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The human brain: all systems go!

Humans intuitively believe that we are in control of ourselves, that a "me" inside each of us takes charge of what we do, think, and say. But no wizard pulls appropriate levers behind the curtain of that fantastic biological machine called the brain. Instead, the brain is simply a network of neurons communicating. Our every movement, thought, desire, and run iii results from this. So does our ability to learn by observation and plan for the future. In short, despite the lack of a master controller in our gray matter, the talking neurons in our brain make us human. This is good news.

The bad news is that the human brain isn't perfect. Although mindful of limitations (and abnormalities of the brain, we often assume that ours is largely infallible anyway. For example, while we admit that we don't remember every single event in our lives, we simultaneously declare that most of our memories are 10o percent correct. In act, the power and flexibility of our brain that allow us to understand and adapt also lead to inaccurate memories as well as rash thoughts and bad judgments.

It can be useful to view the brain as a dual processer, as several recent books demons' rale, including. Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Princeton University psychologist Daniel Kahneman and Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness (2009) by University or Chicago behavioral scientist Richard H. Thaler and Harvand Law School professor Cass R. Sunstein. Many brain scientists refer to the process that handles most of our emotions, thoughts, and immediate decisions as System 1, or the Automatic Brain. System 2, or the Reflective Brain, is what many of us want hi call "me": the process that we're aware of that permits us to order pizza toppings, compose love songs, and study quantum physics. Thus, System 1 largely occurs unconsciously and effortlessly, while System 2 requires intervention and effort.


The interaction of System I and System 2 is responsible for our perception of sell and life. System 1, our autopilot, always operates in die background, forever reacting, which is good, but frequently overreacting, which usually is bad. We can override System 1 with System 2, but unless we do so. System 1 makes many decisions and emotional reactions for us, often without our direct awareness. So additional bad news is that we cannot stop System 1; ii contains no oil' switch. Plus, System 2 is basically lazy and often lets System 1 carry the day with only superficial checks. But additional good news is that, as stated above, we can prompt System 2 to monitor System 1 and step in when applicable. For example, System 1 often overreacts to negative feelings like a wife nagging her hubby if he mowed the grass as promised. Research shows that it can take live or more positive events to counteract one negative event. On the other hand, if we activate System 2, we recognize that the event is minor and doesn't deserve such an extreme negative response.

Another major way that System 1 affects our daily lives is by creating stories to explain the information ii receives. System I especially likes stories recounted by a trusted source such as parents, teachers, or other authorities. In fact, even when given only a few details about something. System 1 not only seeks the inherent tale but also draws a conclusion about it. For example, if conclude that the individual would be an ineffective leader. In these snap assessments, based solely on the data available at the moment, System I utilizes a phenomenon that Kahneman calls What You See Is All There Is. Furthermore, this story telling function of System I and even the rapid change in the story happen with virtually no cognitive effort or discomfort.


System 2 also likes stories. It "listens" to the conclusions from System I and, if they come across as reasonable, will not interject. However, we can turn on System 2 when not satisfied by the story. For example, asking why someone is an effective or ineffective leader compels System 2 to consider the clues, challenge them, apply logic, search our memory and the like before drawing its own conclusions. Thus, while System I is limited to What You See Is All There Is. System 2 has much more information at its disposal. These operations from System 2 require cognitive exertion, which many of us tend to avoid. However, posing this type of question "why?" is one method of training our brain to work better. Another is to examine the causal stories generated by System I to explain the often random events that make up much of our lives, even when little or no evidence supports these stories. For instance. System 1 looks for a reason other than luck to explain why we escaped a major car accident with only minor injuries e.g., "Someone was watching over me")

