Learning to think fast and slow

Published 8:25 pm Monday, January 7, 2019

“Looks like rain” is a phrase you may have heard before.  You may have even heard of it while sitting inside your home, with the windows closed.  What exactly about outside, made you think that it looked like rain?  Most of the farmers and proper woodsman I know recognize when rain is coming.   It may be the smell, behavior of animals, the way leaves turn a certain direction or the feel of moisture in the air.  It may also just be a feeling that they have, that they cannot explain.  That feeling that they have, or maybe you if this sounds familiar to you, is something we can all tap into if we recognize that it is there.

It is not something magical, or something only a special few gifted people can do.  We can all do it.  We only need to spend more time paying attention to our surroundings.  It would also serve us well to understand that we each have, within our brains, an ingrained ability to sometimes think slow, and other times, to think fast.  Those are terms that psychologist Daniel Kahneman wrote about in his book, entitled Thinking Fast and Slow.  Kahneman determined that there are two distinct systems of thought processes in our brains.  Let me explain how understanding this benefits us greatly if you want to see and experience more while you are enjoying the great outdoors.

System 1, slow thinking, is very deliberate and one in which we make calculations or follow rules.  System 2, fast thinking, is more along the lines of how we react to situations naturally without much thought being given to the situation at all.  For example, with slow system 1 thinking, we may see a bird perched in a tree on our next hike.  As we look at it, we notice that the head is much smaller than the body, that it has a large, mostly white, breast with specks of dark color in it.  And, that it is on the edge of a field.  System 1 thinking being methodical and calculating helps us to understand that it is a red-tailed hawk.  If that same hawk were to swoop in and try to take our hat off.  System 2 (fast) thinking would make you duck your head.  Possibly even move away without thinking about doing it.  It is very natural and fast to do so without any calculation. 

You may be asking yourself, “What does this have to do with doing anything outside?”  I am so glad you asked. 

Think of your thought processes as being along a sliding scale.  On one end of the scale is fast thinking, and on the other end is slow thinking.  All your thoughts will fall along this line.  The more time you spend outside the more your environmental understanding will edge closer to the fast thinking.  For example, I am unashamedly a tree nerd.  I like studying trees.  I play a game with myself often while driving and see if I can identify trees along the side of the road as quickly as I drive by them.  I am not great at it, but I am much better than I was 10 years ago.  That is because I have studied trees so much at this point that my ability to identify them has moved closer to the fast thinking side of that scale.  When I first started studying tree identification, I had to be more deliberate, look at leaves, bark, buds and more.  It took a lot of slow thinking to help me identify them. 

Same is true for our original example at the beginning of this article.  For those that spend plenty of time outside, they begin to see the patterns that indicate rain is coming.  Even though they may not deliberately break down why they know it is about to rain, the fast thinking part of the brain already recognizes it without much thought being given to it.  Pretty cool huh?  So, what does all this mean? It means this.  If you want to be more comfortable as a hunter, farmer, woodsman, hiker etc. while you are outdoors, then you must spend more time out there.  By doing so you will develop your ability to recognize more of what you see out there, by utilizing the fast thinking portion of your brain.  It will become rather natural.  If you do that, you will most likely run into me somewhere on, or off the trail!

Craig Caudill is a lifelong resident of Winchester and serves as Director of Nature Reliance School. He is the author of Extreme Wilderness Survival, Ultimate Wilderness Gear and Essential Wilderness Navigation (April 2019).  Please feel free to contact Craig at info@naturereliance.org or through any of the various social media platforms available.