Why Thinking Less Makes You Smarter

‘Modern Western culture has so neglected the intelligent unconscious—the undermind, I shall sometimes call it—that we no longer know that we have it, do not remember what it is for, and so cannot find it when we need it.’

Guy Claxton, Hare Brain Tortoise Mind


I’m curious what went on for you when you read Guy’s statement above. Interest? Curiosity? Or was it a decidedly more skeptical inner voice? Would it impact on your perspective to know that this somewhat poetic sounding view of undermind is not emanating from yet another new-agey, self-help type. Guy Claxton is, in fact, a highly esteemed cognitive scientist, academic, researcher and, even in semi-retirement, still a visiting professor at London’s prestigious Kings College. I’m not leading with this to shine my own sciencey chops, rather than being keenly interested (as I know Guy is himself!) in wresting the subject matter here (aka the intelligent unconscious) from the alienating grip of the woosphere and re-appropriating it back to its rightful seat at the high table of whole intelligence.

Having occupied the coaching, leadership development and education space for a little while now it’s abundantly clear that still to this day any tool or strategy which seems soft, non-analytic and without immediate implications for bottom-line and ROI is pretty swiftly parsed off as fluffy chaff. It all too often feels like one can end up coaching to the spreadsheet rather than to a real flesh-and-blood human.

While our modern attachment to linear deliberate models of human and organizational development and problem-solving looks great on a graph and sings comforting lullabies to a modern mindset that demands immediate results, cutting-edge research now clearly demonstrates that sadly this has been at the expense of us dining from the full intellectual smorgasbord.


Around the same time that Guy’s extremely prescient Hare Brain Tortoise Mind hit the shelves, two other cognitive scientists  published an equally groundbreaking proposal. In 1996 George Lakoff and Mark Johnson unleashed Philosophy in the Flesh onto the newly emerging field of cognitive science known as Embodied Mind or Embodied Cognition. All were outlining the case that the long-held Cartesian belief in body as mere meat machine and mind as phantasmic process was big time wrong. Instead, their (and many others) work demonstates that mind and body are all part of a profoundly integrated process.

Furthermore one statement in Lakoff and Johnson’s book really caught my attention,

‘Conscious thought is the tip of an enormous iceberg. It is the rule of thumb among cognitive scientists that unconscious thought is 95% of all thought—and that may be a serious underestimate. Moreover, the 95% below the surface of conscious awareness shapes and structures all conscious thought.’


Say whaaaaat? So more than 95% of all our thought is floating about below the radar? What this said to me as a coach was that here might lie the very reason change and forward movement is so goddam tough. When you’ve got less than 5% of conscious decision-making going east and all the rest heading west, no wonder we get overwhelmed and fall back into the old ruts. Equally, what if we could tap into this netherworld ocean? Doesn’t not doing so mean we’re potentially leaving most of our intellect and processing power untouched?

Now the reality is, of course, that a certain whack of this 95%+ of thought ocean is not all high level math, designs for nuclear fusion reactors or your next PhD theses. A fair bit is probably fairly mundane ops stuff: ‘Hey! Eyes narrow. Blood vessels open. Heart … pick up the tempo please!’ and so on. I was recently chatting with a colleague and scientist Dr. Julia Kolodko and about this and while she broadly agreed, she was also pretty clear that there’s still a lot left on the table which is most likely involved in all the grooviest high-level creative stuff. And it’s this vast implicit left-over sea of intelligence which Guy calls the undermind.

So how might we recruit it?


Clearly the conscious, deliberate, analytic modes which we’ve become habituated to, and which are largely reified in our current culture, are anathema to such a thing. We clearly need to go in another direction. And that means one which heads into the far murkier unempirical-looking waters of intuition, insight and gut feelings. To add a little science pizzazz and rigor to the topic, let’s turn to psychologist, researcher, world-renowned expert in risk and decision-making and Director at the Max Plank Institute, Gerd Gigerenzer, who tells us that,

‘An intuition is neither caprice nor a sixth sense but a form of unconscious intelligence.’


Yep. Good old intuition is apparently not the decision-making flim flam we might have been taught it was. Instead it’s that very 95% poking its head up over the parapet with an answer. Potentially a very good answer. However, there is some important nuance to add to this. Firstly, Gigerenzer is clear that there is something of a golden rule in terms of value:

  1. If you are certain about all the correlates or data points of an issue, then the deliberate modes of thinking absolutely rock.
  2. If you are not certain or don’t know all the potential pieces precisely, intuition (coupled with a little d-mode) are gonna win.

Now seeing as many of our life decisions have to be made with incomplete data sets—meaning we cannot be certain of all the components—then surely what research is telling us is we need this other mode—the intuitive—more fully online for making great choices. Now here’s where it also gets even more interesting. While most researchers in the field cite two main pathways:

  1. The deliberate, conscious & analytic.
  2. The quick’n’dirty intuitive.

Our friend Guy Claxton puts forward another. One which can help tease forth even more, and that’s one he calls: the slow intuitive. Claxton tells us,

‘Recent scientific evidence shows convincingly that the more patient, less deliberate modes of mind are particularly suited to making sense of situations that are intricate, shadowy or ill-defined.’


In other words, this slow intuitive might be way better suited to managing uncertainty and complexity than Mr Figure-It-All-Out ever could be.

So where does this now leave us?


Cultivating this slower way is clearly now the issue at hand, and frankly these very skills have found themselves front and center in the coach training programs I’ve been designing and forming in my work at the Human Potential Institute. Mindfulness, somatic awareness skills and so forth are all integrated into the training as they are into our coaches and my own sessions, so if you want to experience them first-hand, that’s one way to do so. My newest offer called Emergent Coaching dives way deep into all the ways in which one can develop and attenuate this slow intuitive. But really you don’t need a professional training to get a sense of what your missing out on. The truth is you’re not so much gaining a new skill rather than remembering an old unused one. It’s like that muscle group you never worked.

Perhaps try an experiment with your next important decision. One whose correlates seems a little fuzzy and unclear. Without running all your conceptual outcome models, try sitting with an open question around it. Neither allowing it to preoccupy your day, yet also not allowing it to slip out of mind entirely. You might try simply touching it lightly over the day with an open question such as: What is my best way forward here? Not forcing an answer. Simply setting the stage appropriately, laying out the feast for the guest to arrive. And then waiting. Apart from creating these curious conditions, one needs to practice patience. Our modern timetable mindset demands answers yesterday, yet this urgency is the very killer of the slow path’s emergence.

Look there is plenty more to be said on this. If you’re interested, reach out. You can train, coach or simply connect with me to learn more.