In his book Blink, The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell talks about thin slicing.
Rather than taking the time to think things through, people who thin slice are able to make snap second decisions.
This can be a good thing.
But it can also have negative aspects as well.
Understanding (not Intuition....)
The idea of talking about "thinking without thinking" is that an intelligent training system can lead to the ability to act intelligently without thinking.
An intelligent learning program leads first and foremost to "understanding" and it is understanding that drives the ability to thin slice.
And even if you don't get to the point where you can sudden inspirations, understanding is key to solving problems the "hard way" i.e. without "blinking". And that's where a skill like critical thinking may come into play.
Ideas in a Flash
When I used to work as an engineer, I took the time to understand the computer system that I was working on. That mean taking it apart, putting it together, understanding the components and how they all fitted together.
By assembling and reassembling I got experience, and by looking at it from different ways that experience led to expertise.
On one occasion a customer wanted to make a change to the system.
Most of the suggested fixes involved the excessive expense of buying new components to satisfy the customers request.
My own solution involved a simple rewiring using existing components.
The cool thing was that I didn't have to think about the solution.
It came to me in a flash.
We tested the idea to make sure it worked, but compared to all of the "thought through" ideas, my idea was the most appropriate, and I believe it occured because of my depth of understanding of the sytem.
A Different Point of View
Now in a contrasting (and critical) piece of work, "Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can't Be Made in the Blink of an Eye" Michael LeGault's is of the opinion that critical thinking is the way to go, and not thin slicing or blinking.
I didn't read the whole book but I glanced through it to pick up a few points (and to see if it was worth getting or not.)
One example Legault uses is trying to figure out a problem with the plumming of an outdoor pool.
His argument is that critical thinking is required to solve the problems. And in cases where we are working on pieces of equipment that we are unfamiliar we, he is right.
When working on new equipment we need to use critical thinking to help us learn the system so that then we can problem solve it.
But the better we learn a system (or systems in general) the more likely we are to come up with solutions in a flash of inspiration.
But the starting point is understanding what we are working with.
In the army I spent a lot of time working on guns. That meant "understanding" them to fix them.
And as a yoga teacher I spend a lot of time breaking down the body so that I can understand it and teach it meaningfully.
Sometimes I have to think to solve problems about the body.
At other times the solution becomes apparent in a blink because I understand yoga poses and the body.
I think the problem with Legaults book (and perhaps him himself) is that he doesn't understand that thin slicing can be the end result of learning to understand a system.
And critical thinking is what can be used to aid in learning a system.
Learning and Pre-thinking
As an armourer in the army, I was trained to understand the weapons systems I was working on.
That involved taking guns apart and putting them together so that we understood the parts and how they fitted together into the whole.
We also looked at the sequence of events that happened inside gun at different moments in time from trigger pull, percussion, the bullet passing the gas port, extraction, ejection and reloading.
Each one of those was a discrete event, a definable event, just like each part was a definable component with a clear shape and clear purpose as part of the whole.
Understanding all of this helped me understand guns, and when things went wrong it helped me to figure out where to look to that I could fix what was wrong.
Later on while I was in university, my father my uncle and I built a custom harley together. A lot of the parts where second hand and the bike was a mongrel of model years. Many of the second hand parts had been modified so I had to figure out how they were supposed to work when the bike as a whole didn't.
The task of problem solving involved me learning how the parts should work so that I could fix them.
This was the training ground for me learning to recognize thin slicing when it happened.
And it happened when I worked on a computer system to understand it completely (or more so than anyone else on my team.)
I basically had a working model of that system inside of me and I built that model bit by bit by taking apart that system and putting it back together again. At the same time I thought about how all the parts worked together, and I even drew diagrams to help teach sales people how it worked.
The notion I have is that by understanding that system I created a unit of intelligence in side of my self that was self smart.
Presented with a problem, that part of me was able to come up with a solution without the intelligence that is me having to think.
In Blink, Gladwell talks about situations where "prejudices" can be used to form instant opinions.
Prejudices can live inside of our minds just as models of computer systems do.
And these models can create quick impressions just as models of computer systems can.
And here is where critical thinking can help.
First of all for this model to work it's helpful to think of patterns or ideas being embedded within our conscousness.
We can be unconscious of these ideas or we can take the time to become conscious of them.
And just as we can use critical thinking to understand systems outside of ourselves, and rebuild models of them inside of ourselves, so can we use "critical thinking" to analyze our own actions. We can learn to understand ourselves so that we become aware of unconscious patterns.
Such patterns can be habitually smoking, and swearing to name just two.
Learning to Stop Swearing
As a kid/teenager I used to swear unconsciously. I once did that infront of a favorite teacher without even realizing.
I then practiced being aware every time I swore. I practiced replacing each swear with a substitute, sugar or perhaps flock.
And then I was able to catch myself mid swear.
Eventually I became aware enough to stop myself before I swore and then I was able to choose whether I swore or not.
Painting Chinese Characters
In the study of chinese characters, a similar process can be observed.
First, painting can become a built in action if strokes are practiced a few at a time.
Rather than just painting, the focus can be on feeling the stroke as it is painted. Then the same awareness can be used while practicing a series of strokes.
Then I can get to the point where I am observing myself painting the character without having to think.
And that's an important definition.
Knowing Without Having to Think
The way that gladwell talks about it, thin slicing is understanding or knowing without having to think.
Actions which can be done without having to think can also be thought of as "thin slicing" events.
But returning to chinese characters, this time in the reading of them. With much practice, characters can be recognized without having to think. But some characters are very similiar. And so time needs to be spent on learning the differences so that such characters can easily be recognized without having to think.
Thus chinese character recognition can become a thin slicing event.
Isn't the Brain Amazing!
Related to this are those emails or facebook shares that go around commenting how wonderful the brain is that it can recognize a phrase where letters are either jumbled within a word or replaced by similiar or non-similiar numbers.
In this case the brain looks for patterns for faster recognition. The brain has its own in built ability to auto spell.
Though it's more like auto recognition.
Where chinese characters are easily mixed up, training can be used to train the brain to look for deeper patterns.
(And it might be relative to the characters around it that the brain learns to figure out which character is't supposed to be.)
Learning to Thin Slice
Now all of this talk of thin slicing in action would be pointless, or just a (hopefully) interesting read unless I talked about how to train intelligently so that you could actually learn to thin slice.
It's actually simple.
The brain learns to recognize or do clearly defined patterns.
Whether that patterns is not likeing someone for their sex or for the color of their skin, or presupposing a skill level based on similar prejudices.
The brain stores clearly definable patterns.
Patterns in Space (and in Time)
But to make something a part of yourself so that you have a subconscious model within yourself that can become self smart, the key is to focus on learning little bits at a time. But not just any little bits, clearly defined little bits that can be related to each other.
And as well as looking at components (little bits defined in space) it helps to also look at events, patterns that happen across time.
Then you can build a model of what you are studying in side of yourself and maximize your ability to thin slice.
It's what happens when we learn to drive a car or touch type.
And it's what can happen when we learn to do yoga or teach it.
The more we understand the more likely we are to thin slice.
But the key to understanding is using critical thinking to break down what we are learning into consciously digestable chunks.
Know to flow
For a more indepth look at both learning to think and to flow, check out my new book Know to flow. Learn more about learning to think clearly and to flow, and how to use the two mind-states effectively (and when to use them).