Blinking Revisited: Maigret and Intuition
Simenon's Inspector Maigret demonstrates the power of unconscious intelligence.
Posted Apr 30, 2019
Most of us have had Eureka moments when the answer to something we’ve been puzzling over suddenly comes to us out of nowhere. This is unconscious intelligence at work. When I write, I often have to break up the process with mundane tasks in order to think of what comes next. When I sit back down at the computer, I know what to say. This is also unconscious intelligence at work.
Unconscious intelligence became a familiar topic with the publication of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink. Gladwell explains this phenomenon with the concept of “thin-slicing, which is “the ability of our unconscious to find patterns in situations and behavior based on very narrow slices of experience.” A limited amount of information can be indicative of a much larger pattern. Most impressive is Gladwell’s account of the work of John Gottman, who developed a method of observing couples that enabled researchers, after 15 seconds, to accurately predict whether subjects would stay together or break up within the next four years.
Lois Isenman, author of Understanding Intuition: A Journey In and Out of Science, avers that “thin-slicing,” despite its excellent track record, cannot account for the scope of thought that takes place below conscious awareness: Thin-slicing offers “a limited perspective on how the unconscious mind works and the potential power of intuition.” The problem with thin-slicing is that not all situations can be reduced to simple causes or predictive traits; thin slices can be too thin. Isenman offers the concept of “fat-slicing” as an alternative explanation of unconscious intelligence, claiming that it “can much better account for the capacity of the unconscious mind to understand many complex, novel situations.”
Fat-slicing relies on the basic way in which the brain processes information through its neural networks, with each neuron interacting simultaneously with many other neurons; this process has been called “connectionism” and “parallel distributed processing” (Isenman calls it “intuitive processing” when it generates intuitions). This mode of processing renders the brain a dynamic system, which means that it can generate thoughts of all kinds (perceptions, insights, feelings) through a feedback loop that alters the entire system continuously. In theory, you can tweak one neuron (although neurons usually work in groups), and the change will affect the entire brain.
In other words, the brain functions according to the “butterfly effect” of chaos theory, so powerfully memorialized in Ray Bradbury’s short story “A Sound of Thunder."
The unconscious mind is much better at detecting complex patterns than the conscious mind. The conscious mind is limited in what it can hold at one time, and so it tends to miss information by focusing on salient details. In contrast, the unconscious mind can record and connect a larger volume of multiple bits of information simultaneously, and, together with emotions, which are also (initially) subconscious, it directs attention and generates relevant information. Thin-slicing improves on the capacity of conscious thought but nevertheless selects salient details to generate a conclusion; in Gottman’s study of couples, rolling one’s eyes was an important indicator of a potential break-up. Fat-slicing takes in and processes a much wider swath of information before sending its findings to the conscious brain.
Studies have shown that trying to find solutions or think creatively using conscious, deliberate thought often interferes with the ability to think about a given problem or task subconsciously. A related finding is that distraction rather than concentration often helps people to come up with solutions or answers, as with my writing process. We can even choose to deliberately distract ourselves in order to come up with solutions.
A literary example of unconscious intelligence at work through “thick-slicing” can be seen in George’s Simenon’s popular detective Maigret, whom we can follow throughout 76 novels and 28 short stories, the first published in 1931 and the last in 1972. Maigret solves his cases by letting his unconscious mind do the work. He deliberately avoids conscious consideration, especially when gathering information. When asked what he knows or thinks about a case, whether, by a superior, a colleague, or a suspect, he typically answers, “I know nothing."
The simple title of his relatively early work, Maigret (1934) suggests that this novel will be paradigmatic of the man and his methods; the titles of other novels follow the pattern of “Maigret” followed by something else as in Maigret Hesitates, Maigret at Picratt’s, and Maigret and the Wine Merchant. Although this novel is the nineteenth published, it portrays Maigret in retirement. Future books will return to earlier periods, and I love how this series ranges over the life of the man, giving us the sense that we know him well by allowing us to see him at various stages as we make our way through the series.
Maigret and his wife, living in the country, are awakened in the middle of the night by Maigret’s nephew, Philippe, a member of the Paris police in Maigret’s old unit. Philippe has fled the scene of a murder at a nightclub. He was supposed to be stationed outside because the owner was suspected of criminal activity involving a drug stash. But he thought he would do a better job by hiding in the club bathroom and observing events after it had closed. Phillipe heard a shot and after discovering that the owner had been killed, he panicked and ran, bumping into someone on the street as he fled the scene. He knows he is likely to be blamed for the murder, and he takes a taxi to his uncle’s house to enlist his aid. Although Maigret thinks his nephew is a bumbling fool, Maigret agrees to come to Paris to help. Philippe is, of course, accused because the man he encountered while fleeing actually works for the man responsible for the murder.
This is one novel where Maigret does attempt to consciously figure things out (it doesn't work) because he is adrift without his usual resources. He has been gone from the force for two years, fears he is rusty, and doesn’t have the authority needed to investigate the case with his characteristic methods: assigning officers various surveillance and research tasks, questioning possible witnesses, and interrogating suspects. But he is nevertheless able to make use of his most powerful tool—observation—watching and absorbing without drawing any conclusions, letting his unconscious figure things out. He goes to a tobacconists’ shop (actually a kind of luncheonette) where the suspected coterie of criminals likes to hang out, and he sits there for twelve hours straight. This is tantamount to a stakeout on the part of his unconscious mind, as well as a way to unnerve this particular gang by his presence.
