Two systems. One brain.
“A magician rehearses every bit of their act to make it look spontaneous. But improv has to be spontaneous and made to look like it’s been rehearsed.” Bob Bedore[i]
Twenty-two years ago, Bob Bedore, was in a bad place. At least his business was. As the owner of a theater in Salt Lake City, Utah, he ran a reasonably successful operation that included both stand up and traditional plays. But the theater often remained dark for weeks at a time in-between shows.
He needed a reliable filler that could bring in a regular audience at a moment’s notice. As an actor himself, he finally decided to try something that he’d learned in training years earlier. Something that had never existed in the state. Or even in any nearby states. Bob decided to bring improv to Utah.
At this point in the state’s history, people weren’t familiar with improv. It hadn’t become mainstream yet, and it was a struggle to get people to understand what it was and to make it viable. Improv theaters were only found in faraway locations like Chicago or the coasts.
So Bob started training actors and advertising his improv shows. At first, the shows were really just supposed to be a filler. But it soon became very apparent that the improv shows were outselling the plays. Bob no longer worried about the theater being dark. He now had a show that would light up his business for decades.
With this newfound success, Bob changed the name of the theater to “Quick Wits.”
“Oddly enough, the name of the theater was a spontaneous decision. I said it would be a name we would use for now because it kind of describes instant comedy. I planned to come up with a better name later. But after 22 years I still haven’t come up with a better name.”[ii]
Improv is a unique type of stand-up comedy. The actors are required to come up with characters, scenes, or dialogue in the heat of the moment. Often they’re given a few random suggestions from the audience, but most of the acting is off the cuff. The scene or action will change at a moment’s notice. No two shows are ever the same.
This type of acting requires a unique set of skills. You can’t rehearse. You have no idea what character you will be playing. All you can do is prepare for constant change.
Needless to say, those who are successful at improv have learned to think in a completely different way.
“I need actors who are team players. This may sound counter-intuitive, but I need people who are going to make the choices that make sense, not the choices that get laughs. They have to part of a team that’s building a scene, rather than someone who’s trying to get a laugh. The comedy will come. You can’t force it, or it doesn’t work.
“You have to have the ability to empty your brain and not think about anything. Then reboot your way of thinking instantly. You have to empty your brain and fill it up multiple times a minute. By being in the moment, you can feel what’s coming up and be ready to bounce off the new thing that just came in. You can’t get too far ahead of things. Things change quickly in improv. You may be thinking, OK, this scene I’m in right now is going great. Then boom, it changes. You have to start over and build up a new scene and be ready to stop on a dime and go a different direction.”[iii]
To those of us who are untrained in improv, this type of thinking can seem insane. How do you pay attention to the room and think logically about the rising action you have to build, and at the same time react instantly to new variables without seeming to think at all?
For those with experience in improv, the answer is easy. And doing it feels perfectly natural. Because they have trained themselves to switch seamlessly between their conscious and subconscious thinking.
That’s what it all comes down to, the fact that we all have two different types of brain activity. Every one of us have two systems at play in our minds. One that helps us think logically and one that helps us react based on instinct. One is rational and the other is emotional.
To be great at improv, you have to master the logical variables in the scene with your conscious brain, and then trust in your training so that your subconscious mind can fill in all the gaps. These two systems of thought go much deeper than the simple connection between logic and emotion that we learned from Damasio. And once we understand how both systems work, we will understand what Bob Bedore is talking about.
Let’s dig deeper into these two systems of thought.
Two points of view.
Since the late 1990’s, hundreds of neuroscientists, psychologists, and behavioral economists have performed hundreds of experiments to learn more about the role of logic and emotion in our decisions.
“How can people be simultaneously so smart and so dumb?” Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein ask in their book Nudge—Improving decisions about health, wellness, and happiness. “Many psychologists and neuroscientists have been converging on a description of the brain’s functioning that helps us make sense of these seeming contradictions. The approach involves a distinction between two kinds of thinking, one that is intuitive and automatic, and another that is reflective and rational.” [iv]
As discussed before, the brain may not always split cleanly into creative and rational halves, or even the frontal lobe and back of the brain. It’s too interconnected and adaptable. That’s why many scientists have stopped trying to compartmentalize sections of the brain, and instead talk about the overarching systems at work. As many see it, within our giant mess of neurons, there are two distinct functions. One that helps us with rational thought and another that provides emotional support. These two basic functions are the simplest way to explain how the brain works.
