Last month’s column focused on Jeff Hawkins’ thoughtprovoking analysis of the nature of the elusive human property we call intelligence. Hawkins defines intelligence as the ability to predict what will occur and to develop an appropriate response. He argues that prediction requires a continual cognitive comparison between what is occurring and what we expect will occur.

Two central elements in intelligent prediction and response are (1) how rapidly we can predict and respond to an event, and (2) the amount and type of information we need for effective prediction and response. The conventional wisdom has been that the best results emerge from the reflective analysis of a lot of relevant data.

Malcolm Gladwell explores this issue in his fascinating non-technical book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005). He argues that subconscious snap judgments play a far more significant role in our lives than most people realize. He makes his case principally through a series of well-chosen, engagingly-told examples of snap judgments—decisions made during the first few seconds of an encounter. Some turned out well; others were a disaster. The underlying science is implicit in the stories, and adequately explained in Notes at the back of the book.

Those who can quickly and correctly predict and respond to dangers and opportunities are more apt to live long enough to enhance the gene pool, so whatever is innate about rapid successful prediction and response has become integral to human life. We’re thus capable of making rapid successful subconscious judgments, and we tend to value that ability. For example, it was proudly decisive George W. Bush who received 51% of the presidential vote rather than proudly reflective John Kerry. The rhetoric from both campaigns magnified that personality difference.

We have two separate response systems: (1) Challenges with a sense of immediacy tend to elicit snap judgments and responses. They are rapidly and reflexively processed within our brain’s innate stress-driven, conceptual (principally subcortical) problem-solving system. This system responds quickly on the basis of the small amount of emotionally intense information that’s typically available in such situations. It’s thus quite vulnerable to making impetuous, racist, sexist, or elitist judgments that focus on only a few highly visible emotion-charged elements. (2) Challenges without a sense of immediacy are processed more slowly and reflectively by our brain’s curiosity-driven, analytical (principally cortical) problem-solving system.

We thus will respond reflexively to a car moving swiftly toward us (conceptually concerned only with its looming rapid approach), but we’ll generally respond reflectively to a car on a dealer’s lot, if we’re considering its purchase (and are thus concerned with its cost, service history, and possible problems).

Our subconscious rapid reflexive system is the default system because it responds to dangers and opportunities that require an immediate decisive (fight-flight) response that will enhance survival. When it isn’t immediately obvious whether a reflexive or reflective response is the more appropriate, both systems simultaneously search for a solution, with the reflexive system typically responding first.

Most of us thus ad hoc our way through life with a long string of regrets and apologies because of the late arrival of our brain’s (often better) reflective response.

Gladwell devotes much of Blink to our ability to quickly size up an emotional encounter through its human dynamics—facial expression, body posture, tone of voice, etc. Emotion is a subconscious thermostat-like arousal system that alerts us to potential dangers and opportunities, and attention is a focusing system that separates an emotionally significant foreground from its less significant background. Every person we meet is a potential danger or opportunity, so we must rapidly and subconsciously extrapolate subtle bits of body language into a comprehensive perception of intent. Our inner emotions have an automatic correlate in our external facial expressions and body language because it’s important to our social species’ welfare that we correctly perceive each other’s intentions.

Gladwell doesn’t discuss the recent significant discovery of mirror neurons, a class of neurons that seems to explain this cognitive phenomenon. Mirror neurons activate when we engage in goal directed behavior—but also when we perceive someone else engaged in that behavior. Examples include an infant’s tendency to mimic facial expressions, and our tendency to yawn when we see someone else yawn. We commonly call it reading someone else’s mind. Autistic people apparently have mirror neuron deficiencies and so are unable to sense what others are thinking. For a more complete discussion of mirror neurons, see my August 2002 column.

As indicated above, the quick extrapolation of an observed thin slice of a person into the entire person can lead to faulty judgment if the thin slice contains elements (such as skin color, gender, and body piercing) that inappropriately bias the judgment. Gladwell recounts how female and minority musicians were rarely hired by symphony orchestras before orchestras instituted a policy of using a screen to shield auditioning candidates from the selection committee.

Companies use brand logos and celebrity endorsements to deliberately bias the snap product judgments we make when shopping. Politicians use loaded terms to glorify themselves and demonize their opponent. We allow mass media to do our reflective thinking for us, to provide justification for the snap judgments we had made about the issue.

We admire those who successfully make snap judgments in a rapidly changing environment (such as stock market traders, professional athletes, and Olympic diving judges). Chess masters are an example of those who must quickly predict what another person will do several turns later.

Gladwell explains how such experts function consciously and successfully during a challenge that’s subconscious and often unsuccessful for the rest of us. Experts can instantly focus on the key elements and ignore the peripheral. Experts devote much of their life to a narrow range of human experience, and in the process amass a conscious wealth of useful information on all possibilities within that narrow range. For example, he describes professional food tasters who can tell which factory produced the cookie of a national brand, or who can explicitly describe the taste differences between Coke and Pepsi. Their training thus enables them to make very intelligent snap judgments within their area of expertise, but they may be just like the rest of us in other areas of life. Talent isn’t the same thing as high intelligence, which assumes broader expertise.

We can’t consciously stop our first impressions because they are processed by innate subconscious systems. Our large conscious forebrain provides an important option to first impressions, however, and allows us to balance our initial subconscious snap judgments with conscious reflective thought and decision that considers a broader range of information on the issue.

Next month’s column will focus on that broader balanced form of expertise—commonly called wisdom. Where is it located in our brain, and how does it emerge?