From Chapter 1. The Embodied Mind
The Two Systems of Human Cognition
Cognitive science has shown through extensive research on embodied cognition that we are not the paragons of reason we assume to be. Science is only just catching up to this perspective. Many sages, artists, philosophers, and even athletes have questioned the overuse of rationality because the actuality of their experience tells another story.
An artist would say being rational destroys beauty and truth. What is rational about a lot of art? Or even sport for that matter? Beauty is intrinsically in the performance. It is not something you have to think about but instead appreciate and be inspired by it. And yet, though the embodied state of mind may be the normal perspective for sages, artists, philosophers, and athletes, cognitive science has developed a sophisticated model for understanding the mind body integrated system. This relatively still unknown model, if understood properly, benefits our awareness of ourselves and also explains some of the reasons behind the cultivation of skill, peak performance, and inner peace.
This model is known as dual process theory and is based on two systems of cognitive function. The two systems are known as hot cognition and cold cognition. The hot system is the cognitive function that is automatic, spontaneous, fast, effortless, mostly unconscious, and what is the primary driver of emotions. Hot cognition operates automatically and is fast and spontaneous, with little or no effort. In the hot cognitive process there is no sense of voluntary control. Cold cognition, on the other hand, is the cognitive control centers within our brain. The cold system is self-conscious, slow, deliberate, effortful, and it is the part of our mind we refer to as ourselves, the “I.” Cold cognition, then, is associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.
In our growing world of rationality we have overcompensated for the cold system and do not realize that both systems have their benefits and flaws. We need to understand that even though we feel as though we are these subjective agents who have conscious control, hot cognition is driving us mainly.
Hot cognition is found in the more primal regions of the brain. Those unconscious regions of the brain are where the hot system functions. The hot system is the older function of the brain that is more instinctual and linked to the process of nature.
Hot cognition also drives learned skills such as how to drive a car, the rules of a mixed martial arts bout, and so on. The act of reading is a learned skill. But understanding what you are reading is also a hot process. A psychologist, for example, might read a book on cognitive psychology and know exactly what is written while to you and me it is pure gibberish. As a result, the psychologist can learn from the book and evolve, while you and I will simply put the book down and go on to something else. Expert skill, then, is the result of the hot system. The time and practice spent on a particular craft cultivates ingrained skill. Football quarterback Tom Brady’s ability to throw a touchdown pass, Tony Robbins’ ability to bust out a ten hour lecture, and the ability of Ida Haendal to play the violin is as hot a process as opening and closing our hand, for them anyway. This is expertise--the skill has become embodied and the cold function of thinking and analyzing has temporarily shut down.
Spontaneity takes over and as spectators we can appreciate the natural beauty of their skill. Not only does hot cognition bring the spontaneity of our natural movements to life, but it also brings the peak states of skill to the forefront of humanity, making our world much more beautiful than if we had to think and analyze everything we do as something that should be rational.
Earlier I mentioned learning how to play a musical instrument, and this is a good example of how both systems work together. Both systems are required to function optimally to develop skill. In music, you need to learn music theory over and over again to the point it is like reading your mother language. On top of this you need to learn how to manipulate the body to make the noise coming out of the instrument to sound like a melody rather than a dying cat.
Learning any musical instrument, like most things, takes time. But after a while the skill becomes embodied. The musical instrument ends up being an extension of your body, like a fifth limb, because it becomes as easy and unconscious as walking. It is the constant focus and repetition exercised by the cold cognition that ingrains any particular skill into our hot cognition. Once we download the cold cognitive nuances and theory of a particular skill into our hot cognition, the skill becomes spontaneous and can be accessed without having to consciously think about it. This process is constant in cultivating skill. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman explains this cognitive phenomenon:
“As you become skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved.”
Those dedicated to a craft will continue to develop skill. This process teaches us to disengage from our cold cognition as well, and this is really important to understand. Even though world-class performers use cold cognition to learn a certain skill, once it has become embodied cold cognition is like kryptonite to the effortlessness of the hot system. For example, a musician will perform without the sense of “them” doing it. But when they start to think about what they are doing they mess everything up. We, as the cold cognitive conscious self, are in our own way. When we are out of our own way, meaning our cold cognition has downregulated, we are in the zone.