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Fast Brain / Slow Brain

Updated: Aug 2, 2023

It can be very challenging when we're experiencing difficult emotions. They can come on quickly and cause us discomfort. Often we're not even aware of where they came from or why we're experiencing them.

Brain science has shown we have a "fast" brain and a "slow" brain. Our fast brain immediately reacts. For example, you're having lunch, minding your own business and then one small, random comment from a stranger and "boom!" - unwanted neural pathways fire and suddenly you're feeling upset. It all happens before you know what hit you.

In contrast, our slow brain doesn't react. Instead, it considers things in a more deliberate manner. This is the part of the brain that we'd like to give a chance to engage more frequently before our fast brain reacts and takes us down a path to a low mood.

So the next time you're experiencing difficult emotions, try this little process:

  • Start by taking a couple slow, deep breaths. You're simply giving yourself a chance to not react or to react less. You're letting your slow brain get engaged.

  • Say to yourself, "Let's take a moment to explore what's really happening here."

  • Now identify the emotions. Are they anger, sadness, fear, etc.?

  • Acknowledge that you're having these emotions, perhaps saying to yourself something like, "Ok, I can tell I'm experiencing negative emotions. The emotion I'm feeling is _____. And it's ok that I'm experiencing this emotion. Everyone has this emotion from time to time. It's just part of the human experience."

  • Now take a couple more deep breaths. Then return your attention to the present moment, reminding yourself that negative emotions come and go.

This process can allow the immediate reaction of your fast brain to pass and the more deliberate thinking of your slow brain to engage. Give it a try and see if it can help you get past that initial wave of discomfort caused by the reaction of your fast brain.

To learn more about the concept of fast and slow brains, see the book "Thinking Fast and Slow" by Princeton Psychology Professor Daniel Kahneman who in 2002 received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his pioneering work on decision-making.


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