Thinking About Thinking

Most of us pride ourselves on being rational beings who think before we act. Indeed even the word think suggests consciousness – but are we really as rational as we believe ourselves to be?

Two recent books that deal with how our unconscious thinking and instincts influence our decisions are Blink by Malcolm Gladwell and Risk by Dan Gardner.

Both authors contend that our decision making is based on a combination of conscious and unconscious thought processes.  Gardner calls these two modes Head and Gut.

…Gut is unconscious thought and its defining quality is speed. Gut doesn’t need an encyclopaedia to figure out what to do when something moves in the long grass…Head is like a bright but lazy teenager capable of great things if he would just get out of bed. (1)

Both Gladwell and Gardner agree that our unconscious decisions appear to us as if we are using our conscious mind and not our gut. Ironically enough, decisions like these feel particularly definite and reliable.  And while sometimes indeed these feelings-which-present-as-thoughts are reliable, in order to make really good decisions we need to use all of our capacities.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, also recognises this twin-engined thought process and like Gladwell and Gardner, attributes this unconscious thought process more to our ancient survival tool-kit rather than our sophisticated modern needs. (2)

The first step then in learning to think for ourselves is realising that our thinking is multi-layered and includes information from both our conscious and unconscious processes.  To quote Daniel Goleman again,

Intuition works best when a gut sense can be built on other data. (3)

The important thing about our unconscious decision and thought processes is not whether they are right or wrong but that we recognise them and try to use our conscious decision making faculty to harness and best use whatever Gut brings to the party.

TomorrowThe Stories We Tell Ourselves

(1) Dan Gardner, Risk – The Politics and Science of Fear. Virgin Books, 2009, p. 32

(2) Daniel Goleman, The New Leaders, Little Brown and Company, 2002, p. 28

(3) ibid, p.43


  1. I am becoming more and more interested in the brain and the gut. Have you heard of the brain gut axis? Lots of people with GI illness eg IBS, crohns etc.. also have a disproportionate depression incidence much above the downer of having a chronic illness.

    Individuals with schizo/autism have frequent GI problems.

    So thinking with the brain and the gut as concepts in my mind has more kudos because of these associations when things go wrong.

    1. I haven’t heard of the brain gut axis as such but it makes sense when you think about it. People commonly have ‘gut’ based reactions to high fear – stomach ache, diarrhoea, vomiting, so it is logical that there would be a ‘gut’ level manifestation of chronic emotions like depression and anxiety. Have you read the research that links the immune system to schizophrenia? e.g.

      When you think about it as the brain is an organ (like the kidneys or the heart) it is logical that it’s function (even thinking and consciousness) should not only be influenced by direct brain-based organic issues but as it belongs to a system then surely it can be influenced by/influence other parts of the system?

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