Cognition / Intuition / Habit / Stress Mental Model (Incl Conditioning, Creativity, Gratitude, Humor, System 1 / System 2)

If this is your first time reading, please check out the overview for Poor Ash’s Almanack, a free, vertically-integrated resource including a latticework of mental models, reviews/notes/analysis on books, guided learning journeys, and more.

Cognition / Intuition / Habit / Stress Mental Model: Executive Summary

If you only have three minutes, this introductory section will get you up to speed on the cognition / intuition / habit / stress mental model.

Cognition / Intuition / Habit / Stress in one quote:

Cogent medical judgments meld first impressions - gestalt - with deliberate analysis. - Dr. Jerome Groopman Click To Tweet

(from “ How Doctors Think” – HDT review + notes)

The concept in two sentences: cognition (deliberate, logical thinking) and intuition (quick, conditioned thinking) are both powerful in their own way, particularly if you use the former to modify the latter via the energy-saving process of habit.  Stress – whatever the cause – is one of the major disruptors of cognition, but its impact can be mitigated on both a short-term and long-term basis with various techniques.

Three brief examples of cognition / intuition / habit / stress:

Kahneman doesn’t understand basic psychology.  While Danny Kahneman’s work on “prospect theory” with Amos Tversky revolutionized much of our understanding of judgment and decision-making, Kahneman, being a pessimist and an academic, missed the most important practical insight of all: that our “System 1” (fast intuition), as he calls it, is trainable by our “System 2” (our slower, reflective system).  

Proof of our ability to use conditioning to modify our schema shows up across disciplines and there’s a well-understood neuroscientific basis for it – and given the speed of intuition relative to cognition, it’s perhaps one of the most critical and overlooked insights among white-collar professionals.

Don’t try this at home, please.  The multiplicative effects of high stress (leading to commitment bias) and conditioning / habit formation are used to make men into killers – whether in the U.S. Army or one with less noble a purpose.  

Christopher Browning’s “Ordinary Men” (OrdM review + notes)  observes the habit-formation process among a group of working-class Germans who became tenured Holocaust executioners; highlighting the impact of time-caused stress, he notes that one specific mission proceeded:

“with an almost unimaginable ferocity and brutality”

with a 10% kill rate relative to the normal 2%, likely thanks to time-caused stress.

Why’s it called dog?  Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival” (DpSv review + notes) is one of the most important books on this topic, as we’ll explore.  One of his less intuitive findings: humor doesn’t just make us smile; it helps us survive.

Humor, along with a few other techniques, can help us fight off amygdala hijacks during life-or-death situations and allow our prefrontal cortex to regain control of our behavior.  

It’s no laughing matter: as Gonzales puts it,

Those who can control that impulse […] live.  Those who can’t, die.”  

If this sounds interesting/applicable in your life, keep reading for unexpected applications and a deeper understanding of how this interacts with other mental models in the latticework.

However, if this doesn’t sound like something you need to learn right now, no worries!  There’s plenty of other content on Poor Ash’s Almanack that might suit your needs. Instead, consider checking out our learning journeys, our discussion of the inversionBayesian reasoning, or luck vs. skill mental models, or our reviews of great books like “Uncontainable” (UCT review + notes), “ The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” (Kuhn review + notes), or “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” (TMAB review + notes).

Cognition / Intuition / Habit / Stress Mental Model: Deeper Look (A Primer on Cognition, Intuition, Habit)

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. - Aristotle Click To Tweet

(via Stephen Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” – 7H review + notes)

This model will have a very different structure and tone from most of the material on this site because it’s one of the more conceptually dense / information-intensive models around, and also because specific interactions are (for the most part) somewhat moot: our ability to apply our rationality depends on our ability to get our brain to do what we want it to do.  It’s also the longest model on the site (at over 6,000 words), so if you don’t have time to read it now, please consider bookmarking it to read later.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, there’s this quote from Phil Rosenzweig’s The Halo Effect (Halo review + notes) that will set the stage:

“the test of a good story is not whether it is entirely, fully, scientifically accurate –

by definition it won’t be.  

Rather, the test of a good story is whether it leads us toward valuable insights, if it inspires us toward helpful action, at least most of the time.”  

Historian John Lewis Gaddis comes to similar insights, half a world away, in his thoughtful The Landscape of History” (LandH review + notes), exploring how metaphors – even if not totally accurate – can help us understand.

So what I’m presenting in this model is a highly simplified model of human cognition that, in many important senses, is probably not 100% scientifically precise.  However, as is usually the case with precision vs. accuracy, by simplifying away a lot of the details, we’ll come away with a more useful understanding that we can apply in our everyday lives.

