I heard about Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow from friend and ePatient superstar e-Patient Dave. It’s the first, what I’ll call, real book I’ve dug into since finishing my MHA in January.

And, it has blown me away!

In Thinking, Kahneman outlines our brains’ two basic modes of thinking: system 1 and system 2. System 1 deals with instincts, gut reactions and heuristics. System 2 is the slower (Kahneman says lazy) part of our mind which is capable of more complicated reasoning.

We read, most often, through system 1 which recognizes words quickly, as patterns. System 1 is why we are open to suggestion (your left leg feels a little numb right now, doesn’t it?….see!).

System 2 is the part of our brain which can reason through fact and fiction. But only when we engage it. Kahneman demonstrates system 2 early in the book by having readers write a three digit number and mentally begin adding 1 to each digit. According to Kahneman we actually have a physiological response —our pupils dilate as we engage system 2 to work through the basic math.

Here’s what I’ve found most interesting:

System 1 works best with absolutes. Kahneman refers to this is WYSIATI, what you see is all there is. For example, we see a label reading 90% fat free as positive and forget there is also 10% which is fat. We see 90% fat free, that must be all that matters.

System 2 is more conscious and can hold multiple options at the same time.

This ties in to my growing understanding of pluralism —the concept of two or more truths coexisting. For instance, a patient can be both hopeful and scared at the same time. The challenge is, according to Kahneman, only system 2, the more lazy part of the mind, is capable of understanding that both emotions can coexist. Our tendency is to rely on system 1 which focuses on what is in front of us. In the case of the patient above, it may be a look of fear on their face. Boom, that’s it. System 1 identifies fear and that’s what we go with. The patient is scared and that’s what I’ll deal with.

Without engaging system 2, we might not also identify hopefulness, or optimism, or doubt, or any other coexisting emotions.

These two systems are not limited to how we process perceptions about emotions. We face the same challenges in examining facts, causation and data in general. In fact, that is what much of the book deals with.

Kahneman has a gifted ability, much like Malcolm Gladwell, to distill complex science into what almost feels like common sense. Despite its length, it is a quick, enjoyable read.

You can get it on Amazon here: Thinking, Fast and Slow