Everywhere you turn someone’s referencing the lizard, primitive, or reptilian brain. The popularization of cognitive neuroscience is everywhere. Sure, use caution and judgment when consuming polarization of any research, but how fantastic that research-based insights are accessible to aid us in understanding human minds and behaviors.

Why Understand the Human Brain?

Brain function offers insight into how we think, how we feel as well as how and why we behave as we do. Thus, our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors drive our learning, growing and changing. Consequently, a better understanding of the brain can accelerate learning and changing. So, if you’re interested in developing a new skill, changing an unhelpful habit, learning anything new, you want to know something about the brain’s role in making all that happen.

Why Use FAST and SLOW to Understand the Brain?

Daniel Kahneman, Noble Prize-winning psychologist, features the neuroscience popularization I find most valuable in the title of his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Fast and slow references the two brain systems—so simple!

Researchers in the discipline originated the simplification—fast and slow systems—as a shorthand for conceptualizing the brain’s complexity. That gives the simplification credibility for me. Plus, the use of system avoids equating particular human behaviors with specific parts of the brain, which is a common over-simplification that diminishes the complexity. Thus, the shorthand, fast and slow systems, balances the tension between researchers’ nuanced insights and the layman’s need for simple terminology.

FAST and SLOW Brain Systems: Simplified Overview

The human brain has two systems—one FAST, the other SLOW.

The FAST System is automatic and energy-efficient. 

The SLOW System is manual and energy-intensive. I use manual to contrast it with automatic, which means it requires much effort and intention.

FAST System Includes Survival Characteristics

Human brains, automatically and with little energy and effort, will:

  • Seek novelty
  • Seek pleasure
  • Avoid pain
  • Arouse fear

With this information, you immediately understand why distractions are so powerful. You recognize why we readily surf the net, scroll on the phone, perhaps are drawn into online shopping and eating desserts. It’s not surprising that marketers, social media designers, and political campaign strategists, well-versed in this research, can easily push our buttons.

These survival function qualities of the FAST system are characteristics of being human and part of all human brains. Therefore, let go of any notion that you can alter this reality of the human experience.

Contrasted with Executive Functions Associated with the Brain’s SLOW System

The SLOW System is responsible for executive functions such as:

  • Planning
  • Focusing
  • Organizing
  • Initiating tasks
  • Evaluating long-term consequences of behavior

Most anything of value you create will require these executive functions. Whether in the context of a classroom or life, each of these behaviors is vital when learning. Parents, of course, long for their children to enhance and hone all of these executive functions, which are associated with the pre-frontal cortex. Remember, these are in the SLOW System, which must be engaged intentionally and requires significant energy.

This contrast of FAST and SLOW system characteristics may evoke polarities such as:

  • Impulsive versus Disciplined
  • Distracted versus Focused

Such polarities alone might encourage you to label these two systems “bad vs. good” or “not helpful vs. awesome.” But wait. With some additional information, you’ll quickly see that simplification doesn’t hold.

FAST System: Additional Characteristics

The FAST System is also associated with your:

  • Expertise
  • Memories
  • Habits

Some amazing stuff! Your expertise, memories, and habits begin to define YOU and your uniqueness.

SLOW System: Additional Characteristics

  • New learning
  • New practices
  • New skills

Wow, once you grasp that learning new things and developing new skills requires the SLOW System—energy-intensive and requires intention, you quickly grasp why being a novice who’s ascending the learning curve is uncomfortable. Learning, after all, is challenging work. 

Learning: From Novice to Expert 

Want a simplification of the remarkably complex learning process? Here goes! 

Novices must intentionally engage their energy-demanding SLOW System, using the executive functions listed above to create quick retrieval of knowledge, develop expertise, apply that knowledge readily to new problems, and hone skills that can be executed skillfully and consistently.

Once the novice creates these new neuro networks or pathways using the SLOW System, the expertise, memories, and skills that emerge have also transformed the novice to an expert!   

The expert then engages the FAST System, which is automatic and energy-efficient, to use the expertise, recall the memories, and execute the skills. Thus learning, quite literally, changes the brain by creating new neuro networks.

Neuroplasticity makes this process possible throughout the human lifespan. Although greater myelination earlier in life does make a difference in the rate of learning at different stages of life. For more on this process of neuroplasticity, myelination, and creating neuro networks watch this short video.

Neuroplasticity enables you to move from novice to expert in many areas of life long after you finish your formal education. Exciting stuff! You have the power to learn and change your brain in order to achieve the vision you have of yourself. Yes, this takes time, but when you embrace the process, it’s possible!

Get start now. Choose one area where you would like to shift out of novice-hood. Then take a small step to engage the SLOW System and move forward. If you’re not sure where to start, I’d love to be a sounding board for you! Schedule a Clarifying Coaching Conversation with me and leave that conversation confident in your next step!