This represents my mostly non-technical summary from a substantial amount of reading and thinking about this topic through the lens of disciplines ranging from business management to investing to athletics and the outdoors to travel/ cultural differences to psychology and neuroscience and evolutionary biology.  I’ve made it detailed enough to drive home a thorough understanding, but you’re welcome to skim if you don’t care about some of the details.

In some senses it’s almost demeaning to my level of effort that the conclusions turn out to be this simple, but that’s often the case with mental models: relatively simple to cognitively understand, relatively difficult to intuitively internalize.  (We’ll get to that.)

The first idea is separating out cognition from intuition.  While there are multiple potential definitions of each – and particularly intuition – my general breakdown is as follows.

Cognition refers to slow, deliberate, conscious, rational thought – the kind we use to set up and solve a junior-high algebra or geometry problem.

Intuition refers to fast, pattern-recognition based, subconscious and “automatic” thought or reaction – the kind that makes us jump when we’re startled, or the kind we use to know that 2 + 2 = 4, or a thunderclap outside probably means it’s raining.  (There is a hint here in how I’ve set this up about habit / conditioning, terms we’ll come to momentarily.  Stop for a moment and see if you can figure it out.)

Many use the terms “System 2” and “System 1” to refer to these – 1 is intuition, and it comes before 2 (cognition) because it’s faster – but I prefer cognition and intuition because they’re descriptive, whereas system 1 and system 2 are easy to get confused.

An obvious question that many of us are asking is: why do we have both?  Many people naturally gravitate toward believing one or the other is superior; some of us may point to the fact that cognition has built our airplanes and skyscrapers; others may point to the dangers of “overthinking” and claim that “going with their gut” has always served them well.

What does science have to say?  As usual, it’s an answer more probabilistic than absolute: it depends.  Specifically, both cognition and intuition have stuck around because they’re adaptive in different circumstances.

I’ll start by assuming most readers of this site – i.e., people who love reading and probably work in (or are studying for) highly cognitively-demanding professions – will view deliberate cognition as the more “advanced” form of cognition.  After all, the most important component of being human is that we can override our natural impulses, understand abstract concepts, and plan for the future in a way that most animals can’t, right?

That is generally true, and in most situations, cognition is superior to untrained intuition.  Trained intuition, however, is often superior to either.

There are a couple reasons for this.  The first is that in many time-sensitive situations, logic “simply takes too long, often impossibly long,”

as Laurence Gonzales puts it in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes) – a phenomenal and fascinating book that we’ll explore deeply throughout this model.  (Go ahead and buy your copy now; you need to read it to fully understand what we’re talking about here.)

As Tavris/Aronson put it in Mistakes were Made (but not by me) (MwM review + notes), conceptions that are brains are like computers are:

popular, reassuring, and wrong.”  

Don Norman makes a similar point on page 46 of The Design of Everyday Things” (DOET review + notes): if you ask a computer to find Beethoven’s phone number, it’ll start searching all your contacts (or the internet) for someone named Beethoven, and what their phone number might be.

If you ask a reasonably intelligent 12-year-old, they’ll laugh and tell you “dude, Beethoven didn’t have a phone!  They weren’t invented yet!”

Much of our thinking and decisions operate via this heuristic-heavy, pattern-matching, intuitive model.   In fact, in Deep Survival (DpSv review + notes), Gonzales observes that:

“to have reason cut off from the high-speed, jump-cut assistance of emotion is virtually incapacitating”

Let’s illustrate with an example.  Many of the things we think are rational / logical behavior – “hey, I’m hungry, let me go to the fridge” – actually turn out to be driven by our intuitive system.  

Charles Duhigg provides a compelling example of this in The Power of Habit (PoH review + notes) – the book opens by exploring the story of Eugene Pauly, a man who lost his memory thanks to an illness, and thus lost his ability to learn anything by logical means.

He’d repeat himself over and over in conversations.  If you asked him to explain what he’d do if he were hungry – or if he needed to pee – he’d tell you that he had no clue.  But if you asked him to show you, he could.  He managed to find the refrigerator and the bathroom alright, even in new circumstances such as a researcher’s lab where he hadn’t learned them before.

So that’s the first edge intuition has: speed.  Gonzales explores (in depth) this “jump cut” phenomenon where we emotionally “bookmark” the refrigerator (or bathroom) as important places – we don’t have to search every corner of the house until we find them, or try eating everything in sight until we find something edible, which actually is apparently what some monkeys do (in experiments) when you cut off their emotional systems and only allow them to use cognition.

The second edge of intuition is that it’s also cheaper: cognition is pretty expensive.

As Jennifer Ackerman puts it in The Genius of Birds (Bird review + notes) – a lovely, endearing yet educational discussion of avian intelligence:

“Brain tissue is heavy and metabolically expensive, the most expensive in the body, second only to the heart.  Neurons may be small, but they’re costly to make and maintain, consuming about ten times more energy relative to their size than other cells.”

