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We are dining in a very romantic restaurant. Of course, all our attention is focused on the words and behaviors of our beloved. She is the only person who matters in this dining room. Yet, we suddenly hear the name of our firm from the guy at the table behind us. Although, the guy is not speaking louder than before. After this disruption, we may be able to remember some of the details the guy mentioned about our company while we were totally absorbed by our beloved.
How is this possible?
Our brain has two different systems for thinking and solving problems:
System 2: conscious, deliberate and effortful. We use this system when solving analytically complex problems such as the multiplying 47*89. We are aware of the reasoning that we use to solve the problem and are thus able to explain it.
System 1: unconscious, intuitive and effortless. We use this system when performing automatic tasks such as driving or solving 2+2; however, this does not mean that the tasks are necessarily simple. When valuing the project of a start-up, the angel investor will especially rely on his/her intuitive system 2 though the task can be extremely complex. During our dinner, we unconsciously used his system 1 when memorizing the conversation of the guy behind us. But as information was not deemed to be relevant, our conscious system 2 was not activated. As this is a powerful but unconscious system of thinking, it is prone to many cognitive bias and heuristics which are a deviation from rational choice.
There are some neural correlations between these two systems, though still controversial in the academic world. A neuroscientific theory to be noticed is the global workspace theory. According to this theory, our neurons have three ways of sorting the tremendous quantity of perceived information in its environment:
1. Subliminal treatment: perceived information is not memorized.
2. Supraliminal and unattended treatment: perceived information, like the conversation at the table behind us, is treated but we are not aware of this information. This treatment can more or less be linked to our system 1 of thought.
3. Supraliminal and attended treatment: perceived information is treated and we become aware of this information. This treatment can more or less be linked to our system 2 of thought.
How does information jump from one level of consciousness to the other? It depends on how relevant our neurons judge the perceived information. For instance, during our romantic dinner, our system 1 may have perceived and unconsciously memorized and treated the discussion of the guy behind us. Nevertheless, this perceived information only become conscious when it had been judged relevant (actually, more relevant that what our beloved was telling us at this moment…).
Baars, B. J. (2005). Global workspace theory of consciousness: toward a cognitive neuroscience of human experience. Progress in brain research, 150, 45-53.
Thinking fast and slow, D. Kahneman
Dehaene, S., & Naccache, L. (2001). Towards a cognitive neuroscience of consciousness: basic evidence and a workspace framework. Cognition, 79(1), 1-37.