Here’s a brief description of this breakthrough concept of two systems from Thaler and Sunstein. “The Automatic System is rapid and is or feels instinctive, and it does not involve what we usually associate with the word thinking. The Reflective System is more deliberate and self-conscious. One way to think about all this is that the Automatic System is your gut reaction and the Reflective System is your conscious thought.”
Thaler and Sunstein call these two systems the Automatic System and the Reflective System. Where Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow simply calls them System 1 and System 2.
For the purposes of this book, I’m going to use names for these two systems that feel less academic as this book is written for a marketing and business audience, not psychologists. I’ll refer to these two systems as our conscious and subconscious.
Our conscious function is easy to understand. It basically covers your awareness of the world around you. The alertness of speaking with another person. The day-to-day thoughts that are top of mind. The senses you’re experiencing right now as you’re reading this book. It’s the knowledge of being alive.
Our subconscious is more mysterious. We know more is going on behind the scenes, but because we aren’t always aware of it, it can be more difficult to comprehend. It’s one of the great mysteries of life.
Your brain is performing a million tasks without you knowing about it. For example, your subconscious is directing your breathing and coordinating all those muscles and organs in order to stay alive. It’s managing every little action within your body. Even more, it’s processing millions of pieces of data coming in from your senses. Your vision alone is one of the most complex pieces of nature and requires a huge part of your brain’s processing power.
And yet, we basically have no idea how it all works. It’s a mystery. However, the subconscious is the playground where scientists are focusing a herculean effort today to better understand how our brains think.
The tip of the brainberg.
“Consciousness is just the tip of the iceberg; most of what goes on in your mind is hidden from you. As a result, your conscious experience can mislead you into thinking that our circuitry is simpler that it really is. Most problems that you experience as easy to solve are very difficult to solve — they require very complicated neural circuitry.” Leda Cosmides and John Tooby.[v]
This metaphor of the iceberg—even if somewhat clichéd—helps us grasp how these two systems work together. Your conscious thought, led by your prefrontal cortex, is the small section that floats above the water. You can see it. But it only handles a small part of our thinking.
Our subconscious is that massive chunk of grey matter under the water. We can’t see it, but we know it’s lurking underneath the surface and it’s vast compared to the part we can see.
But here’s the interesting twist. Just because we can grasp our conscious, we assume it’s doing the heavy lifting. After all, it’s the one in charge, right? The truth is that the real thinking is being handled by our subconscious and the lightweight noodling is delegated to our conscious.
In the book Incognito, David Eagleman writes about the massive machine of the subconscious and how powerful it really is. He describes how the subconscious is more essential than we think, even though our conscious thoughts feel more important.
“To the extent that consciousness is useful, it is useful in small quantities, and for very particular kinds of tasks. It’s easy to understand why you would not want to be consciously aware of the intricacies of your muscle movement, but this can be less intuitive when applied to your perceptions, thoughts, and beliefs, which are also final products of the activity of billions of nerve cells.” [vi]
Pause for a moment and imagine all the thinking that the subconscious has to handle for seemingly simple tasks. Like taking a single step as you walk. Imagine having to logically process every muscle, every tendon, every counter balance as you move one foot out in front of you to take your full weight. If everything isn’t in perfect order or balance, you would fall flat on your face. Yet humans do this effortlessly every day. And it’s all being orchestrated by hundreds of impulses and drivers in your subconscious brain.
Or if we had to consciously think about making ourselves breathe. To focus on every muscle and molecule so that it worked in perfect harmony, every day, every second, we would either go crazy or mess everything up and die. Bad idea.
Instead, our subconscious calmly manages every aspect of keeping our bodies working. It’s like a million little programs and computers inside, processing and calculating and ensuring that we go on living every day.
Because our conscious thinking is accessible, we assume it’s more important. And more powerful. But in reality, our subconscious is the more dominant system. It handles all our mission critical programs and regulates the functions that keep us alive. The systems that support life aren’t up for micromanagement. They are safely regulated by our subconscious brain.
Our conscious brains only handle the simple things that aren’t as critical. Like philosophy. Or rocket science. Or brain surgery. The stuff that doesn’t kill us. The real thinking is going on beneath the surface.
It seems counter intuitive, but in reality, the easy thoughts to process are tasks that our conscious can handle. The job of our subconscious is much more neurally complex.