This isn’t just a bird thing.  The human brain accounts for roughly 2% of our weight but 20% of our caloric consumption.  Obviously, our brains evolved in an environment where getting enough calories was far more of a problem than getting too many.  

In fact, Sam Kean’s The Violinist’s Thumb (TVT review + notes) explores certain island situations in which intelligence was actually selected against – leading to hominids with lower intelligence – probably because our extra intelligence wasn’t helping us get enough extra food in that environment to make up for the cost.

So, any cognitive process that is energy-saving would be strongly adaptive, i.e. selected for, over time.  This explains, for example, contrast bias: it’s not useful for us to notice (and thus spend cognitive resources, and thus energy) on stuff that hasn’t changed.  

If that tree was there five minutes ago, and we’ve inspected it to determine if it might be of use to us – or might be harboring a cougar that wants to eat us for dinner – then there’s probably not a lot of use in re-examining that tree.  That tree is a known quantity. We might as well just ignore it from now on.

In fact, this is the principle that many common video codecs use to compress video files, and thus reduce the amount of information that has to be stored or transmitted (which obviously saves money and energy as well – smaller hard drives needed, less Internet bandwidth used resulting in faster speed, etc).  As Vimeo’s “Video Compression Basics” primer explains:

Here’s how video compression works: every second of video is composed of a series of still frames … only part of the image changes from frame to frame. Instead of storing two nearly-identical frames within a video file, only the parts of the image that have changed are recorded.  

So if you have a friend waving to the camera, and your friend’s arm is the only thing moving… [it] is the only thing that is recorded.

Sometimes contrast bias fails us, as I discuss in that model, but the vast majority of the time it doesn’t.  Similarly, intuition, of course, doesn’t work all the time, but it works often enough that it’s selected for.  

And here’s the part that ties cognition and intuition together: because cognition is so energetically expensive, it turns out that frequently-used cognitions become intuitions via a process called conditioning – colloquially known as “habit.

The visual metaphor I like to use is this: ever been hiking on a trail through a thick, dense forest?  I’ve always wondered how the first person to blaze that trail made it more than five feet – you’d need a machete to cut through branches, a shovel and crowbar and maybe a couple buddies to move big rocks out of the way, etc.

Yet over time, once a trail is blazed, its maintenance becomes somewhat autocatalytic (see the feedback model).  Other people’s feet come by and keep it trampled down; rocks to the side of the trail get kicked aside both accidentally and intentionally, and even local animals like deer and black bears start using the trail because it’s easier than wading through the underbrush.  After you’ve traveled that trail long enough, it’s very easy to do, and you’d never want to do anything else – because this takes so much less effort.

Again, as with all metaphors, this is totally not how habit formation works on a synapse level.  But given emergence, I think the metaphor works at the level of our everyday cognition – taking paths that we’ve blazed already is much easier than taking new ones.

Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit (PoH review + notes) goes really deep into this process, including a lot of practical advice on how to form habits (which turns out to be a somewhat more nuanced version of: keep doing things and ensuring there’s a natural or artificial reward – incentive –  at the end).  

It turns out that habits drive up to 40% of our decisions per day, per Duhigg – and they’re clear energy savers.  Here’s the neuroscientific proof from Duhigg on pages 14 – 15 about rats that repeatedly went through mazes:

“Rats stopped sniffing corners and making wrong turns.  Instead, they zipped through the maze faster and faster […] as the route became more and more automatic, each rat started thinking less and less.”

Similar processes underlie pretty much every field of human endeavor.  In Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s phenomenal “ Nudge ( Ndge review + notes), they point out one of the most salient examples of how System 2 activities can become System 1.

What’s your instantaneous reaction when I tell you it’s 30 degrees outside?

If you’re from the U.S., you probably said “brrrr,” shivered, and gave yourself a little hug.

If you’re from most of the rest of the world, you probably said something like “Jesus, I want an ice-cold Coca-Cola.”

We’re smart enough to do the math to convert Celsius to Fahrenheit – Don Norman even gives us a quick and dirty trick for it in The Design of Everyday Things (DOET review + notes).  But for most of us who aren’t mental math whizzes, it’s a slow, jerky process, whereas using our “natural” scale is automatic and fast.

The important point here is that we weren’t born knowing Celsius and Fahrenheit any more than we were born knowing English, Spanish, Tagalog, Mandarin, Igbo, or any of the world’s other languages.  If someone screams “Fire!” in a language we understand, we’ll react.  But if someone screamed “Fire!” at me in Latvian (apparently “uguns,” by the way) – well, I’d come out of there looking something like Kenny, below:

Image result for south park kenny burned

In fact, if you never taught a kid that fire was dangerous, they wouldn’t panic even if they did hear the word.  We pick all that stuff up along the way – our System 1 automatic responses can be trained.

