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Unconscious Thoughts

Unconscious Thoughts

This morning while walking out of the parking lot I had to pass between two large bushes. I was carrying a number of things in one arm against my chest. Approaching the bushes, I automatically moved few of the items over to my free hand. As I passed through, I realized that I would not have fit if hadn’t done that.

What surprised me about this realization is that I never gave it any thought. I was never aware of looking at the bushes or thinking about the size of the opening. I have no recollection of considering the things I was holding or how far they stuck out from my body. Instead, somewhere below the surface, my brain did the calculation, told my arms what to do, and they obeyed.

You’re probably thinking: so what, I do things like that a hundred times a day. And that’s right, you do. We all do. But that’s exactly the point. How much thinking happens without any direction or intention? The answer, it turns out, is a lot. How does this impact your relationship with your child? How about with your co-parent? That’s worth taking a look at.

Thinking Fast and Slow

Thinking Fast and Slow about Co-ParentingDaniel Kahneman received a nobel prize in economics in 2011. He also wrote a book called Thinking Fast and Slow. The book says that we have two brains in one. The first thinks fast, really fast. It handles things like walking, remembering how old you are, and other automatic pieces. The second brain works much slower and is good for things like doing math or making major decisions.

They’re good at different things, but both necessary. For example, if you had to focus on every detail in every step you took, you wouldn’t get very far. Handing it over to the quick brain lets you make lightning-fast adjustments when a crack in the sidewalk comes out of nowhere. (Bear with me, I promise we’ll get back to co-parenting).

But all that speed comes at a price. The fast brain makes a lot of mistakes. And that’s ok, because it’s hard-wired to screw up in only one direction: it’s always going to lean toward something being a threat. So, if you catch sight of a squiggly stick out of the corner of your eye – unless your fast brain is certain that it’s a stick, it’s going to assume that there’s a snake about to strike. You jump to avoid getting bit, your friends make fun of you, and you blame your stupid fast brain for making a silly mistake.

That was no mistake. Your brain worked perfectly. If that had been a snake, there was no time for your slow brain to kick in and consider every fact you know about sticks, snakes, and anything else it might have been. Long before brain number 2 got around to a decision you would have been a goner. So, we need the fast brain to assess those kind of situations. And, we need it to err on the side of caution. Because jumping at 100 sticks hurts nothing but your ego. Failing to jump from one snake might cost your life.

Life and Death Decisions

So your fast brain is vital, but it causes a lot of mistakes. Your slow brain doesn’t have time to kick in during an emergency situation, which is good. Unfortunately, the opposite isn’t true. Your fast brain continues working while your slow brain is considering a problem. And it’s really hard to tell the conclusions of one from the other.

Here’s an example: In a famous experiment one group of people was asked whether they would have surgery if the survival rate was 90%. A different group of people was asked the same question but told the mortality rate was 10%. Significantly more people in the first group said they would have the surgery. It’s two ways of describing the same situation: in both cases you have a 90% chance of living and a 10% chance of dying. But, by focusing on the chances of dying, the second question caused the fast brain to kick in and push to avoid harm.

Thinking About Co-Parenting

Our two-brain system developed long ago when there were more day-to-day threats than there are now. Go back far enough and my ancestors were very likely to encounter an animal trying to eat them. Unless you count when my toddler went through a biting phase, the same can’t be said for me. But, I’ve still got the same fast-brain running in the background – taking every opportunity to jump at a threat and mess with my thinking.

Co-parenting is hard. Even in the best situation, there are tons and tons of emotions mixed up in every aspect of it. Our customers generally use Split Schedule because they’re knee-deep in high conflict relationships. You’ve been dealing with bad feelings for so long that you stop noticing anything unusual about it. But your fast brain hasn’t. All those harsh words and broken promises feed the fast brain and make it even more sure that there’s a threat.

Being careful isn’t a bad thing. But if it starts to keep you from thinking clearly you have a problem. Worse, you have a problem you can’t think about (because thinking is the problem). But if we know that there are two brains trying to do our thinking, then we can use it to our advantage.

So the next time your co-parent does something, and you immediately feel that cold flush of adrenaline, it might be worth taking a minute to let your slow brain catch. Remember that the first decision might be a fast brain mistake. Put it aside for a minute and think just a little longer.  If it’s worth being upset, your slow brain will come to the same result. But if it’s not, you just avoided jumping from the stick.