The Undermind: Why Thinking Less Makes You Smarter

‘Modern Western culture has so neglected the intelligent unconscious—the undermind, I shall sometimes call it—that we no longer know that we have it, do not remember what it is for, and so cannot find it when we need it.’

—Guy Claxton, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind

I’m wondering how the statement above might’ve landed for you. Curiousity or perhaps a more skeptical inner voice came up? Would it interest you to know that this intriguing sounding statement about the undermind comes not from some new-agey, self-help expert. Guy Claxton is a highly esteemed cognitive scientist, academic, researcher and a visiting professor at London’s prestigious Kings College.

Having occupied the coaching, leadership development and education space for a while now it’s still surprising that tools or strategies which appear softer, non-analytic and without immediate implications for bottom-line and ROI continue to be parsed off as fluffy chaff. It can leave one feeling as though they are more coaching to the spreadsheet than to a real ‘flesh, blood and feelings’ human.

While our modern attachment to linear deliberate models of human and organizational development and problem-solving look great on a graph and sing comforting lullabies to the modern rapid results-driven mindset, cutting-edge research clearly demonstrates that this has been at the expense of us dining from the full smorgasbord of our intellectual capacities.

In 1996 (around the same time that Guy’s Hare Brain Tortoise Mind with the above quote hit the shelves) two other cognitive scientists, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, published a groundbreaking treatise titled Philosophy in the Flesh. They were among the growing throng of contemporary scientists outlining a compelling case for why the long-held Cartesian split of body as meat machine and mind as some higher ephemeral process was very much wrong. Instead, they proposed how mind and body are all part of a profoundly integrated process. Body is mind and vice versa. And if we want to think differently and more creatively with all of our potential then we need to engage with that—the body—in the process.

One paragraph in particular in Lakoff and Johnson’s book grabbed my attention,

‘Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95% of all thought—and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95% below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought.’

So more than 95% of all our thought and inner process is happening below the conscious radar in the undermind of Claxton’s, yet it is driving all your conscious thought. What this said to me as a coach was that here might lie the very reason change and forward movement is so goddam tough. When you’ve got less than 5% of conscious decision-making going east and all the rest heading west, no wonder we get overwhelmed and fall back into the old ruts. Equally, what if we could tap into this netherworld ocean of the undermind? Doesn’t not doing so mean we’re potentially leaving most of our intellect and processing power untouched?

The reality is, of course, that a certain whack of this 95%+ of thought ocean is not all high level math, designs for nuclear fusion reactors or your next PhD theses. A fair bit is probably fairly mundane ops stuff: ‘Eyes narrow. Blood vessels open. Heart … pick up the tempo please!’ and so on. Yet I was recently chatting with a colleague and behavioral scientist Dr. Julia Kolodko and about this and while she broadly agreed, she was also pretty clear that there’s still a lot left on the table which is most likely involved in all the grooviest high-level creative stuff. And it’s this vast implicit sea of intelligence which Claxton is calling the undermind.

How might we recruit this?

Clearly the conscious, deliberate analytic modes which are reified in our modern cultural mindset are, in fact, anathema to such a thing. We obviously need to go in another direction. One which heads into the far murkier unempirical sounding waters of intuition, insight and gut feelings. To add a little scientific rigor here, let’s turn to psychologist, researcher, world-renowned expert in risk and decision-making and Director at the Max Plank Institute, Gerd Gigerenzer, who tells us that,

‘An intuition is neither caprice nor a sixth sense but a form of unconscious intelligence.’

Yep. Good old intuition is apparently not the decision-making flim flam we might have been taught it was. Instead it appears to be that very 95%—the undermind—poking its head up. Potentially with a very good answer. Yet, according to Gigerenzer, there are some caveats about the conditions in which intuitive decision-making trumps our more habitual analytic version which are:

1. If you are certain about all the correlates or data points of an issue, then the deliberate modes of thinking absolutely rock.

2. If you are not certain or don’t know all the potential pieces precisely, intuition is statistically the better mode.

Now seeing as many of our life decisions have to be made with incomplete data sets—meaning we cannot be certain of all the vectors etc.—then surely research is telling us is we would do well to develop this intuitive capacity. Now here’s where it also gets more interesting. While most researchers tend to talk about two types of decision pathways:

1. The deliberate, conscious & analytic.

2. The quick’n’dirty intuitive.

Yet even intuition itself comes in two flavors: fast and slow. The faster version is important as a way to negotiate quick yet important life decisions. While still considered and important form of intelligence it is often prone to cognitive biases. The slow form of intuition, however, is another beast altogether.

Claxton tells us,

‘Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill-defined.’

In fact, research seems to show that this slow form of intuition is far better suited to managing uncertainty, bias and complexity than the analytic or our faster intuitive process.

How do we actually access this resource?

How to cultivate and develop this slower mode now seems the issue at hand. Practices (mindfulness is one!) are essential yet there are plenty of other skills all of which I’ve integrated into the coach training programs I’ve developed and the latest version being the Emergent Coach Training program. Look over our guide, website and read these blogs to learn more.

Let me leave you with a brief exercise to try engaging the undermind into decision-making. Perhaps experiment with your next important decision. One whose correlates seems a little fuzzy and unclear. Without running all your conceptual outcome models, try simply living with an open question around it. Neither allowing it to preoccupy your day, yet also not allowing it to slip out of mind entirely. You might try simply touching it lightly over the day with an open question such as: What is my best way forward here? Not forcing an answer. Simply setting the stage appropriately, laying out the feast for the guest to arrive. And then waiting. Apart from creating these curious conditions, one needs to practice patience. Our modern timetable mindset demands answers yesterday, yet this urgency is the very killer of the slow path’s emergence.

Rod Francis

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