Think about the slow, jerky motions of a new fifteen-year-old driver in an empty parking lot – the kid’s still struggling to remember the sequence of actions like turn signals and brakes.

Now think about your own driving (which I’ll charitably presume is better than that, but don’t be too overconfident – 95% of drivers think they’re above average.  It’s a mathematical miracle!  :P)

Or think about anything else you’ve ever done: practice makes perfect.  The more you do something, the easier it becomes, and it’s because you’re thinking about it less, not more.

When you see a sea of red brake lights up ahead on the highway, do you think about what to do next?  No – you hit the brakes, stat.

Duhigg’s book provides some interesting examples of how athletes perform better when they’re not thinking.  Recall Gonzales – cognition just takes too long to respond to a fast-moving baseball, wide receiver, or even mortar shell.  (Gonzales, several times, references Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front – which I read and enjoyed, though I’m not sure it lives up to “greatest war story of all time” billing.)

Other important advice on habits dates back to Benjamin Franklin’s The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (ABF review + notes).  Franklin made a practice of cultivating good habits; some of his advice was taking them one at a time:

“like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplished the first, proceeds to a second.”

Importantly, habits apply not just to physical actions, but also to styles of thinking.  Dr. Judith Beck notes in Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notesthat we all have automatic thoughts of which we’re “barely aware.”  Even if we are aware of them, we “most likely accept them uncritically […] you don’t even think of questioning them.”

This is a problem, because often we can become conditioned into beliefs or thought patterns that make no sense given our circumstances.  For example, as Laurence Gonzales puts it on his follow-up on resilience – Surviving Survival, (SvSv review + notes) – survivors of freak events like a crocodile attack or grizzly bear mauling overlearn from the traumatic event:

“In the brain, the cardinal rule is: future equals past; what has happened before will happen again.  In response to trauma, the brain encodes protective memories that force you to behave in the future the way you behaved in the past.  The trouble was that in all likelihood, [you] would never again face a similar hazard.”

Conditioning is clearly very powerful, and happens without our consent: there is no reason to be terrified of a grizzly bear or crocodile attack when you’re inside your house in a generic suburbfar away from wild animals – yet survivors of these sorts of events often have to fight off those sorts of feelings.  The same process, albeit with less strength and emotional response, shapes a lot of our day-to-day thoughts and behaviors.

Dan Harris makes similar points in “10% Happier (10H review + notes), his sensible – and frequently hilarious – story of his journey from skeptic to meditation advocate.

Going under the knife for a surgery, Harris suddenly realizes for the first time that his thoughts:

weren’t irrational, but they weren’t necessarily true […]

I was able to see my thoughts for what they were: just thoughts, with no concrete reality.”

While I won’t go too deep into it here because it’s covered in the mindfulness mental model,, the takeaway, per Dr. Judith Beck, is that “the quickest way to help patients feel better and behare more adaptively is to help patients build more adaptive core beliefs (i.e. modify their schema).  

Why does this work?  Because – importantly – they will then be able to:

“spontaneously (i.e. without conscious awareness) respond to the thought in a productive way.”

See the habit angle here?

A final angle comes from Philip Tetlock in Superforecasting (SF review + notes) – a phenomenal book I cite all over this site.  Tetlock explores how ordinary individuals like you and me – by following a specific method of thought and analysis – can routinely outperform experts at making predictions in their own fields.

To me, one of the most fascinating (and overlooked) parts of Tetlock’s book is his passing, qualitative observation of how his “superforecasters” evolved over time, cognitively speaking:

“My sense is that some superforecasters are so well practiced in System 2 corrections – such as stepping back to take the outside view – that these techniques have become habitual.  In effect, they are now part of their System 1.

[…] No matter how physically or cognitively demanding a task may be – cooking, sailing, surgery, operatic singing, flying fighter jets – deliberative practice can make it second nature.

Ever watch a child struggling to sound out words and grasp the meaning of a sentence?  That was you once. Fortunately, reading this sentence isn’t nearly so demanding for you now.”  

Considering that our  schema stands between us and the information we perceive – let alone process and act on – clearly it’s important to think about what it is we want in there and make a habit out of reinforcing those desired filters.

Summary review, to help you remember (I know it’s a lot of info!): cognition is powerful, but expensive and slow.  Intuition is cheaper and faster. Therefore, our brains utilize an energy-saving mechanism – conditioning / habit – to transmute cognition into intuition over time, to save time and energy.

