Our Lazy Brain and How to Train It

Francis Piche Student Software Engineer, McGill

22 October 2017

“Most impressions and thoughts arise in your conscious experience without your knowing how they got there”

-Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow.

Lately I’ve been reading Daniel Kahneman’s book, “Thinking Fast and Slow” during my daily commute. (no time wasted!)

If you haven’t read the book already, first off, DO IT. It’s a truly fantastic book about critical thinking, biases and our modes of thinking.

Lately it’s gotten me thinking about the interesting notion of “lazy brain”, and how our brains almost always default to a low-effort state.

As students, (and eventually engineers/scientists), our brains are pretty damn important. So why not spend some time exploring this idea, and how we might be able to willfully circumvent it.

Lazy Brain.

First off, what is lazy brain?

Lazy brain is just what I’ve re-named Kahneman’s “System 1”.

This is the set of functions our brains have for: intuition, reactionary responses, biases, etc.

Basically it just coasts. It’s fast, and it’s usually the default operator of our brain.

I’m massively over-simplifying, but to avoid re-writing chapters of the book, I’ll leave it at that.


Why is it bad?

Well, it seems bad, right? “lazy” is bad, right?

Well, yes, and no.

The lazy brain is the brain that keeps us alive, mostly. It’s the brain that turns your head in the direction of a sound, alerts you of strange smells, so it’s good in that sense.

But it’s terrible at making complex judgement calls, analyzing data, making accurate inferences, or generally anything requiring active effort.

This is the part I want to focus on. I think it’ll be interesting to explore how we might be able to “train” our lazy brain.


Make thinking hard a habit:

I’m a big believer that we are the product of our habits. And that’s a strongly backed-up claim. However, I like to extended that idea into areas of life that people generally don’t associate with habitual behaviors.

Specifically, I want to talk about the notion of thinking-related habits.

How often do you think hard?

It’s a tough question to answer, because how do you measure thinking? What counts as “hard”?

When you play a strategy game like Risk, or Catan, are you constantly cooking up plans 5 steps ahead, implementing as much game-theory as possible? Or are you sitting back, waiting for it to be your turn and playing without much thought of your opponents next move?

Do you read dense non-fiction, or do you watch shows? Do you look for answers when you get stuck on a problem, or do you work it out?

These might give hints as to how accustomed you are to thinking hard, and how much of a “habit” it is for you.

I’ll admit, I tend to relax during board games, and I don’t read as much as I’d like to, but I will say that I do a lot of hard thinking.

It’s unavoidable, really, doing as much Comp Sci and math as I am this semester. But still, I often find my lazy brain reaching for the solutions manual when I know that if I struggle for a few more minutes, I could work out the answer.

A predictable side effect of taking all “problem solving” courses, however, is that I’ve gotten better accustomed to thinking hard.

I mean, that’s what I do all day.

I do math for two hours before my first lecture, which is math, then do some programming or math until my next lecture, which is also math, and so on. At first it felt impossibly exhausting. Now, however, the “problem solving” aspect of each subject is starting to bleed over into the others.

I’ve noticed a significant increase in the speed and ease with which I’m able to solve problems that, had I not been so accustomed to solving, I’d get stumped by.

You’ve probably noticed this in the first weeks of a math course after a summer off.

“System 1 is impulsive and intuitive; System 2 is capable of reasoning, and it is cautious, but at least for some people, it is also lazy. ” – Daniel Kahneman


I’m tempted to think this bleeds outside of thinking as well…

This week I’ve taken a break from the gym, to save time for midterms. I’ve instead replaced it with short, 6 minute bouts of intense cardio first thing in the morning.

I gotta say, it’s damned hard.

Probably the hardest workouts I’ve ever done, and I hate doing it. That being said, I’ve noticed a difference in my willingness to approach hard problems throughout the day.

It seems that after getting through something so grueling, all other problems don’t look so bad.

I know it can’t be just me who feels that.


Summed up, my argument is this:

If you want to get good at doing hard things, do hard things. Make struggle a habit, and it won’t seem so bad.

And if you want to overcome your lazy brain, make thinking a habit.


It was a short one today, since I’m busy thinking hard about how to pass my probability and linear algebra midterms next week. None the less, I refuse to skip a week!

Keep chugging along. 🙂

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