I used to be in love with mysticism, where hidden secrets of the cosmos supposedly are revealed in a mysterious fashion.
I'm still enthralled with hidden secrets being revealed in a mysterious way, but now I realize that there's no need to invoke gurus, meditation, god, inner visions, and all the stuff that mysticism evokes, because everybody has that capacity in everyday life.
This is one of the fascinating messages of Blink, a 2005 book by Malcolm Gladwell that a friend gave me, along with two other books by Gladwell that I'd never read before.
Its subtitle is "The Power of Thinking Without Thinking." This too is a notion that mystically inclined people like to claim as their own. Actually, it is an integral part of human nature. Of course, early on in his book Gladwell points out several caveats.
Yes, "decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately. But, "it's not the case that our internal computer always shines through, instantly decoding the 'truth' of a situation. It can be thrown off, distracted, and disabled."
What's surprising, though, is how often our intuition understands what's going on in the blink of an eye, no time-consuming thinking or reasoning required.
This morning I finished the book's second chapter, "The Locked Door: The Secret Life of Snap Decisions." It starts off with the story of how Vic Braden, a top tennis coach (and former star player) found that he could tell whether an expert tennis player was doing to double-fault.
Meaning, fail to get a serve in twice in a row, which gives a point to the opponent. Tennis pros might serve hundreds of times in a match and double-fault only three or four times. Yet in one tournament Braden correctly predicted sixteen out of seventeen double faults in the matches he watched.
But here's the catch: much to Braden's frustration, he simply cannot figure out how he knows.
Gladwell goes on to say this.
This is the second critical fact about the thoughts and decisions that bubble up from our unconscious. Snap judgments are, first of all, enormously quick: they rely on the thinnest slices of experience. But they are also unconscious.
...Snap judgments and rapid cognition take place behind a locked door. Vic Braden tried to look inside that room. He stayed up at night, trying to figure out what it is in the delivery of a tennis serve that primes his judgment. But he couldn't.
...If we are to learn to improve the quality of the decisions we make, we need to accept the mysterious nature of our snap judgments. We need to respect the fact that it is possible to know without knowing why we know and accept that -- sometimes -- we're better off that way.
...In high stakes, fast-moving situations, we don't want to be as dispassionate and purely rational as the Iowa ventromedial patients. We don't want to stand there endlessly talking through our options. Sometimes we're better off if the mind behind the locked door makes our decisions for us.
...Ted Williams could hit a baseball as well as anyone in history, and he could explain with utter confidence how to do it. But his explanation did not match his actions, just as Mary's explanation for what she wanted in a man did not necessarily match who she was attracted to in the moment.
We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We're a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don't really have an explanation for.
...After the O.J. Simpson verdict, one of the jurors appeared on TV and said with absolute confidence, "Race had absolutely nothing to do with my decision," psychologist Joshua Aronson says. "But how on earth could she know that? What my research with priming race and test performance, and Bargh's research with the interrupters, and Maier's experiment with the ropes show is that people are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. We need to accept our ignorance and say 'I don't know' more often."
Of course, there is a second, equally valuable, lesson in the Maier experiment. His subjects were stumped. They were frustrated. They were sitting there for ten minutes, and no doubt many of them felt that they were failing an important test, that they had been exposed as stupid. But they weren't stupid. Why not?
Because everyone in that room had not one mind but two, and all the while their conscious mind was blocked, their unconscious was scanning the room, sifting through possibilities, processing every possible clue. And the instant it found the answer, it guided them -- silently and surely -- to the solution.
Beautiful. Religious believers like to ask God to give them a sign as to what to do. Or they pray for guidance.
There's no need for any of that. Each of us has an astounding piece of intelligence within us: the human brain's unconscious workings. Sure, often we need to use our conscious intelligence to wend our way through life's many problems and opportunities.
But we also need to trust the much vaster part of our cognition, the unconscious that has ways of knowing beyond our ability to know what those ways are. All we can do is be grateful for that often right-on intuitive capability.