Two speeds for thought?

Pretentious turtle and dumb rabbit

In psychology, theories with double thought processes generally oppose unconscious automatic mode and conscious controlled mode. They were popularized in particular by Daniel Kahneman in ‘System 1 / System 2, The Two Speeds of Thought‘ (2012). If the book has been so successful, it is because it is easy to produce the dichotomy. Ask an audience this question: “Who wants to be bigger than an ox?”. Everyone replies in chorus: “The frog !!!”. Then ask, “What does this allegory mean?”. Everyone looks at each other, waiting for the one who will speak to express one of the many possible opinions. Spontaneity gives way to rumination.

System 1 (S1) has different names: intuitive, heuristic, habit, automatism. Its spontaneity, even its haste, causes some biases that Kahneman detailed. My goal here is not to comment on them one by one. The term bias is inappropriate… because it comes from system 2 (S2), a little too concerned in the case. S2, slower, is responsible for filling the gaps in S1 and back-checking it. It inevitably criticizes these automatisms; that is its raison d’être. Is it always justified? The pseudo-biases of S1, universal in humans, are the result of evolutionary selection. S2, which is achieving a more complex and recent integration, needs hindsight to validate its claims.

Time-tested biases

We also have, with psychiatric illnesses, many examples of the outbreaks that await when S1 does not follow its usual highways. It is it that contains the structure essential to our psychological stability. It is important to know its tendencies that Kahneman calls biases, but ridding them of any pejorative labels. That these trends have emerged from millennia of evolution deserves a positive rating.

The division of ways of thinking is teleological. It is an observation of the mind by the psychological side. Does it correspond to a neurological separation? Can neuroscience confirm the reality of this division? Some of the dual-process theories are based on the primitive brain topped by the neocortex. The interest of this approach is to speak of ‘hierarchy’ rather than ‘bifurcation’ or ‘competition’. S2 is the knight riding the beastly S1. But how do they interact? Where are the reins? There is a lack of an ontological theory which can join our psychological investigations.

S1/S2, a crossing of complexity

This is the whole point of Stratium, a theory developed on this site. It presents the mind as a self-organized process. Just as genetics is the stable memory of a self-organization whose less rigid trace is found in S1, S1 is itself the structural memory of an organization whose trace is seen in the most imaginative S2. Stratium actually stretches the hierarchy far beyond this simplistic two-stage design. The integration of significant elements of the environment, indicated by sensory regularities, is done through a very large number of levels of information. The separation S1/S2 owes its sharpness to the conscious workspace, which contrasts between the accessible part of the mind to the consciousness itself, and the rest of the neural edifice.

In the conscious workspace connects the function that I call Observer, at the heart of system 2, supported anatomically by the prefrontal cortex. The Observer is a system of logical codification and evaluation of the higher concepts present in conscious space. Unlike S1, the basis of the Stratium hierarchy, it is not mostly innate. It is formed over the course of learning when the mind receives it. Otherwise it is only summary observational mimicry. Equipped with transposable coherence such as logic, it can assemble basic concepts into a continuous fabric, whose patterns become characteristic of the evolved personality. This is how the scientific S2 becomes clearly recognizable. It writes the new representations and rewrites the old ones with its inflexible mathematics.

The opening of a neurological loop

Stratium’s most remarkable presentation of our mind is this: the nervous system is basically a feedback loop that integrates the regularities of the environment in order to best adapt behavior for survival. Natural selection had this side effect: the brain is not reduced to a product of the environment. It tries to take control of it, which further improves its survival. When physical security is ensured, it is the survival of superior concepts that becomes the evolutionary engine. Their memory is no longer genetic but oral, bookish, then digital. There is indeed a heredity of S2, inscribed outside our chromosomes. This must be taken into account when judging one’s own independence, regardless of our expertise.

The primary feedback loop of the nervous system is the sensitivo-motor reflex. This loop has opened, in our distant ascendants of the animal kingdom, on new neural groups. They processed the regularities of the signals transiting through this loop, integrated the neighboring loops into regional reflexes. The muscles were able to coordinate with each other, but also with the other organs, responsible for energy resources, defense, reproduction. The retro-active loop has become hierarchical. It still works on the primary level, but can be modulated by the upper levels. These censors are themselves likely to self-organize into higher control. There is no shortage of candidate neurons in the vast field created by the multiplication of these cells. The activity of highly stressed neurons creates extensions that connect to their neighbors, then to more distant sectors. Anatomical and hormonal paths guide this growth to make it less random.

S2 controller and agitator

S1 is the spontaneous part of this self-organization. It is said to be unconscious but consciousness is, in terms of information levels, the supernatant part of the process, as it elevates its hierarchy. There is no anatomical displacement of conscious space. Each region of the brain sees the connections of its networks prune to reveal a hierarchical structure intrinsic to the regional function. Our experienced consciousness thus rises on an elevator of complexity, from birth to maturity. S2 is the prefrontal function that also gains levels. The adult Observer provides much more substantiated assessments than the child.

The mind stretches its complex dimension under the conscious workspace (S1) and above (S2). Thought is not two-speed, it is hierarchical. Both systems are indissoluble. S2 without S1 would have nothing to evaluate, to correct. An isolated prefrontal cortex would produce an inert mind, unable to start any action. The Observer is mainly used to apply new abstract parameters to the environment. Existing representations, which do not take them into account, become unsatisfactory. New conflicts are emerging between them. S2 is as much a creator of conflict as it is of control. It thus continues to dramatically elevate the complexity of the mind.

Each time we change levels, another universe opens up to us, embedded on the previous one and yet different. Conceptual glare. The brain is a mini ecosystem of representations, with its predators and fragile creatures. But it is the constant competition for survival that ultimately forms our most enduring ideas.

Bridges over the loop

There are no two systems of thought but a neurological feedback loop that gradually opens in the neural field. This expansion ends in the conscious workspace and its abstract functions. Most of our bodily reactions use shortcuts at the beginning of this complex staging, which gives them a useful liveliness. While social behaviors and long-term forecasts support the slowness imposed by the travel to the end of the loop. Access to conscious functions results in the feeling of slower, reflective thinking succeeding intuitive and spontaneous thinking. But these are levels of information surimposed in the loop, each integrating the results of the previous ones into a higher complexity, before the final idea goes down the chain to turn into basic motor impulses. The most wonderful of thoughts needs a physical connection to come to fruition.


Dual-Process Theories of Higher Cognition: Advancing the Debate, Jonathan St. B. T. Evans, Keith E. Stanovich, 2013

1 thought on “Two speeds for thought?”

  1. Well, the ‘rabbid’ has greater need to think faster. He has no body armor. We presume torpidity in the turtle’s thought, matching the slowness of his movement. That may be a false presumption.


Leave a Comment

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.