Have you ever had the feeling that something was wrong before you’ve actually spotted a potential threat? Maybe the hairs stood up on the back of your neck and you became sharply aware of your surroundings or you had a “gut feeling” that you couldn’t explain. You could call it instinct, experience or some kind of sixth sense but have you ever wondered exactly what is happening in those instances?
Well, it’s all down to your brain’s “hostile environment surveillance process” – made up of your inbuilt surveillance system and the two distinct processing routes that your brain uses to deal with the data that it collects.
Your surveillance system operates constantly
We all have a surveillance system that is constantly monitoring our environment in order to maintain our safety and wellbeing. Fortunately, we don’t have to think about this. It operates below the surface of our consciousness. Crucially, your surveillance system is always on. You cannot turn it off.
So what happens to all the data being collected? Well, this is where the two mental processing routes come into play – described by Nobel prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman as “Fast Thinking” and “Slow Thinking”. Fast Thinking is the initial processor of the information collected by our surveillance system. “Slow Thinking” is more deliberate and logical. Slow Thinking is our “executive function” – the “aware” or conscious thinking that rationalizes, analyzes and sets goals and priorities. It is the part we normally think of as “our thoughts.”
As you’re sitting reading this article, your inbuilt surveillance system is scanning your surroundings – everything you see, hear, think, feel, imagine, taste, smell – and the “Fast Thinking” processor then filters out what is unimportant, presenting what it considers relevant for you to become aware of via Slow Thinking. All our conscious thoughts are therefore influenced by subconscious Fast Thinking.
Deciding what to pay attention to
Like the surveillance system, Fast Thinking never stops. It sifts through and processes all the incoming data and prioritises those aspects that require immediate attention. If it didn’t do this we would soon become overwhelmed by data! The incoming data is associated with everything you already know and have experienced. An association is simply a connection between any two ideas or experiences and, because we all have unique experiences, our associations will differ. For example, one person may associate a bag of rubbish at the side of the road with annoying fly-tippers whilst a security professional may have a completely different association.
Your Fast Thinking can search through literally millions of pieces of data at the same time. It has the ability to find patterns that Slow Thinking cannot. One small piece of data may seem insignificant to our Slow Thinking analysis, but in conjunction with many other “insignificant” pieces, can present a pattern to our Fast Thinking that, put together, signifies threat. Fast Thinking then serves up a solution to your consciousness as an impulse to say or do something specific.
The “Fast Thinking” process determines the initial response to threat
When your surveillance system has detected a potential threat the stakes are high. Rapidly moving events mean you don’t have much time to make sense of multiple, confusing data so Fast Thinking drastically limits the amount of information we have to deal with by focusing on the main aspect of the threat.
An example of Fast Thinking is sometimes referred to on the battlefield as “coup d’oeil,” described by Napoleon as “being able to see at a glance the possibilities offered by the terrain.”
An everyday example
A simple example of the whole process is one that most people can relate to – the individual with a fear of spiders – I’m fairly sure we all know someone who has this! You know that that person can walk into a room and become aware of a spider before anyone else. Even when thinking about other things, or sitting relaxing, their surveillance system immediately picks up “danger” cues such as a dark spot on a wall, a tickling sensation or a bit of fluff being caught in the wind. Their Fast Thinking associates this sensory data with the sight or movement of a spider and causes an immediate impulse to “evade the threat”.
The Slow Thinking process then takes the data to the brain’s cortex where the threat is evaluated more carefully and rationally. On discovering it’s not a spider after all, the alarm is switched off and the individual’s levels of arousal return to normal – this may take a few minutes and during this time they are easily re-alarmed.
As with the example above, we can assess something instantly through the rapid cognition of Fast Thinking but our interpretation is not always accurate – Fast Thinking is using all our past experiences, lessons we’ve learned (particularly high-emotion ones) and our environment in order to form an opinion on the data based on our associations.
Fast Thinking sends its message of danger initially through the body so we become aware of threat by way of a physical message – the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, you get that “gut” feeling, our bodies take reflex evasive action. You may not be able to explain exactly what is wrong about a situation but nevertheless you just know it. Even after the incident you may not always have the full answer as to what was wrong. It just “felt” wrong.
You do not have conscious control over your Fast Thinking.
Unlike Slow Thinking, Fast Thinking is not an executive decision-maker, so it doesn’t judge the associations it makes. Its purpose is short-term survival and this need for immediate action on detecting a threat trumps everything else – even if the threat later turns out not to be real. Act first to survive (Fast Thinking) so that you can ask questions (Slow Thinking) later.
In his book, “Blink,” author Malcolm Gladwell, details how inaccurate Fast Thinking led to the fatal shooting by police of unarmed Amadou Diallo and contends that “good people’s decisions under the fast-moving, high stress conditions of rapid cognition (Fast Thinking) is a function of training and rules and rehearsal.”
Fast Thinking’s jobs are to prioritise, plan swiftly and make rapid decisions (based on the available information and previous experience) and to reduce the amount of data being passed to Slow Thinking. It is instinctive, or “fast and frugal” as described by psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer. However, if stress levels become extreme, then this reduction of data being offered becomes similarly extreme to the point of no longer being helpful. Too much physiological arousal in an incident can render us useless or even dangerous. Rehearsal of incidents under increasing amounts of pressure can reduce the likelihood of this.
Like aerial antennae, Fast Thinking can be also be tuned to make better associations. Associations are stronger when they are more frequently used or when created during a moment of high intensity. Practice, training and experience mean we are better able to understand and interpret the impressions picked up by our surveillance system. Stress inoculation programmes, training, military manoeuvres, police drills and practice scenarios – all these attempt to ensure our Fast Thinking has the best possible conditions and data to draw on when we are in this automatic state.
The rapid processing can lead to perceptions that time has slowed down. Robert describes a moment of Fast Thinking during a car chase:
“We were hurtling up the motorway to get behind a car that had been stolen – the driver had a weapon and was firing it at police. We were doing about 120 miles per hour up the motorway and as we came round a sweeping bend, we hit 3 lines of traffic because we hadn’t been told that a rolling block had been put on the motorway ahead and it was not very far, there were not many options. We couldn’t have braked, we were going too fast and too quick and to me, it’s almost as if it’s happening in slow motion. It all seemed very, very clear. I thought “Steer right, steer right, steer right! Stay where you are! Go for the gap!” To me I can still remember it now and I can see the gap and I knew we’d fit through it.”
So was that reflexive response instinct or experience or some kind of sixth sense as to the right thing to do? Well, it was certainly an instinctual response in that it was a Fast Thinking process, and that is subconscious, but Robert’s years of experience meant that his arousal levels were kept at an optimal level experience. Being trained in advanced driving techniques means his Fast Thinking had chance to draw upon good survival information. The brain’s natural processes and learned experience combine to create the best “inbuilt hostile environment surveillance process”. And its sole purpose is your survival.
Dr. Liz Royle
Suggested further reading:
“Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell
“Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman
“Gut feelings: Short cuts to better decision making” by Gerd Gigerenzer
“Mental mobilisation processes in critical incident stress situations” by Atle Dyregrov, Roger Solomon and Carl Fredrik Bassoe