Our subconscious isn’t a passive weak link. It powers more calculation and thought than we give it credit. Once we come to terms with the fact that our subconscious is more powerful than our conscious brain, we can learn to trust it. Just like the improv actors who work for Bob Bedore. Which hopefully means we can learn to use it more often for intuitive and creative thinking.
The strength of each system.
To really understand the differences of each system, it will take more than just imagining all the work our subconscious brain is doing. So let’s explore a bit deeper into how much data your conscious and subconscious brain can handle.
Referring back to the metaphor of the brain as a computer, think of your conscious brain as the CPU or RAM. It can only hold a small amount of working memory. But the subconscious is much more robust. It’s more like the hard drive. It can hold tons of applications and data.
One of the first studies that helped us understand the capacity of our RAM, or conscious brain, is a classic essay published by George A. Miller, a cognitive psychologist at Princeton University. His report from 1956 is called, “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two: Some Limits on our Capacity for Processing Information.” In this essay, Miller built a case around the idea that our conscious mind can only hold an average of seven variables.
“Let me summarize the situation in this way,” Miller explained. “There is a clear and definite limit to the accuracy with which we can identify absolutely the magnitude of a unidimensional stimulus variable. I would propose to call this limit the span of absolute judgment, and I maintain that for unidimensional judgments this span is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of seven.
We are not completely at the mercy of this limited span, however, because we have a variety of techniques for getting around it and increasing the accuracy of our judgments. The three most important of these devices are (a) to make relative rather than absolute judgments.; or, if that is not possible, (b) to increase the number of dimensions along which the stimuli can differ; or (c) to arrange the task in such a way that we make a sequence of several absolute judgments in a row.” [vii]
Miller studied the amount of data the average person can hold in their short-term memory. He based his report on many experiments by others in his field, as well as his own experiments. In one study, he measured how many random tones associated with a number people could hold in their conscious mind without mixing any of the tones or numbers up.
When a subject held only a few variables, they succeeded. As the variables moved beyond that magic number seven, people failed more often. The average for multiple experiments always landed on the same number of variables. His test subjects could only hold a few variables at a time in their conscious minds.
If you’ve ever taken a real IQ test, you’ve experienced something similar to Miller’s test. And I’m not talking about those silly online IQ tests where they just give you trivia questions. In a legitimate IQ test, one of the exercises asks you to hold a stream of numbers in your head and repeat them back in reverse order. In the test, they keep adding one more number to the sequence of random numbers to see how many you can hold in your mind and correctly repeat back. It’s quite challenging once you get past seven numbers. And only those with high IQ can hold longer sequences.
Miller also explained that we use other techniques to manage beyond seven variables, such as grouping variables into certain categories or recoding them into smaller chunks. This is why we often group phone numbers into sets of three or four.
Over the years, other researchers have challenged the number of variables established by Miller. Some feel that young adults are limited to three or four variables as their brains are still developing.[viii] Or that this number changes over our lifetime and certainly each brain has different capacities.
In a more recent study by Nelson Cowan of the University of Missouri, Cowan presented research that shows how limits to our working memory is predictable at a capacity of closer to three to five chunks. He presented more sophisticated research that isolated our working memory by creating tests that would eliminate a person’s ability to use grouping or structuring tactics.
According to Cowan, “In a broad sense, working memory ability varies widely depending on what processes can be applied to a given task. To memorize verbal materials, one can try to repeat them in one’s mind (rehearse them covertly). One can also try to form chunks from multiple words. For example, to remember to buy bread, milk, and pepper, one can form an image of bread floating in peppery milk. To memorize a sequence of spatial locations, one can envision a pathway formed from the locations. Though we cannot yet make precise predictions about how well working memory will operate in every possible task, we can measure storage-specific capacity by preventing or controlling processing strategies.” [ix]
We can see practical applications of Cowan’s estimate of three to five variables in current marketing situations. For example, on a web page, if we give more than five options in a global navigation, it can create choice overload and in user testing, people quickly become confused with too many navigation options. Or whenever we present campaigns to a group, if there are more than five concepts, it’s very difficult for decision makers to weigh the options and remember the benefits of all campaigns at the same time. The sweet spot is three to five options.
But now that we understand that our conscious system can only hold a few variables, what about our subconscious?
