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The Creativity of Dual Process “System 1″ Thinking

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I back away from conscious thought and turn the problem over to my unconscious mind. It will scan a broader array of patterns and find some new close fits from other information stored in my brain.” –Arthur Fry, Co-creator of the Post-it note

The idea that consciousness involves different streams of thought has a long history. Paul Bakan has shown that as early as the medieval writings in the Zohar, one of the books of the Jewish mystical biblical commentaries in the Kabala, one finds a distinction between two forms of cognitive thinking: hokma, or wisdom and binah, or intelligence. The former has been linked to the right brain and to synthetic mental processes, and the latter has been linked to the left brain and to analytic thought. This conception of a dual nature of ongoing mental processing is also traceable to the early flowering of neurological research and theory in the works of A.L. Wigan and J. Hughlings Jackson. This early work suggested that there might indeed be two forms of thinking, propositional or verbal-analytic and representational or what we might today call narrative or experiential.

While cerebral research in the latter half of the 20th Century focused relatively gross linkages of such forms of thought to left and right brain hemispheres, recent technological advances in brain imaging are suggesting a revival and resurgence of scientific explorations into both psychological-behavioral and neuroscience evidence bearing on possible dualities of ongoing conscious processes. Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes modern research on the two systems of the mind. “System 1” thought processes operate automatically, process information fast, are heavily influenced by context, biology and past experience, aid humans in mapping and assimilating newly acquired stimuli into preexisting knowledge structures, and are self-evidently valid (experience alone is enough for belief). In contrast, “System 2” thought processes are deliberately controlled, effortful, intentional, and require justification via logic and evidence.

While Kahneman’s book, and his research, has been influential in psychology and economics in helping us understand the fallibility of human reasoning and decision making, we think his emphasis on the fallibility of System 1 overlooks the important adaptive value of System 1 for creative thought and imagination. System 1 is a broad system, comprising evolutionary adaptive tendencies, domain-specific expertise acquired during an individual’s learning lifetime, episodic memories, gut feelings, and implicit learning capacities. Reflecting the diversity of System 1 processes, there are many different dual-process theories, and different theorists emphasize different aspects of System 1. While it’s certainly true that there are moments where our inability to use System 2 to override System 1 can lead to errors in reasoning and decision making, we also think there are crucial moments when one can fail to use System 1 to override System 2!

In a hot-off-the press article in Journal of Personality, Paul Norris and Seymour Epstein (a highly influential dual-process theorist and originator of the cognitive-experiential self-theory), found that an experiential thinking style (System 1), but not a rational thinking style (System 2) was positively associated with performance measures of creativity, humor, aesthetic judgment, and intuition, as well as self-report measures of empathy and social popularity. A rational thinking style was associated some measures of adjustment, and both thinking styles were positively related to personal growth. Interestingly, what people reported about their own thinking style tended to agree with other people’s observations of their thinking style. As Norris and Epstein note,

“The two systems have unique disadvantages as well as advantages. Thus, the rational system [System 2], although superior to the experiential system [System 1] in abstract thinking, is inferior in its ability to automatically and effortlessly direct everyday behavior, and the experiential system, although superior in directing everyday behavior is inferior in its ability to think abstractly, to comprehend cause-and-effect relations, to delay gratification, and to plan for the distant future. Since each system has equally important advantages and disadvantages, neither system can be considered superior to the other system.”

Similar ideas can also be found in new conceptualizations of human intelligence. According to the recent Dual-Process theory of Human Intelligence, neither mode of thought is absolutely more important than the other. Instead, the key to both intelligence and creativity is the ability to flexibly switch between different modes of thought depending on the task demands.

To put things in perspective, here’s a summary of a number of findings over the years showing the positive and negative attributes associated with a rational and experimental thinking style (adapted from the recent Norris and Epstein article):


What a terrific list of positive attributes to have! It would be nice to have all of the positive attributes, while minimizing the negative effects of each, no?

One of the wonders of System 1 is its ability to feed creative insights to System 2. This often happens precisely when System 2 is taking a rest. Kahneman calls it “lazy” to let down your System 2, but our interviews even with scientists suggest that it is “very hard” to sustain long sequences of abstract thought. Not only that, instead of being lazy, it may sometimes be genius. Many famous anecdotes exist about the benefits of incubation, or time away from a task, for coming up with creative insights to a problem. In recent years, scientific findings support the importance of letting the mind incubate.

In a recent study, Jonathan Smallwood and his colleagues found that participants who were given an easy task conducive to mind-wandering during an incubation period showed greater improvements in creativity compared to those who engaged in a demanding task, had quiet rest, or no break during the incubation period. In fact, the individuals who were induced to mind wander showed an improvement of 40% compared to their baseline level of creative performance! What’s going on here? The researchers raise the possibility that “mind-wandering may enhance creativity by increasing the likelihood of non-conscious associative processing, consistent with the spreading activation hypothesis for incubation effects.” In other words, when we allow our minds to wander, we may be increasing the chances that System 1 will make creative associations for us.

