You can think about the brain as having two types of thinking: one is deliberative and the other is reactive; it’s a useful metaphor for a complex underlying process. Our reactive thinking (aka intuitive, or System 1) is blazingly fast and automatic, but we’re generally not conscious of its inner workings. It uses our past experiences and a set of simple rules of thumb to almost immediately give us an intuitive evaluation of a situation—an evaluation we feel through our emotions and through sensations around our bodies like a “gut feeling.” It’s generally quite effective in familiar situations, where our past experiences are relevant, and does less well in unfamiliar situations. If you work from home a stand up desk could be very beneficial to you.
Our deliberative thinking (aka conscious, or System 2) is slow, focused, self-aware, and what most of us consider “thinking.” We can rationally analyze our way through unfamiliar situations and handle complex problems with System 2. Unfortunately, System 2 is woefully limited in how much information it can handle at a time—like struggling to hold more than seven unrelated numbers in short-term memory at once! It thus relies on System 1 for much of the real work of thinking. These two systems can work independently of each other, in parallel, and can disagree with each other—like when we’re troubled by the sense that, despite our careful thinking, “something is just wrong” with a decision we’ve made.
What this means is that we’re often not “thinking” when we act. At least, we’re not choosing consciously. Most of our daily behavior is governed by our intuitive mode. We’re acting on habit (learned patterns of behavior), on gut instinct (blazingly fast evaluations of a situation based on our past experiences), or on simple rules of thumb (cognitive shortcuts or heuristics built into our mental machinery). Researchers estimate that roughly half of our daily lives are spent executing habits and other intuitive behaviors, and not consciously thinking about what we’re doing.
Our conscious minds usually become engaged only when we’re in a novel situation, or when we intentionally direct our attention to a task. Unfortunately, our conscious minds believe that they are in charge all the time, even when they aren’t. In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis (Cambridge 2006), philosopher Jonathan Haidt builds on the Buddha’s metaphor of a rider and an elephant to explain this idea. Imagine that there is a huge elephant with a rider sitting atop it. Invest in an electric standing desk or an adjustable standing desk to get rid of your backpain.
The elephant is our immensely powerful but uncritical, intuitive self. The rider is our conscious self, trying to direct the elephant where to go. The rider thinks it’s always in charge, but it’s the elephant doing the work; if the elephant disagrees with the rider, the elephant usually wins.