Notes from Ransom Hall: A Higher Ed Blog

Think Slow With a Stayed Mind

Sean Decatur
May 19, 2018

Back in 2014, the year that today’s graduating seniors arrived here on campus, a group of neuroscientists from MIT published a report on the minimum length of time required for the human mind to process information from an image: 13 milliseconds, almost an order of magnitude faster than previously believed. How fast is 13 milliseconds? A blink of an eye takes about 100 milliseconds; a standard camera shutter motion takes about 125 milliseconds; the flap of a hummingbird wing takes about 80 milliseconds. So, 13 milliseconds is pretty fast.

As a culture we are somewhat obsessed with the speed of thinking and information processing: trivia games measure one’s ability to recall information quickly; speed is still valued in primary school arithmetic and spelling drills; and in the world of business we talk about innovation being driven by “clock speed,” the ability to process information and make decisions faster than competitors.

Yet psychologists have also studied the weakness of making fast judgments or drawing quick conclusions. The pioneering work by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, later summarized in Kahneman’s best-selling book “Thinking Fast and Slow,” demonstrated that the human mind makes quick judgments by relying on heuristics that lead to cognitive biases; and as a result we reach conclusions that are deeply flawed. We make snap assessment of probabilities that defy logical, reasonable conclusions from statistics, and we let bias and stereotype — especially those arising from the cultural context in which we are embedded — to frame and shape our instantaneous judgments.

There are certainly moments when fast-thinking systems of our brains serve us well: Our movement (whether walking, driving a car or riding a bicycle), our ability to speak, and our ability to take direction from written signs or instructions are all generally governed by subconscious near-instantaneous decision-making that is sharpened and refined by a great deal of practice and repetition. These systems are responsible not just for our survival, but more profoundly for at least part of what it means to be human.

Yet we witness many examples where our fast-thinking leads us astray, and where our collective dependence on flawed instantaneous judgment results in individual and social harm, and where action directed by heuristics and bias leads to the perpetuation of stereotype and the reification of injustice. We are all burdened by our immersion in a culture that has been shaped by legacies of deeply entrenched bias; where heuristics used to make fast decisions have been shaped by the very real phenomena of racism, sexism and other systemic ills. Lately we have seen many examples of this: a snap judgment that a teenage boy ringing the doorbell is a potential threat worthy of a call to the police, not a young person looking for help; or where one makes assumptions about character based on a person’s political choice.

These are not abstract or distant incidents, but rather phenomena we can observe much closer to home. For even within our own community, among a tight-knit group that often considers itself a family, fast-thinking directed by cultural bias and prejudice can lead to assumptions, judgments and even actions that strain and disrupt the community fabric.

Your four years of immersion in the liberal arts here at Kenyon have focused not on your fast-thinking but primarily on your slow-thinking: the ability to go deeper than the 13-millisecond observation when processing information, to expand beyond the immediate heuristic into more complex problem-solving analysis, to expand your cultural context to include voices and perspectives beyond your own experience. Fast-thinking may help make us human, but slow-thinking completes our humanity.

Most of our life experiences exist in a context governed by volatility, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Indeed, when we look at the world today, whether from the perspective of business, science and technology, international relations, or local government and community development, we find circumstances that are uncertain and ambiguous. And it’s in these environments in which your slow-thinking skills will allow you to excel.

Hearing is fast — even hearing to extract information is fast — but listening is slow. An excellent liberal arts education should prepare you to move beyond sharpening your skills to hear information in order to have a quick response and action, but rather to listen carefully (and slowly) to develop a deep understanding.

Reaction with emotion is fast, but reaction with empathy — understanding of the experiences of others — is slow. An excellent liberal arts education, enriched by immersion in great literature and art from a wide range of cultural perspectives, helps you to move toward a more empathetic response.

So I ask that as you leave Kenyon, you continue to do the work that will develop your slow-thinking: continue to read broadly, continue to be open to difficult and different ideas, and continue to explore the depth and substance of your beliefs, finding inspiration and substance to advocate with these beliefs with compassion and clarity. In your time here in Gambier, Kenyon has expected you to put your education into daily practice and action, and I ask that you integrate this into your day-to-day living moving forward.

But there’s a second request I would like to make of you this afternoon, this one drawing inspiration from the classic freedom song “Woke Up This Morning,” which in the first verse the singers declare “Woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom.” That second part of the statement has always caught my attention, in part because I love the powerful use of the past-tense verb “stayed” as an adjective, or as the anchor of an adjectival clause “stayed on freedom.” One could have substituted other words for stayed — focused, set, even the gerund staying — but this would not capture the power or the lyricism of “stayed.” There is an implication that other forces are aimed at pulling one’s mind away, and that these forces are constantly active, but in the face of that, the mind manages to have “stayed” on freedom. Like many classic spirituals or folk gospel songs, there is a wonderful beauty and power in this phrasing.

So I ask you today not only to think slow, but to think slow with a stayed mind, a mind that is firmly rooted in a system of ethical principles. For one should take away from a liberal arts education not only improved ways of thinking and analysis, but also a set of values — of justice and fairness, of respect for those around you — that should be bedrock. There will be pressure and forces that push and pull you away from these values. There will be times when the distractions or inevitable business of daily life makes a commitment to ideals and aspirations seem less urgent. But despite whatever may be happening in your life, your aim should be to wake up every morning with your mind stayed on these values, shaping your daily actions.

When you see injustice in the world around you, don’t let your thinking drift toward cynicism, but rather keep your mind stayed on justice to use your thinking to guide you to action on behalf of righteousness. When there are opportunities to lend your voice to important discussions, don’t shrink back in fear or sink into a sea of silent apathy, but with a stayed mind, step up to listen, speak and engage.

Kenyon has prepared you to face the world with a slow-thinking and stayed mind. And that world, filled with uncertainty and complexity, with overwhelming problems and challenges, needs you.

Good luck, and I look forward to seeing you back on the Hill again soon.