Thinking: High speed & low speed

Our minds have the ability to think at different speeds. Dr Shrirang Bakhle tries to demystify the varied speeds

You are driving your car at 8.30 in the morning on Monday. You have an important meeting where you are expecting many problems. You want to drive fast and reach the office as early as possible.

Your mind is racing and the pulse, too! But unfortunately your car isn’t. You are caught in a traffic jam! So you start honking more and keep looking for possible gaps in the vehicles to push through. And when you cannot, you explode with frustration. What happened? It was justa mismatch between the speed of your thinking and the speed of the situation. The thinking was high speed but the situation was slow speed.

Our minds have the ability to think at different speeds – just like the gears of a car. When the car is in the first and second gear the driving speed is slow. But the same car can zoom in the fourth and fifth gears when you want to race or overtake other speeding vehicle on the highway.

We, too, need to think at different speeds in different situations. It is not just humans, but even the animals have this innate ability to think at different speeds. For example, look at a mother cat when she is feeding her babies. She is all love and calmness and patience. But see the same cat in a fight. It is all high speed thinking and fast actions.

The famous ‘fight or flight response’ has been acquired by the humans from the animal ancestors. This response was very useful when the ancestors faced dangers in the jungle. Although the humans could think slowly and patiently, they needed a quick response in the face of threats such as a tiger.

They had to think quickly and act quickly. When confronted with a danger like this, we can respond in two ways: anger or fear. If we have to attack, the emotion of anger is useful. But if we have to run away, the emotion of fear is useful. Either ways, Adrenaline is secreted in different organs such as the heart to prepare for either flight or fight. This is the ‘Adrenaline rush’! Many people know this.

But few people know that a type of Adrenaline is secreted in our brain, too, during the ‘flight or fight response’. This literally speeds up the thinking. This high speed thinking is a hallmark of emotional thinking. Observe the speech of persons who are angry of fearful – or even very happy.

For example, observe a child who suddenly gets a good news: “Finally, we are going on the vacation!” The child becomes very happy and starts thinking and talking very fast. Or look at a person who is very angry at someone. Again, the speed of thinking and talking is very fast.

High speed thinking is quite useful in certain situations. Consider emergencies such as an accident scene. In such situations, it is very important to think fast and take quick decisions about moving people and objects. Here quick thinking and actions can actually make the difference between life and death.

Or consider fast action sports such as basketball. In such sports in addition to reflexive actions, we need quick strategic thinking about where the ball and everyone is, where everyone is headed and what is the best plan of action. Then, there are many exams where we have to solve many questions in a relatively short time where high speed thinking is required.

However, there are many situations where calm and patient thinking is required. A typical example is teaching a young child some new activity such as new game. Observe different parents doing this. Some parents will be calm and unhurried, patiently correcting and encouraging the child.

However, some other people cannot stop their high speed thinking. As a result they are impatient, they want quick results from the child. And when they don’t get that, the scolding start quickly. This is a typical example of the mismatch between the thinking speed and the situation speed caused by emotions.

In many situations, the mismatch is between thinking speeds of different people. For example, a group of friends suddenly decide to go for a movie. But its only twenty minutes before a movie and they can reach the mall in fifteen minutes. Everyone is ready except one. Now if she says, “I take decisions calmly and unhurriedly. So give me ten minutes to decide”. The most likely outcome is that the friends will bang a pillow on her head and leave!

Thus, it is important to observe what your own thinking speed is – in all the different situations. And what is the need of the situation – whether it is a high speed or a low speed situation. If we can adjust the speed of our thinking, the results are nice.

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