When Life Is Like ‘Making Left Turns Against Traffic’

A "Thinking Fast and Slow" analogy helps parents understand atypical children.

Posted Jul 23, 2020

Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s best-selling book, summarizes decades of research on two modes of brain functioning: System 1 and System 2. 

The brain-behavior mechanisms that make up System 1 (the ‘thinking fast’) tend to respond automatically and quickly to familiar environmental stimuli. They tend to operate with little or no sense of effort or voluntary control. 

System 2 (the ‘thinking slow’) brain-behavior mechanisms tend to respond to novel environments in more deliberate and effortful ways. We experience ourselves as reasoning and making purposeful choices when using these mechanisms.

With repetition, many unfamiliar situations become routine and many new behavioral responses become automatic. We don’t have to spend as much time and energy ‘thinking before we act.’ Perception-processing-behavior links move from System 2 to System 1 control.

We seem, in fact, to be wired by evolution to move as many behaviors as possible from System 2 to System 1 control. System 1 is quicker. We don’t have to waste time deliberating about everything we do. When a  child chases their ball into the road we hit the brakes rather than considering our options.

System 1 is also more efficient. It consumes less metabolic resources (e.g., glucose) and cognitive resources (e.g., attention) than System 2. We don’t usually notice System 1 functions while System 2 processing is associated with strain and effort. Our breathing and heart rate and blood pressure increases, we perspire more, our muscles tense, our pupils dilate. We can’t sustain this effort for long and relatively quickly become ‘cognitively depleted.’

One of the many strengths of Kahneman’s book is his use of analogies and metaphors to help us understand brain functioning. In my practice, I often use this 'System 1 vs. System 2' metaphor and Kahneman's driving analogies, especially ' making left turns against traffic while driving a car,' while working with neuro-developmentally atypical children and their parents.

Many atypical children report this ‘making left turns against traffic' analogy captures their experience well. Many parents report it helps them more fully understand what life is like for their child and generate better supports and solutions.

Beginning Drivers, Experienced Drivers and Making Left Turns Against Traffic

A beginning driver relies on System 2 brain-behavior mechanisms as they learn how to start the car, put it into gear, steer, adjust the speed, apply the brakes, use turn signals, anticipate what other drivers might do, etc. With repeated practice and experience, though, much of this is gradually taken over by automatic and out of awareness System 1 behavior mechanisms. Once System 1 mechanisms are doing most of the driving, an experienced driver, on an open road, can probably easily and safely talk with a passenger or listen to the radio. 

When, however, this experienced driver is making a left turn at a busy intersection (or passing a truck on a narrow road, or even parallel parking) talking and listening tends to stop. Attention is drawn to the task at hand and driving becomes much more deliberate and effortful. System 2 mechanisms are doing the driving now. Even an experienced driver pays close attention to what they are doing and thinks before acting in these kinds of situations.

Similarly, a child beginning his or her school career, or entering a higher grade, or transitioning to a new school building, relies on System 2 brain-behavior mechanisms as they learn the ‘rules of the road’: How do I get ready for school in the morning? What do I bring with me? Where is my locker and how do I open it? Where is my class and how do I get to it? What are the rules and how do I follow them? Which rules are important to which teacher? What are the social rules? How do I gain acceptance and become part of a peer group? How do I earn good grades with this teacher in this class? How do I approach this kind of assignment? What do I need to bring home after school so I can do my homework? Those first few weeks of school are exhausting. Children burn through cognitive resources and become cognitively depleted as they rely on System 2 mechanisms. They are like beginning drivers.

For typical children, after some time and repetition, much of this shifts out of awareness and into automatic, taken over by System 1 mechanisms Less metabolic and cognitive resources are required for these tasks leaving more available for learning, building friendships, getting involved in activities and pursuing personal interests after school, doing homework, getting ready for bed, and more. They are like experienced drivers on an open road—they can do more than one thing at the same time and not feel depleted or overwhelmed.

Neuro-developmentally atypical children, on the other hand, often struggle to move their behaviors from System 2 to System 1 control. They often continue to have difficulty detecting important cues and signals, learning to quickly and efficiently process these, and quickly and efficiently generate appropriate or adaptive behaviors long after their more typical peers have made that shift. The 'rules of the road' do not become automatic.

They may be able to accomplish most social and academic tasks, but they rely on effortful and demanding System 2 mechanisms rather than efficient and out-of-awareness System 1 mechanisms. Every school day can be, for them, like the first day or weeks of school. They can be thought of as spending their day, all day and everyday, ‘making left-turns against traffic.’ 

This is exhausting (imagine driving in a busy city all day everyday) and leads to ‘cognitive depletion.’ Children may struggle to do well in their afternoon classes. They may keep it together in school but have nothing left to give when they get home. They may struggle with homework, cooperative family interactions, and bedtime routines. They may avoid extra educational activities such as music lessons or religious school. They rarely get a chance to be that experienced driver on the open road.

Takeaways for Parents

What can parents of neuro-developmentally atypical children take away from Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow” metaphor and this ‘making left-turns against traffic all day’ analogy? How can these help parents better understand and support their child?

I invite you to develop consistent after-school and evening routines, marked by clear cues and signals, so that your child can better understand and follow them even when cognitively depleted after a long school day. I invite you to be patient while your child goes through these routines, over-and-over again, until they become familiar, and the desired behaviors become automatic, that is until control shifts from System 2 to System 1. 

Perhaps build in after school activity 'breaks'—times when your child can play, hopefully outside, in ways that don't require sustained attention, planning and deliberation, but are instead spontaneous and 'automatic'. Give their System 2 a rest.

Consider breaking tasks and homework into smaller steps, giving your child more time to complete them, not asking your child to keep track of and do too many things at once, pausing between sentences when speaking with your child (give them time to process what you are saying), creating visual cues and reminders and praising and reinforcing small successes. Decrease the demands on System 2.

Even more importantly I invite you to think of your child in a new way. Consider the possibility that, rather than 'not trying’ or ‘not caring’ enough, a neuro-developmentally atypical child may be working harder than almost every other student just to get through the school day, complete at least some of their work, cooperate most of the time with their teachers, get along reasonably well with their peers, get at least some homework done and go along with most parts of their bedtime and morning routines.

I invite you to respect and even admire your child for all that they are doing and trying to do. Then, reflect this back. Help your child experience themselves as worthy of respect and perhaps even admiration.

References

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.