A Thought on the Science of Not Thinking

May 29, 2018 Justin Peter Gudel

“In some ways, it’s impossible for us to think without words, and yet we all did it at one point in time.”

It’s a humid 87 out in a treeless—thus shadeless—bit of strip mall.  A man pulls his 2003 diesel F150 up to a pump sitting out front of a gas station in need of renovations.  He hops from his seat and takes the forty steps necessary to go inside, where he then prepays for fuel.

After the transaction and the subsequent pumping, he gets back into his truck and pulls away.  With well-practiced motions of a decade of smoking, he opens, draws from a pack of Camels Wides, and then lights a cigarette.  All of this while thinking about the worksite, where his next task will be to oversee the cement team.

It hits him then.  He’d quit two days earlier.  He’d even thrown away the remnants of his last pack.  Why was he smoking now? He bought the Camels without a second thought.  Was it a habit that carried him through the process? Or was it something more insidious?  

Could there be some part of his brain that was making decisions without consulting him?

Similar stories (people making decisions without thinking) take place every day.    

My favorite systems theorist and cognitive scientist Derek Cabrera spent a significant portion of a TED talk covering this thought and why it’s essential to our learning.  We take it for granted, but in general, we think in words. When we take actions without words or subvocalized thoughts, we might write it off as habits, but it goes so much further than that.

Before we had the word for Cheerios, we sorted them with pudgy hands while we sat in highchairs.  Before we knew that strawberries were sweet, we knew we wanted them over green beans. In fact, before we knew that the bean was green, we could still tell it apart from a carrot sliced into a similar shape.

In some ways, it’s impossible for us to think without words, and yet we all did it at one point in time.

My point?  A lot of our thinking is still done this way, in the background of our cognition.  

Sometimes it’s as mindless as eating too many potato chips.  Still other times, it’s that we’re so ingrained into a culture that we’ve assumed certain things must be done a certain way—and others are taboo.

Malcolm Gladwell spent an entire chapter in his book Outliers on this.  He drew attention to a string of airline crashes in the nineties. The focus was on Korea Air and the issue being principally due to the co-pilot’s (at least in part) inability to disagreeing or correct senior pilots.  At that time and place, the cultural norms were one of deference to authority. It would have been undignified and disrespectful to speak up about an issue. For example, when we listen to the black box recordings, we hear these junior pilots hint at their concerns.  “There seems to be a lot of ice on the wing.” And then a second insight, “Look at the size of those icicles.” Both observations were spoked before a take off that went wrong.

Perhaps the most frightening black box conversation, was where a co-pilot politely expressed that their Boeing 707 was running out of fuel.  The JFK control operator had them queue up in the line of planes (who by definition were all running out of fuel) for their turn to land. What the co-pilot needed to say was, “We’re out of fuel.  You need to make room for us.” Yet that assertiveness went against the legacy he had been raised up in.

Let’s get back to Derek Cabrera.  DSRM is his theory and method for how we think.  DSRP is an acronym for distinctions, systems, relationships, and perspectives.  It’s a model for how we interact with and come to information. If he’s correct, DSRM can be used to show both how we can become better learners, but also why we’re bad at it.   

I’ve been putting a lot of my curiosity on the first two patterns.  That is distinctions and systems. In particular, identity and being part of a whole.  

If we fail to put much thought in these areas, our brain will make simple shortcuts or assumptions that can have interesting implications.  It’s just the way our brain works. The science is out there if you’d like to look it up. Our brain only wants to use so much energy at a time.  If it can do less on one task, it will; which frees up more processing for others jobs. Behavioral scientists like to call these heuristics.

Here is a quick list of some possible implications I alluded to above concerning sharing a Gospel message:

-It’s easy for the dechurched to assume their past experiences with Christians is indicative of all of Christianity

-If there is a contradiction in the text, then the entire piece has the potential to be wrong/incorrect

-If I define Christianity as a system of obligations, it is reasonable for me to look at each new piece of information through that lens

-Since negative experiences or losses feel about twice as impactful as gains, those will be the moments that stick


These might be implicit biases.  They might be assumptions. They might even be right.  

But this isn’t how we’d treat anything academic.  This isn’t the way we treat relationships. We can give sound answers to each of the above implications.  But why would a person not looking for answers want to even listen to responses? That’s too much effort.

That’s the rub.  Faith in Jesus gets treated in so many different ways.  Is it all head knowledge. Is it all feel-good messages that don’t assist me in my daily life?  When the church has gone on to share the Good News, it has done so the same way we’d try to teach history or geometry.  When that’s been too stodgy, we’ve decided to make it more attractive, and we’ve treated it like poetry or a love letter.

These are fine in their own right, but they don’t get you to the better story.  

I’m a broken record with that phrase.  The better story. I think it’s because deep down, we all long for it.  Somewhere in our most intimate recesses, we know that we were destined for something that matters.  

The better story is that we already have access to that meaning and purpose.  It’s not something we can buy or work towards. Instead, it’s an invitation that we can accept.  

So here it is, why I went on this tangent.  I posit that when we go to communicate Biblical messages, we do so with two things in mind.  We must be reasonable. We must communicate a better story.

This piece is part one of a three-part series on getting to the better story.  Next week we’ll be looking at the two overused sticks, shame vs. seduction. I’m hoping to shoehorn reasonableness into that piece as well.  

I’m looking forward to hearing from you.  Please respond or write. I have loved the letters.