Stress, Amygdala Hijacks, and Trained vs. Untrained Intuition, Plus The Long-Term Health Impacts of Stress.  (don’t stress about it or anything.)

Are you a prehistoric rabbit?

No?  You sure?

Good, I’m glad you’re not.  Because if you are a prehistoric rabbit, Shawn Achor was definitively not writing “Before Happiness (BH review + notes) for you.  Achor makes the well-phrased (albeit not unique) argument that our tendency toward reactivity and anxiety is adaptive, evolutionarily speaking: if you’re a prehistoric rabbit contentedly munching on grass, and you see the grass move, you should take off fleeing.

You don’t have to run an expected value analysis to know that if it wasn’t a sabre-toothed tiger, there’s more grass to eat later; if it is a saber-toothed tiger and you decide not to flee, that’ll be the last decision you ever make.

Thankfully, as Achor points out in his previous outing, The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes) –

“fortunately, few saber-toothed tigers stalk our office parks.”

… and yet all the survival mechanisms to deal with saber-toothed tigers still clutter our brains even in situations when we don’t want them to, making it more difficult for us to deal with non-life-or-death situations like our boss chewing us out over the report we submitted, because – literally – it’s those same life-or-death neural circuits that are being activated.  And we’ll see just how powerfully they’re suppressing our ability to think.  As Gonzales explains in the aforementioned Surviving Survival, (SvSv review + notes):

“The brain can seem at times like a confounding bureaucracy with different departments arguing with one another.  The amygdala is not in the Rational Department. It doesn’t care that, at times, its responses might make no sense.

 The emotional system can’t allow you to think about your reactions. That takes too much time. If you stop to think, you’ll be eaten.  

So it’s tuned for instant reaction. […] Under stress, you don’t invent new strategies.  You revert to automatic behaviors.”

Indeed, in some senses, cognition and predation have been opposed from the very beginning.  Dr. Matthew Walker posits in Why We Sleep (Sleep review + notes) that REM sleep may have catalyzed our development of intelligence, but it required us to sleep on the ground instead of in trees, which required us to be pretty high up the food chain.

Jennifer Ackerman notes, directionally similarly, in the aforementioned The Genius of Birds (Bird review + notes), that more intelligent birds tend to have a lack of predators.  For example, New Caledonian crows, one of the most intelligent bird species known to man, have no natural predators, and thus:

“crows are free from the burden of vigilance – in other words, they have the time and ease of mind to tinker with sticks and barbed leaves […] without looking up.”

Ian Leslie makes a somewhat similar point in “Curious” (C review + notes) too, noting that during childhood, “curiosity is underwritten by love”

an example of a bottleneck – when you’re anxious or insecure, you don’t have the cognitive resources to be curious.

Maybe this is all just a lot of storytelling and it’s not related to the point at all.  But, let’s get down to some cold hard facts.  How does stress affect our cognition?

Most people are incapable of performing any but the simplest tasks under stress. - Laurence Gonzales Click To Tweet

Gonzales further explores how stress allows intuition (what he calls “emotion”) to override cognition and further narrow our selective perception:

“stress (or any strong emotion) erodes the ability to perceive.  Cortisol and other hormones released under stress interfere with the working of the prefrontal cortex… where… decisions are made […]

you see less, hear less, miss more cues from the environment, and make mistakes […] stress causes most people to focus narrowly on the thing they consider the most important, and it may be the wrong thing.”

Let’s get a little deeper into the science here.  Gonzales notes that information hits the amygdala, which screens for danger, before it hits the neocortex.  (You can reductionistically think of the frontal cortex as the home of cognition, and the amygdala as the source of stress.)  

Painting an analogy to his chocolate Lab that barks loudly at everything that comes to the door – whether an evil burglar or a friendly gecko offering a great rate on car insurance* – Gonzales quips that “Like Lucy, the amygdala isn’t very bright,” but it is powerful and responds in an emergency.

*(the portion between hyphens about the Geico gecko is mine.  :P)

He’s not the only one to point out this out.  Peter Godfrey-Smith, in Other Minds (OthM review + notes) – a fascinating read about octopus intelligence and  trait adaptivity – notes that certain kinds of processing of visual information can actually occur without going through the “internal model” (schema-building) part of the brain.  

This is likely part of the reason, as Gonzales explains, that we can be startled – information is actually being processed outside of our control before it ever gets to our cognitive systems.

To this point, in Surviving Survival, (SvSv review + notes), Gonzales also presents an interesting addendum to his discussion of cognition and intuition in Deep Survival: he brings up the idea of the “triune brain” – layer one is reptilian; layer two is mammalian; layer three is uniquely human (the neocortex).  But we don’t lose the other parts – we can use them, but can’t always explain what they are. Gonzales calls it a “Sixth sense”“the frog and the rat are always watching out for us.”  