A current study by the Salk Institute gives us a window into how much memory our brains can really hold. [x] They studied models of neurons where they attach to other neurons in areas called a synapse. Each neuron can have thousands of synapses that connect with thousands of other neurons. Electrochemical activity at each synapse is where signals travel and communicate throughout the brain.
By focusing on these micro connections and measuring the amount of data that passes through, this new study estimates that each synapse is capable of handling more data than previously imagined, up to a factor of ten. And the Salk Institute discovered that the size of each synapse can adjust to fit the signal, which helps increase the amount of information it can communicate.
The amount of data that they estimate each individual synapse can hold is close to a petabyte of data. Because the memory capacity of a neuron is based on the size of its synapses, this discovery of more size categories increased our understanding of total capacity.
To put it into easy-to-understand terms, when you add up the numbers, this study suggests that our subconscious brains can hold a lot of data—like the equivalent amount as the entire Internet.
I’ll repeat that so it sinks in. Our subconscious brains can hold the same amount of data as the entire Internet. Think about how much data that includes, especially when the amount of data in the cloud has been growing exponentially over the past few years. That includes every website. Every Facebook picture. Every YouTube video. Even the entire voice-over track of Zombo.com. That’s an incredible amount of data.
Yet every human walking around on earth has that amount of space built in their heads. It’s just hidden in our subconscious brain.
The contrast between the amount of information our rational brain and emotional brain can hold is striking. Five to seven variables compared to an entire Internet of data.
Our conscious aptitude isn’t as powerful as we thought. In fact, our prefrontal cortex may control our conscious actions, but it still has limitations. It’s just a limiting function of our biology.
In his book How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer wrote about the need to be cautious with placing too much stock in our prefrontal cortex. (Don’t worry, I won’t use any Dylan quotes.)
He writes, “The prefrontal cortex can handle only so much information at any one time, so when a person gives it too many facts and then asks it to make a decision based on the facts that seem important, that person is asking for trouble. We all need to know about the innate frailties of the prefrontal cortex so that we don’t undermine our decisions.” [xi]
Many of us have experienced this when we have information overload. And this doesn’t just happen when we have too many choices and freeze up, like with too many buttons on a website. Another great example is when you are presenting to a group. If you have too many slides in your presentation that are full of thick facts and deep data, it’s only a matter of time before your audience is going to lose focus. So limit those sections of data to a handful of chunks or slides, and then add in more story to engage their subconscious brain. It’s the same principle as breaking up a phone number into memorable chunks.
Of course, Lehrer also explains that our emotions aren’t perfect either, but that by knowing about the limitations of both, we can make better decisions. What’s important is knowing how each system works, both rational and emotional, so we can use both in the right way.
Holding a petabyte of data verses only five to seven variables is a key distinction between the two systems, but the speed at which they operate is even more important.
Different speeds for different jobs.
Our logical, conscious brain is slow. It requires deliberate thought and focus. We try to push out other distractions and really think about a problem. On the other hand, our emotional, subconscious system is extremely fast. It works with very little effort and feels as if thoughts come to us instantaneously.
Back to David Eagleman in Incognito, we get a wonderful description of the differences in the speed of these two systems.
“When trying to understand the strange details of human behavior, psychologists and economists sometimes appeal to a “dual-process” account. In this view, the brain contains two separate systems: one is fast, automatic, and below the surface of conscious awareness, while the other is slow, cognitive, and conscious. The first system can be labeled automatic, implicit, heuristic, intuitive, holistic, reactive, and impulsive, while the second system is cognitive, systematic, explicit, analytic, rule-based, and reflective.” [xii]
Eagleman also discusses a pivotal study by James McKeen Cattel in a paper titled “The time taken up by cerebral operations.” At the time of the paper, nobody was thinking about the speed of thought, but his study was remarkably simple. He measured how quickly people react to questions based on the type of thinking required to answer the question. For example, he would include some questions that were direct and logical, like solving a math problem. And other questions pulled from emotions to get the right answer.
According to Eagleman, “Cattell’s approach confronted the thinking problem head-on. By leaving the stimuli the same but changing the task (now make such-and-such type of decision), he could measure how much longer it took for the decision to get made. That is, he could measure thinking time, and he proposed this as a straightforward way to establish a correspondence between the brain and the mind.” [xiii]
The results of this experiment help us understand that rational thought takes tens of milliseconds longer than an emotional response, which clocks in at a mere 160–190 milliseconds. And while measurements in milliseconds still seems pretty fast, when making a split-second decision, milliseconds can make the difference between success or failure.