Maigret’s mind works visually and through other senses, drawing on the right side of the brain as we might say. While the division between right and left cerebral hemispheres have been somewhat exaggerated in popular culture, it is true that the right hemisphere grasps information holistically. For instance, when Phillipe is telling his story at Maigret’s home, Maigret experiences intense moments of sensate remembrance of his former workplace. When working on a case, Maigret’s sensory apprehension, particularly vision, sets in motion a process of subconscious parallel processing that suddenly comes to light as a conscious epiphany. In most of the novels, we don’t witness a specific moment of recognition, nor does Maigret articulate it to himself. But suddenly, he begins to behave in ways that uncover the truth and solve the mystery.
This novel is unusual in that we do witness the moment that Maigret grasps the psychology of a suspect, and we see that this moment of understanding enables him to solve the case. Maigret has arrived at the suspect’s home without warning and hoping to extract an acknowledgment of guilt. He arranges the limited technology of the day so that their conversation will be recorded by surreptitiously taking the man’s phone off the hook (receiver), which enables Lucas and a stenographer to listen in. Maigret is completely adrift in this conversation, fearing that his maneuvers will be uncovered at any moment. He desperately stalls for time, saying whatever he can think of to prolong the interview. He doesn’t have a plan.
In the course of the visit, Maigret watches his opponent order hot chocolate from his maid and then observes that he reaches for a praline, a kind of hard candy consisting of a sugared almond. Suddenly, Maigret understands the man, and in doing so understands the crime: “It was a small detail, and yet Maigret’s eyes lit up as if he had discovered the chink in [his adversary’s] armor. The man was neither a smoker nor a drinker nor a womanizer, but he liked sweets, sucking a sugared almond and passing it slowly from one side of this mouth to the other!" At this point, Maigret begins to recount, with complete accuracy, the series of crimes leading to the murder of which his nephew is accused.
Why would this exemplify “thick slicing” rather than “thin slicing"? The most obvious answer is that a predilection for sweet foods does not correlate with a murderous disposition, a fear of blood, and a habit of hiring others to do one’s dirty work, all traits of Maigret’s adversary. Having a sweet tooth is not part of a significant pattern that would allow the thin slice to evoke so much information. But there is nevertheless something about his adversary’s eating the praline that triggers Maigret’s unconscious mind to solve the mystery. He subconsciously processes everything he knows about this particular man, this particular crime, other crimes that have taken place, the psychology of the other players, the neighborhood of Montmartre, Paris nightlife, and, above all, human nature. Maigret’s adversary listens to Maigret’s correct account of events—an account that he makes up as he goes along, that seemingly formulates itself of its own accord—and he is eventually tricked into confirming Maigret’s account. The police rush in to arrest him.
The other clue to thick slicing is a literary clue, Proust’s famous scene of the Madeleine in Swann’s Way. Swann is trying to remember his childhood in Combray, and, like Maigret, when he is working according to his usual modus operandi, Swann realizes that he must allow his unconscious mind to do the remembering: “It is a waste of effort for us to try to summon it all, the exertions of our intelligence are useless.” Years later, his mother serves him some tea, along with “those squat plump cakes called petites madeleines,” and he suddenly recalls those early years: “At the very instant when the mouthful of tea mixed with cake crumbs touched my palate, I quivered, attentive to the extraordinary thing that was happening inside of me. . . . [A]ll the flowers in our garden and in M. Swann’s park, and the water lilies of the Vivonne, and the good people of the village and their little dwellings and the church and all of Combray and its surroundings . . . emerged.” Swann will go on to recount not just the setting but the events of his childhood. A thin slice of cake has led to the “thick slicing” of unconscious processing.
And so it is with Maigret. He isn’t the one who consumes the goody, but the link between consumption of a very French kind of confection with subconscious processing would likely be recognized by many of Simenon’s readers. And even if we fail to get this literary joke, we see that for Maigret, a detail evokes a train of memory, realization, and logical thinking that percolates up into his conscious mind. Indeed, his conscious mind knows “nothing,” as he likes to say, while his brilliant deductive skills nevertheless work below the surface. Compared to that other famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, who represents the apex of human rational thought, this French counterpart is no less brilliant for rejecting Holmes’s conscious method of problem-solving and relying on the power of intuition.
Gladwell, Malcolm (2005). Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Isenman, Lois (2018). Understanding Intuition: A Journey In and Out of Science. Cambridge, MA: Academic Press.
Isenman, Lois (2013). "Understanding Unconscious Intelligence and Intuition: Blink and Beyond." Pespectives in Biology and Medicine, Volume 56 (1), 148-156.
Proust, Marcel (2004) Swann's Way (Lydia Davis, Trans.). New York: Penguin.
Simenon, Georges (2015). Maigret (Ros Schwarz). New York: Penguin.