We have a limited amount of mental energy and the usage depends on whether we are using System 1 or System 2
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel Prize winner in Economics; senior scholar and author of many psychology books. One of his best works is Thinking Fast And Slow.
In this book, Kahneman explains how the brain is intuitive and loves to respond quickly to situations. But there is also a part of the brain that is more thoughtful, analytical, and takes time to solve problems and situations.
Kahneman contends that there is a part of the brain that acts as the auto response system. He called this part of the brain System 1. There is another part of the brain that Kahneman refers to as System 2. This is the part of the brain that uses rational and logical thinking. Neuroscientists tell us that we are mostly in the System 1 frame of thinking.
Examples of System 1 and System 2 thinking are as follows:
If I asked what is 2 multiplied by 2, one would be able to answer without thinking much. This is a System 1 response. If, however, the problem presented is 24 multiplied by 72, System 1 would not be able to respond.
We must appeal to System 2 to solve this problem using long multiplication. Of course, this is assuming calculators are not provided. The “smart” part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex would guide us on how to solve the second arithmetic problem.
Certain professions would typically use System 1. A pilot, for example, does not need to think about how to fly an aircraft each time he is in the pilot’s seat. Similarly, a teacher would typically use System 1 to teach.
Limited mental energy
Even a physician is also normally using System 1 thinking. The good news is that System 1 uses much less mental energy than System 2. Professor Roy Baumeister from the University of Princeton introduced in 1998, the concept of ego depletion.
Professor Baumesiter contended that the brain only has limited mental energy. When we wake up each morning, our energy level, assuming a good and full night sleep, is at its maximum.
As we progress during the day, we draw on this mental energy for every activity, be it System 1 activity (for example, driving to the office) or System 2 activity (solving a complex problem). Baumesiter suggests that System 2 activities use a lot more energy than System 1. We tire more easily if we are using System 2. Baumesiter calls this process of drawing down on our mental energy, ego depletion.
When we are ego depleted, we tend to make rash decisions, and mistakes and generally are in a sub-optimal state of mind. Three other neuroscientists tested the impact of ego depletion in the decision-making process.
Professors Shai Danziger, Jonathan Levav and Liora Avanim-Pesso studied the rulings of 1,112 parole hearings in Israel. And they found that those who had their hearings early in the morning or early in the afternoon received more favourable outcomes.
They reasoned that this was because the mental energy levels of the judges were higher at this point. The judges tended to spend more time analysing each case (System 2 activity) when they were not ego depleted. As their energy levels depleted, they did not spend enough time understanding the complexities of the cases and hence ruled against the petitioner.
Making tough decisions
What can we learn from ego depletion and System 1 and 2? Well, there are a few best practices we can adopt to ensure that we are at our best frame of mind. Some of these are more easily implemented; some would be more challenging.
Firstly, when planning your day, mentally ask yourself, which are System 1 activities and which are System 2 activities? Try not to bunch all the System 1 tasks together.
At the same time, do not leave System 2 activities for later in the day when there is a risk of ego depletion. If there is a difficult discussion or decision to be made, schedule it for early in the day.
Secondly, avoid making tough decisions when you could be ego depleted. We are unlikely to adopt rational thinking and may rely on System 1 for a decision.
Remember, System 1 is efficient, quick and needs minimum effort. There will be a great temptation to rely subconsciously on System 1. Best way is to be aware of this situation.
Thirdly, take short breaks. A 15-minute break can rebuild our energy levels – not to the same extent as a full night’s sleep but it still helpful in recharging the mental energy battery. The chart below summarises a few best practises to manage ego depletion.
I would also like to share the results of some interesting work carried out by Microsoft on the importance of having short breaks to build resilience and mental energy.
A couple of years ago, Microsoft experimented to test the impact on the brain of attending meetings without having an in-between break meeting. They asked a group of volunteers in Microsoft to wear a special cap, an electroencephalogram cap, and asked the volunteers to attend back-to-back meetings without having a break.
They analysed the brain activity of these volunteers. They found that the stress levels of these volunteers increased significantly in the second and third meetings (see chart below).
The red and yellow shaded areas show that part of the brain is under stress.
The following week, they asked the same group of volunteers to repeat the exercise but this time to take 15-minute in-between break meetings. During this period, they could listen to music, go for a walk or do any other activity which would help them relax.
They then looked at the brain activity and with the help of a designer charted the impact on the brain of this approach. The results are in the chart below.
The contrast is very clear. The blue signifies that the brain is in parasympathetic mode (i.e. normal calm mode). Insufficient rest for the brain, especially when attending System 2-type activities can create stress on the brain.
The researchers also charted the activity level in the pre-frontal cortex (that part of the brain used to rational thinking). They found that the frontal asymmetry score of the volunteers was higher when they had breaks than without breaks.
At our creative best
This score is typically used to measure the level of engagement by participants in an activity. This means the volunteers were more engaged in those meetings where breaks were allowed.
Can we identify when we are in System 1 and when we are in System 2? The answer is yes. Here are some examples for System 1 behaviour when dealing with an issue:
• We are unwilling to change or consider another view;
• We pushback on any alternative suggestion;
• We look for reasons why we can’t adopt a different way of doing something;
• We make statements such as “this is not me” or “I can’t do this.”
If we are stuck in System 1 thinking, how can we get out of this and move into System 2 thinking? The best method is to adopt what is called the Five Why’s. This is a technique where you ask a question Why five times?
You can apply this to yourself or another individual you believe is stuck in System 1. For example, if a person responds to the situation by saying, “This is not for me,” ask them why it is not for them. And when they offer an answer, ask another Why the question? The brain will slowly shift from System 1 thinking to System 2 thinking.
Finally, it should be noted that we are not just in System 1 or System 2. When we are not in either system the brain is in what is called the Default Mode Network (DMN). When we are in the DMN, various brain parts are activated.
We are not in problem-solving mode here but interestingly, we are at our creative best when in the DMN.
How many good ideas have come to us whilst in the bath or shower? If you are not convinced, remember the story about Archimedes? This is what Wikipedia tells us about that famous eureka moment.
“Eureka! Eureka! Supposed to have been his cry, jumping naked from his bath and running in the streets, excited by a discovery about water displacement to solve a problem about the purity of a gold crown.” – The Health
Tony Pereira is an Independent Consultant and Founder of SuperTrouper365