Of course, System 1 isn’t doing all the work. The most creative insights typically involve some sort of surprising interaction between the current contents of your working memory and the long-term memories stored in System 1. A recent fascinating experiment confirms this view. The researchers investigated the functional brain characteristics of participants while they engaged in a task involving the ability to constantly update the contents of working memory. None of their subjects had a history of neurological or psychiatric illness, and all had intact working memory abilities. They administered two different versions of the same working memory task during the fMRI scanning session, one version requiring much more concentration than the other.

Participants were asked to display their creativity in a number of ways: generating unique ways of using typical objects, imagining desirable functions in ordinary objects and imagining the consequences of “unimaginable things” happening. The creativity test they used has been linked in prior studies to Openness to Experience and frequency of visual hypnagogic experiences (e.g. lucid dreaming, hallucinations), which in turn have been associated with vividness of mental imagery.

The researchers found that the more creative the participant, the more activity in their default brain network was altered. The default network brain areas are most active when individuals are focused on the contents of System 1 (their internal stream of consciousness). In this study, creative individuals had the most difficulty suppressing the precuneus area of their default brain network while engaging in the more effortful working memory task. The precuneus is the area of the default network that typically displays the highest levels of activation during rest (when a person is not focusing on an external task). The precuneus has been linked to self-related mental representations and episodic memory retrieval.

How is this conducive to creativity? According to the researchers, “Such an inability to suppress seemingly unnecessary cognitive activity may actually help creative subjects in associating two ideas represented in different networks.” In other words, the most creative individuals were those that had the working memory abilities to solve the effortful task but also had an ‘open mind’ to allow the wandering thoughts coming in from System 1 to make creative connections. In a sense, these creative folks were simultaneously able to live in a dream state while concentrating on the outside world. That’s quite a juggling act, but creative people seem to be able to do it more fluidly than others!

Intriguingly, prior research has shown a similar inability to deactivate the default network among schizophrenic individuals and their relatives (who are more likely to have schizotypy). This doesn’t mean that mindwandering is necessarily pathological. The key to functional creativity is the ability to keep System 1’s internal stream of consciousness “on call” while being able to concentrate on an external task. It appears it’s conducive to creativity to go out of your mind just a little bit, just as long as you can eventually come back to reality.

Another recent study from Jonathan Schooler’s lab supports the importance of both thought processes for creativity. Individuals completed a creativity test requiring the ability to identify a word in common with other words. While they completed the task, they were caught zoning out by the experimenter, and were also given the chance to report when they caught themselves mind wandering. Participants also completed a measure of inhibition, requiring them to read aloud four short stories while ignoring certain portions of the text.

While zoning out was detrimental to creativity, those who caught themselves mind wandering performed best on a measure of creativity. Those catching themselves mind wandering also showed the highest levels of inhibitory control. These results are consistent with a recent study conducted by Jennifer McVay and Michael Kane, who found that those with the best inhibitory control are the ones who catch themselves mind wandering and have low zone out rates. This study goes beyond those findings though by also highlighting the importance of mindwandering: “This study suggests that both creative thought and mind-wandering may both depend on being able to gain mental distance from what you are doing while maintaining meta-awareness of the contents of imagination.” As Schooler and his colleagues note in a recent review, a number of difference research studies now suggest that mind wandering reflects these two crucial processes: the capacity to disengage attention from perception as well as the ability to notice the current contents of consciousness (“meta-awareness”). In other words, the ability to harness your System 1 thought processes in a way that is accessible to System 2. It’s all about the dynamic interaction of the two modes of human cognition.

There’s no doubt that Daniel Kahneman and his late colleague Amos Tversky have done a fine job cataloguing all the ways in which System 1 contributes to some of our biases in reasoning and problem-solving. But among Kahneman’s discussion of System 1’s contribution to the many errors found in human reasoning, we hope that the creativity of System 1 isn’t lost. As we mentioned in our earlier article, we don’t have to promote either System 1 or System 2. We can promote both. And in so doing, we are promoting true creativity — creativity that is both novel and useful. Put quite simply: we think System 1 deserves more love.

Scott Barry Kaufman and Jerome L. Singer About the Author: Dr. Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist specializing in the development of intelligence, creativity, and imagination in education, business, and society. Scott applies a variety of perspectives to come to a richer understanding and appreciation of all kinds of minds and ways of achieving greatness. He is Adjunct Assistant Professor of Psychology at New York University, Co-founder of The Creativity Post, and Senior Pedagogical Advisor of The Future Project. Follow on Twitter or Google+.

Dr. Jerome L. Singer is Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Yale University. He received his doctorate in Clinical Psychology in 1950 from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as training as a Psychoanalyst. He is a specialist in research on the psychology of imagination and daydreaming. Dr. Singer has authored articles on thought processes, imagery, personality, and psychotherapy, as well as on children's pretend play and the effects of television. Follow on Twitter @sbkaufman.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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