System l's automatic processing poses other problems. Much of System l's activities derive from our earliest ancestors who rightly concerned themselves with sheer survival. Those who contemplated whether a tiger moving through the grass was hungry or angry instead of reflexively keeping a wide berth of the beast likely wound up dead. Those who responded as if their lives were at stake increased the likelihood of surviving and reproducing. In contemporary society; of course, threats are usually less dire, such as arguments with the boss. Unfortunately; System 1 cannot distinguish between a disappointed supervisor and a prowling tiger. It treats each perceived peril as an attacking tiger and, thus, often overreacts. True, System 1 may not literally force us to run away as if from a predator but our nervous system responds in much the same way: increasing our heart rate and breathing and rushing blood to the extremities in case there is a need for a fight-or-flight response. It is well-established that this constant reaction from our nervous system causes long-term stress and health complications such as cardiovascular disease. System 2 can be activated to calm System 1, though. Simply asking ourselves why we are reacting to something our boss said can encourage System 2 to consider the event from a less emotional perspective.

System 1 also creates a very egocentric view of, well, everything. For example, once something is "ours" house, satellite TV, a girlfriend. System 1 creates a strong attachment to it and we are reluctant to let it go. This reluctance is called loss aversion. Humans are particularly loss averse when making decisions about money. In fact, loss aversion helps explain people's reluctance to pay taxes. System 1 is not well-equipped to handle complex situations such as the necessity of taxes. Instead, System 1 reacts to that basic feeling of "mine!" and rebels against any loss of money. Upon activation, System 2 can consider why society needs taxes and make a more logical, reasoned, and farseeing decision about them.

Basically; System 2 can be viewed as the purposeful. attentive processing while System 1 is the automatic, causal-seeking, it-is-all-about-me processing Whenever we try to explain to ourselves or others why we react or think in a certain way, we activate System 2. Unfortunately, it isn't always easy to discern why we think or feel certain ways. System 2 is not the perfect rational being we might hope for. Even when activated, System 2 is limited by our willingness to question ourselves and to recognize that our thoughts and behaviors are influenced by ideas that we have little control over. System 2 can also make mistakes because it doesn't know any better. But education helps provide System 2 with more information to make its decisions. Of course, as we all know, education is not easy and since System 2 is basically lazy, it is an ongoing effort to encourage it to learn.

Although System 1 can mislead us. it is important to note dial System 1 generally responds correctly. It rapidly and accurately interprets facial emotions, recognizes unusual events, generates an often valid reason for the emotion in another's face or for the unusual event, and offers solutions. In short. System 1 keeps us safe and alive. That is the good news. The bad news, as mentioned above, is that contemporary society sometimes tricks System 1 into misinterpreting events as life-threatening or into overreacting to situations to defend itself. Unfortunately; System 1 does not create a warning signal when providing unreliable responses. Instead, we must train ourselves to be cognizant of the times when System 1 seems to fail or overreact. Once we recognize those situations, we can further train ourselves to activate System 2. The easiest way to encourage System 2 to step up is to ask ourselves "why?"

System 1 and System 2 are convenient ways to frame how the human brain works. However, there are no specific parts of the brain that equal them. Instead, it is best to think of the systems as processes resulting from thousands of interconnected neurons communicating. Once we begin to consider how Systems 1 and 2 interact to create our day-today thoughts, choices, and experiences, it is not uncommon to think that in many ways it is easier not to know. That is System 1 talking. Yes, ignorance can lie bliss.


June J. Pitcher is the Alumni Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Clemson University, her Phi Kappa Phi chapter. She spent the 2011-12 academic year as the Fulbright Scholar at University of Vienna and the Sigmund Freud Museum and has taught courses on the human brain for more than 25 years. Pilcher publishes regularly on stress, fatigue, shiftwork, and occupational well-being in industry standards such as Chronobiology International, Psychological Science, International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Psychophysiology, Sleep, and Aviation, Space and Environmental Medicine. She has been principal investigator on research grants cumulatively worth more than $2 million. Earlier in her career, Pilcher was on the faculty at Bradley University and was a research psychologist and captain at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. She earned degrees from University of Southern Mississippi (B.A. in psychology and B.S. in computer science) and University of Chicago (Ph.D. in biopsychology). Email her at
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Author:Pilcher, June J.
Publication:Phi Kappa Phi Forum
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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