Thinking Fast and Slow (book review)

KahnemanThinking Fast and Slow’ is an intellectual tour de force describing a life-time’s work in psychology that ultimately won its author Daniel Kahneman the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2002. Although its immediate relevance to musical memory isn’t obvious, I was encouraged to read it as a result of an excellent review of the book at music@monkton.

This extraordinary book contains a wealth of wisdom on human behaviour. Central to the book is the concept that we all have two ways of processing information: ‘System 1’ is fast, effortless and intuitive, and ‘System 2’ is slow, effortful and deductive. We use System 1 automatically to quickly draw conclusions without really trying – for example: driving a car on an empty road; detecting anger in someone’s voice or in their facial expression; and answering simple questions like 2+2. In contrast, the slower acting System 2 requires attention and mental effort – for example, filling out a tax form; searching a crowd for women with white hair; and answering difficult questions like 17×24. (Try the last one. You can do it, but it takes a bit of time while your working memory juggles different intermediate numbers.)

Over several decades of work, Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky constructed a series of ingenious experiments to explore when we use each of these systems, and reached some rather disconcerting conclusions. Although many of us equate ourselves with the rational System 2, in fact we rely on System 1 far more than we realise. System 2 is quite lazy, and if we can possibly jump to conclusions without it, we do. Oftentimes this is the sensible thing to do and intuition gives us the right answer, but in many cases it results in serious errors of judgement. For example, we are particularly good at using cultural stereotypes to judge someone, and particularly bad at using statistical facts to adjust our expectations. As the New York Times review points out, “All of us, and especially experts, are prone to an exaggerated sense of how well we understand the world.”

So what does this all have to do with music? I think both these systems are important when we learn and perform music. When practising and memorising a piece, System 2 should be slowly cogitating, considering how the notes all fit together and critically listening to the product. We have to hold multiple notes, chords, phrases and rhythms in our head all at once, coupled with rich information about volume, contour, timbre and emotional content. Yes, it’s hard work. But once we have actively processed the information we are more easily able to recall it in future. For a more detailed example of System 2’s role in learning music, read music@monkton’s blogpost “What is 17×24? Fantastic thinking!

And yet, when we perform a piece in its entirety, we cannot possibly consider all the information about every note as the piece unfolds in real-time. There is simply too much to think about. So we revert to the fast and intuitive System 1. Once the hard slog of memorising is done, we become so familiar with a piece that we just know it. Everyone who memorises music must have had the experience of playing on autopilot, where the fingers keep going even though the mind has wandered off. Expert intuition takes over, and lazy old System 2 can take a break. And we need it to. Although we should remain mindful of where we are in a piece, we also need to dissociate from the detailed information about each note and focus instead on the whole. Only then can we can respond intuitively to the performance situation and connect with the emotional content of the music.

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About Caroline Wright

pianist, composer, scientist
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