This system learns through trial-and-error feedback, i.e. conditioning.  An interesting result is that many experts can do things well without being able to provide a conscious understanding of why; Gonzales cites Richard Feynman being able to figure out of equations were right or wrong – without doing calculations.

Gonzales recommends not doubting your sixth sense (in situations where it’s likely to help).

Now, it’s worth pointing out that stress, like cognition and intuition, exists because it’s more adaptive than not.  Gonzales uses the metaphor of ““the reins of reason on the horse of emotion.”  A little fear / stress can be good, sharpening our senses and quickening our responses.

But too much?  That’s bad. Remember, what stress basically does is shut down the prefrontal cortex and let our habits / intuition remain in charge.  Cortisol (the stress hormone) “amps up fearand speeds our heart rate, puts more sugar into metabolism, and distributes oxygen so we can respond.  Gonzales describes this chain of reactions as being on afterburner.”  

The amygdala, according to neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, author of several books – I’m currently reading his The Synaptic Self” – can stage a “hostile takeover of consciousness by emotion” which leads to powerful behavioral responses… not always in a good way.  The amygdala causes epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine to be released, and these continue the process.

There are then two scenarios to analyze: whether those habits are trained, or whether they’re not.  The latter is the easier one: most of us are not trained to deal with life or death situations.  We’ll do dumb things like pull our oxygen masks off underwater because we feel like we can’t breathe, or we’ll thrash and fail about in the water when we really should be floating quietly.  We’ll keep getting ourselves further and further lost when we should be stopping to say hey wait a minute, let’s take a break, catch our breath, and not make a bad situation worse.

The former situation is the trickier one.  If we’re trained for a situation – like football players reading keys, as Duhigg explores in The Power of Habit (PoH review + notes) – we tend to handle it well. Duhigg notes football players actually do better when they aren’t overthinking things, and just reacting (based on their trained intuition.)

In fact, as Dr. Jerome Groopman explores in the aforementioned “ How Doctors Think ( HDT review + notes), a mixture of cognition and trained intuition can be more powerful than either alone.

Overthinking turns out to be a real phenomenon in medicine, too: radiologists, for example, sometimes start to see things that aren’t there after looking at an X-ray for 40 seconds, as Groopman explains.

But our training can work against us if it’s not adaptive in the situation. 

Back in “ Deep Survival ( DpSv review + notes), Gonzales notes that a tough-guy Army Ranger learned from his time in the military that needing to be rescued is bad… so when he got tossed off a raft into a river, he didn’t want the guide’s help.

And promptly died.  

Gonzales notes, wryly, “the training worked.”  

Yet whether these habits are logical or not, we’ll follow them because they have a powerful pull.  

Gonzales explores how fighter pilots often have a positive emotional bookmark for “down” and will – if they don’t have their prefrontal cortex reins pulling back the horse of emotion – go down too fast, crashing the plane.

Similarly, even in less life-or-death situations, Duhigg cites two researchers at the University of Michigan:

“Particularly strong habits produce addiction-like reactions so that ‘wanting evolves into obsessive craving’ that can force our brains into autopilot, ‘even in the face of strong disincentives, including loss of reputation, job, home, and family.”

Or, as Stephen Covey puts it in the landmark “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” (7H review + notes):

Habits have a tremendous gravity pull... like any natural force, gravity pull can work with us or against us. - Stephen Covey Click To Tweet

One point is that we have to make sure our habits are good / adaptive ones (which we’ll return to in a few sections).  But in the meanwhile, clearly, managing stress is important because that’s what allows us to get back in control and override our habits, intuition, and emotion with cognition (if need be).  As Shawn Achor puts it in The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes), which we’ll explore in the next section:

“in resilient individuals, the prefrontal cortex rapidly won over the limbic system.”

If all of the above isn’t enough to convince you – combining data from various sources, stress:

– causes us to gain weight and make less healthy eating choices

– causes high blood pressure and contributes to atherosclerosis, strokes, and coronary events

– literally kills brain cells

– harms reproductive health

– reduces immune function

– can trigger depression and anxiety (which should not be surprising)

– causes digestive issues

Normally I try to be very cautious and utilize probabilistic thinking and scientific thinking, avoiding overconfidence and storytelling.  But for thirty seconds, I’m gonna throw that out the window and speculate a little bit.

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger are old.  They are older than they have any right to be given that their definition of “health food” is “Dairy Queen” and they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an elliptical and a stairclimber if you offered them a whole box of peanut brittle as an incentive.

And yet both men are remarkably healthy for their age.

Both have also talked about the fact that they have no stress – none.”

