Thursday, November 1, 2012

Book Review - Thinking Fast and Slow

by Daniel Kahneman 

This was an interesting and thought provoking book. I must admit that I was more interested in part 1 (pages 1 to 105) because it gave me some fresh insights into human cognition and memory. The author simply divides thinking into two systems: system 1 - thinking processes that are automatic, and system 2 - thinking that involves conscious effort. To show the difference between the two systems I will use an illustration from the book.

“Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book ‘The Invisible Gorilla. They constructed a short film of two teams passing basketballs, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players. This task is difficult and completely absorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds. Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task – and especially the instruction to ignor one of the teams – that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla.”

The people who are not given the counting task operated using system 1 and tended to see the gorilla because they were not focused on particular details but attended to the more general information. They noticed the unexpected because of its novelty impact. On the other hand those given the counting task used system 2 and focused all their attention on the counting task, they tended to use conscious attention and this meant that they actively ignored other extraneous information. In order to achieve their goal they attended to some things but were bind to others. 

What struck me as being important was that I related this idea to the task of reading - if readers are using conscious attention to decode print then they will miss out on the broader thematic or global ideas that hold a story together. In other words if you attend to the details such as letter by letter or word by word decoding it will overload working memory and other information will tend to be ignored. This also has challenged my thinking about having children set personal reading goals before they read. In other words, if the reading goal is too specific it may narrow the reading focus and some other story information will be ignored.  Alternatively, if the reading goals are made too general then some finer details will be missed. The balance might depend on the purpose for the reading.

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