Cattell’s research concluded that logical decisions are slow and emotional decisions are fast. But there’s an easier way for everyone to experience the difference in speeds between your fast and slow systems. The next section is a hands-on experiment you can try yourself.
Two systems in under two seconds.
The concept of a slow logical brain versus a lightning fast emotional brain is nowhere more apparent than it is in improv. There are times when you need to use your fast, emotional brain and times when you must rely on your slow, rational system.
“You have to live in the moment, not in your head,” said Bob when explaining both systems. “What’s happening right now in this exact moment—that’s what’s important. In improv, there’s a mixture of having to think both logically and emotionally. Logically, I need to know what’s the next thing that’s happening? You have to be paying attention to where things are going, what the emcee is throwing at you, and you have to follow the rules of the game.
“But improv isn’t really acting, it’s reacting. So emotionally, you have to respond to whatever just happened, or whatever new stimulus has just been brought to your attention. You have to react to that. So, I’m never thinking three reactions, or even two reactions ahead. I’m just flowing and responding instantly to what’s happening right now. Sometimes, all I’m really thinking about is surviving the scene.”
Improv actors have to use both systems at the same time. But to be great, to really get the audience excited, they have to have lightning fast responses. And that means relying on their expertly trained improv brains to succeed. Without all the past experiences and practice, they won’t have the quick wit to bring down the house.
In many situations, you use your fast, subconscious mind without knowing it. When you use your subconscious to rely on a feeling of what to do, you’re really tapping into hundreds of previous decisions and similar situations that you’ve practiced before. Just like an improv performer.
For Bob, understanding both ways of thinking isn’t just essential for training new performers. It’s important to know how the audience is thinking as well. A great show pulls both logic and emotion.
The audience knows the rules of each game and logically understand the variables that the host adds to the scene. But they also enjoy the discovery and pleasure of the quick, emotional connections that the actors and actresses add. The journey of the audience with the performers from logic to emotion is what creates an engaging experience. An unexpected experience they are willing to pay for again and again.
This is as important for us as it is for Quick Wits in creating memorable brand experiences. Because we can’t lose sight of why we’re discussing logic and emotion and the two systems of the brain. It all relates back to making the best creative experiences for your brand or company.
The key takeaway for now is that we have two systems. Our conscious and subconscious. And that they both work at different speeds performing different jobs. Our conscious thought is slow and deliberate, leading the charge and guiding our actions. Our subconscious thought is fast and flexible, handling most of the legwork without us knowing how.
Now that we recognize the two systems and know how differently they work, the next chapter helps us understand how our conscious and subconscious work together in making decisions. And we’ll discuss the different types of decisions that are best suited for each system.
[i] Personal interview with Bob Bedore, Utah, 2016
[iv] Nudge. Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. 2008 Yale University Press.
[v] Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer, Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, 1997. http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html
[vi] Incognito: the secret lives of the brain, by David Eagleman. 2011.
[vii] The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, by George A. Miller. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
[viii] Gilchrist, A.L., Cowan, N., & Naveh-Benjamin, M. (2008). Working memory capacity for spoken sentences decreases with adult aging: Recall of fewer, but not smaller chunks in older adults. Memory, 16, 773–787.
[ix] Working memory capacity limits. The magical mystery four: how is working memory capacity limited, and why? Nelson Cowan.
[xi] How we decide, by Jonah Lehrer. January 2010.
[xiii] The time taken up by cerebral operations, by James McKeen Cattell. 1887.
[i] Nudge. Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. 2008 Yale University Press.
[ii] Incognito: the secret lives of the brain, by David Eagleman. 2011.
[iii] Evolutionary Psychology: A Primer, Leda Cosmides & John Tooby, 1997. http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/primer.html
[v] The magical number seven, plus or minus two: some limits on our capacity for processing information, by George A. Miller. Psychological Review, 63, 81-97.
[vi] Gilchrist, A.L., Cowan, N., & Naveh-Benjamin, M. (2008). Working memory capacity for spoken sentences decreases with adult aging: Recall of fewer, but not smaller chunks in older adults. Memory, 16, 773–787.
[vii] Working memory capacity limits. The magical mystery four: how is working memory capacity limited, and why? Nelson Cowan.
[viii] How we decide, by Jonah Lehrer. January 2010.
[x] The time taken up by cerebral operations, by James McKeen Cattell. 1887.