Again: completely unscientific speculation, and an incredibly tiny sample size.  But there’s a plausible mechanism of  causation.  Let me have my one moment of overconfidence: not stressing is why Munger and Buffett are thriving in their old age despite having no right to based on their diet and exercise.

Review: stress helps the amygdala hijack decisionmaking away from the prefrontal cortex.  Stress is good in small doses at appropriate times, but bad for you if it’s running all the time, or in situations where it isn’t merited.

Overcoming Stress (Short-Term): Humor, Gratitude, Social Connection / Empathy (x Agency x SchemaFraming)

Given that avoiding stress is critical to maintaining proper functioning of our cognition, how can we – if placed in a stressful situation without time to prepare – deal with it?

Here are a few quick methods.  The great thing about all of these behaviors is that if you practice them over time, they’ll become habits.

Humor + Happiness

If people are laughing, they tend to be more forgiving. - Richard Thaler Click To Tweet

That quote is from

Richard Thaler’s “Misbehaving” (M review + notes), which – if you need some humor in your life – is almost as funny as stand-up comedy.  (It’s also the best book around on behavioral economics and cognitive biases.)

In Deep Survival, Gonzales repeatedly touches on how fighter pilots and others in highly stressful situations use humor to keep the reins on.  Shawn Achor similarly cites a study on the effects of watching a happy film:

“Had undone the physiological effects of stress.  

In other words, a quick burst of positive emotions doesn’t just broaden our cognitive capacity; it also provides a quick and powerful antidote to stress and anxiety, which in turn improves our focus and our ability to function at our best level.”  

Brene Brown (referenced below) talks about her daughter creating “picture memories” of happy times in her life to look at when she’s sad.  There’s something to be learned from the grade-schooler: keeping a few funny/happy stories in mind to think back to when we need them can be powerful.

EmpathyAgency, and Social Connection

If you’ve spent any time on this site at all, you know that agency is one of the critical, fundamental “worldview” type models – “belief our behavior matters” (as Achor puts it) is an important predictor of success in the business world.  Achor explores via his memorable “Zorro Circle” discussion how steps as small as taking care of a houseplant can help us feel more in control.  Gonzales gives the literal advice of “don’t look down” – indeed, focusing on what we can control (rather than what we can’t) helps us avoid stress.

In survival situations, the same applies.  Gonzales explores how those in life-or-death situations who display empathy – whether toward their confederates, or toward a sea snail or a pet rock, if that’s all you can find – feel more in control (and are more in control).

We don’t have to be on the brink of disaster (or in the post-apocalyptic wasteland) for empathy to help us.  Achor explores how small acts of deliberate kindness – as small as holding the door or paying for someone’s toll or coffee – can make us feel better, as well as the other person.

Finally, while this might not be practical in survival situations, social connection has a meaningful impact too.  Olds/Schwartz’s The Lonely American (TLA review + notes), as well as Achor’s work, cites research finding that socially connected people respond better to stress.

Researcher-storyteller Brene Brown takes it a step farther in her deep analysis of social connection and how it affects our decisions and self-worth – Daring Greatly DG review + notes) – citing University of Texas psychologist James Pennebaker, who found that:

“The act of not discussing a traumatic event or confiding it to another person could be more damaging than the actual event.  

Conversely, when people shared their stories and experiences, their physical health improved, their doctor’s visits decreased, and they showed significant decreases in their stress hormones.”

Schema / Framing

Shawn Achor notes in Before Happiness (BH review + notes) that we can actually reduce the negative effects of stress by re framing it and looking for the “meaning” of the stress, using a similar process to the “job vs. calling” bit on pages 78 – 80 of The Happiness Advantage (THA review + notes).  This can allow us to capture the positive effects of stress without the negative ones.

Want something easy to remember?  Achor notes:

“Research indicates that stress, even at high levels, creates greater mental toughness, deeper relationships,”


Gonzales talks about having a sense of wonder; I believe this to be similar to one of Achor’s keystone points – cultivating gratitude as a practice.  Brene Brown’s research, as well as Achor’s, finds that gratitude is an important practice that can offset our natural loss aversion.  In addition to Achor’s “ The Happiness Advantage ( THA review + notes), the GQ cover piece on Stephen Colbert is a phenomenal read on gratitude.

Achor provides such a good guide to gratitude that it’s not worth going over here in more depth than simple instructions: if you’re feeling stressed, find three things to be grateful for.  That’s it. It’s easy. And it’s scientifically proven to work.

Review / summary: short term antidotes to stress include humor / happiness,  empathy / agencyframing, and gratitude.

Overcoming Stress (Long-Term): Mindfulness and Sleep ( Structural Problem Solving)

Two of the most powerful long-term methods for reducing the impact of stress on cognition and avoiding amygdala hijacks are mindfulness and sleep.

