, you pull them from this passive warehouse into your active working memory. Thinking, as we know it, occurs when there is a collaborative effort combining input from the environment with knowledge stores from your long-term memory. Successful thinking requires effective strategies for combining these two sources of input. In other words, you have to know how to think – how to problem solve. This procedural knowledge is essentially a recipe that is itself stored within long-term memory.


It is complicated, but this is why we do better when tasked with familiar problems – because we have experiential knowledge and procedural knowledge that we can readily employ. Novel problems tend to be more challenging because we lack a recipe and/or cogent memories to assist us in problem resolution.


This is why practice is so important when one wants to become proficient at something – repetition increases efficacy, ease, and ultimately how automatic subconscious responding can become. Learning to ski, golf, or drive a car are initially quite difficult (a lot of novel thinking is mandated) but as one gets more and more practice these skills become more refined and fluid.


It is important to note that effective thinking is dependent not on just having procedural knowledge (a recipe) but also on having factual knowledge. So although critical thinking is important, it is equally critical to be knowledgeable. Being widely read and having a vast storehouse of knowledge is crucial to effective thinking and is likely to make snap judgments more accurate and rational thought faster, more precise, and less arduous.


The finite capacity of our working memory is yet another factor that impinges on one’s ability to think. Most of us are familiar with the experience of information overload, which is indicative of an overloaded working memory. I experience this phenomena after two full days at a professional conference or even when trying to solve multiple digit long division in my head. For example try diving 753 by 13 in your head. This is difficult because we are not adept at storing much organized data in working memory. Anyways, if working memory is overloaded, one’s ability to think is compromised.


So why is it that despite the arduous nature of rational thought, that we are drawn to mental challenges? Why do people enjoy games like chess, suduko, crossword puzzles, framegames, and so on? Why, if we’re not good at thinking, do we seek out mental challenges that actively engage thinking? Willingham suggests that “mental work appeals to us because it offers the opportunity for that pleasant feeling when it succeeds.”


Success is the crucial variable within the pursuit of mental challenges. Problems that are either too easy or too difficult are unlikely to be attended to. Puzzles that challenge, but that do not overtax one’s capacity are likely to offer that reinforcing “pleasant feeling” associated with success. In reality this is a behavioral paradigm. Again, Willingham notes:

“…when you size up a problem as very difficult, you are judging that you’re unlikely able to solve it, and therefore unlikely able to get the satisfaction that would come with the solution. So there is inconsistency in claiming that people avoid thought and in claiming that people are naturally curious – curiosity prompts people to explore new ideas and problems but when they do, they quickly evaluate how much mental work it will take to solve the problem. If it’s too much or too little, people stop working on the problem if they can.”

Willingham’s intent in his article was to help teacher’s understand that learning is hard and frankly aversive for many students because of how they are taught. He provided specific strategies for helping teachers plan appropriately and teach in a way that fosters a love of learning. The key is finding that magical Goldilock’s Zone – where the work is neither too easy or too hard – it needs to be just right.


Developing an understanding of these concepts is crucial for anyone interested in learning, teaching, or in becoming a more effective thinker or doer. Here are just a couple of things to “keep in mind:”

  • Read a lot – build the stores in your long-term memory
  • Experience a lot – build those same stores.
  • Diversify your exposure. Expand your stores.
  • Practice a lot – if you want to get better at a particular skill – practice, practice, practice!
  • If something is too hard – don’t give up. Instead back up a bit – work on fundamental skills – refine your procedural skills. Find your level of competence and slowly raise the bar.


We need not be victims of evolution and the subsequent configuration of our brains. Just as we can proactively upgrade our adaptive unconscious, so too can we adapt our rational thought.


Willingham, D. (2009). Why Don’t Students Like School? Because the Mind is Not Designed for Thinking. American Educator. Spring Issue.