Both have their own mental models.  I’ve already discussed the benefits of CBT, a form of mindfulness, with the earlier quotes from Dr. Judith Beck’s Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT review + notes).

As for sleep, here’s a quote from Dr. Matthew Walker’s Why We Sleep (Sleep review + notes), which I mention every chance I get because I believe it’s one of the most important books of the century (no hyperbole).  I promote it via a public service announcement in my email signature and bought copies for all my clients.

What’s the impact of sleep deprivation – which up to 70% of working Americans suffer from, often without knowing it (because – feedback –sleep deprivation, like being drunk, makes us unable to evaluate our own competence?)  Walker explains that sleep-deprived subjects:

“showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity […] without sleep […] the strong coupling between [the prefrontal cortex and amygdala] is lost.  

We cannot rein in our atavistic impulses – too much emotional gas pedal (amygdala) and not enough regulatory brake (prefrontal cortex). Without the rational control given to us each night by sleep, we’re not on a neurological – and hence emotional – even keel.”

Gonzales also highlights the importance of sleep and rest in survival situations, by the way: “60 percent” of normal activity level), and frequent rest/hydration.  Sweating isn’t allowed.

Additionally important – and discussed in more depth in the  culture /status quo bias mental model, as well as the  sleep model – is the importance of understanding and complying with your “ chronotype.”  If you need to use an alarm clock to wake up, you’re waking up too early; Walker notes that:

“When a night owl is forced to wake up too early, their prefrontal cortex remains in a disabled, ‘offline’ state.  Like a cold engine after an early-morning start, it takes a long time before it warms up to operating temperature.”

 This has grievous long-term health impacts as well as, of course, the amygdala-cortex issues discussed above.  Till Roenneberg’s virtually-unknown Internal Time (IntTm review + notes) is a phenomenal, engaging, and accessible exploration of the science of circadian rhythms and biological clocks.

Enabling Creativity: “Intuition Comes To The Prepared Mind” (And The Available One) (Also Structural Problem Solving)

Now we come to our last section: there’s been a lot of information here.  Let’s tie it all together.

First, cognition and intuition both have their uses.  Cognition is what makes us uniquely human, but intuition is much faster and requires less effort.

 Thankfully, cognition can be transmuted into intuition by habit; luminaries ranging from Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (7H review + notes) to Benjamin Franklin in The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin (ABF review + notes) have harnessed this power of habit – to steal a phrase from Duhigg – to dramatically improve their lives.

Beyond cultivating good habits, what else should we do on an everyday basis to improve our ability to have the sort of “flash” intuition that ties previously unknown concepts together?

Sleep is one (Dr. Walker, referenced previously, explores how REM sleep enables creativity.)  But the second is structural problem solving: taking our minds off things.  As Don Norman puts it toward the end of the aforementioned The Design of Everyday Things (DOET review + notes):

Click the Norman for an Easter Egg.

Does the fact that I can no longer remember my own phone number indicate my growing feebleness?  No, on the contrary, it unleashes the mind from the petty tyranny of tending to the trivial and allows it to concentrate on the important and the critical.

[…] the power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. […] Human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that overcome its own limits. The real powers come from designing external aids that enhance cognitive abilities.

This brings us back to the teenage-driver example: once our cognition isn’t busy worrying about the gas pedal and the turn signal, we can use it for more important purposes, like checking our mirrors.  Once that too becomes habitual, we again have cognition free to improve our technique… and hopefully this cycle continues.

There are, of course, limits to this approach, as I discuss toward the end of the structural problem solving model, tying together Atul Gawande’s thoughtful (but vastly misinterpreted) The Checklist Manifesto (TCM review + notes) and Dr. Jerome Groopman’s “ How Doctors Think (HDT review + notes).

I won’t repeat that discussion here, since you can go read it there.  Instead, I’ll cite Foundation Principle 6 from The Container Store:

Intuition does not come to an unprepared mind – you need to train before it happens. - Kip Tindell Click To Tweet

As discussed in Uncontainable (UCT review + notes), training and learning and preparation are incredibly important in having unique insights.  The sort of “gestalt” that Dr. Jerome Groopman talked about in our very first quote doesn’t just show up; you or I couldn’t look at a patient and make the sort of brilliant off-the-cuff diagnosis that Groopman highlights in several instances, or intuitively pick up on the sort of subtle signals in X-rays that trained radiologists see without even thinking about it.

You have to learn.  And, to go back to Shawn Achor’s Before Happiness (BH review + notes), you need to add vantage points – be able to look at things from different directions.

How do you do that?  By taking the approach of rationality and building a  latticework of mental models.

If you’re here and still reading this, then you’re already doing that – so congrats.  I don’t have anything more to say here.