The Brain Science of Human Performance


Have you ever experienced the mental anguish of trying to perform a new and complex task?  Something that requires so much mental and maybe even physical dexterity that it takes you a while to problem solve and get it right?  I would imagine that most of us have experienced this innumerable times in our lives and, if replicated enough times, that task eventually becomes something of a second nature.  This concept was actually captured quite well by Daniel Kahneman in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  Kahneman talks about this second nature mental tasks as System I thinking and the more complex and process heavy tasks as System II.  Put simply, things that we do without even really thinking about it, like a skilled typist putting her fingers on the correct keys when she constructs an email, as System I tasks.  However, a person new to typing would have to try to remember where each key is located or maybe even look at the keyboard itself to find that ever elusive “X” key and this type of processing would be System II thinking. Understanding Kahneman’s description of System I and System II thinking, however, is only a part of the brain science of human performance.  As we like to say it, the human brain does three things repetitively and expertly; Problem Solve (System II), Automate (System I), and finally generalize, and it does all of this while interfacing with the world in a sometimes distorted manner.

Let’s see if we can break this down somewhat sequentially, although much of this happens simultaneously in the real world.  Problem solving a new task at work, as mentioned before, can be complex and mentally taxing.  You see, our brains are taking in all of the relevant information in performing this task while also trying to process extraneous context such as peer approval, time pressures, available resources, family issues, what’s for dinner, etc., etc.  Once all of this data is processed and the task is completed successfully our brain feels like the problem solving job is completed and wants to move on to the next task.  This is where automation comes in.

The human brain really isn’t capable of multi-tasking at any level of effectiveness.  While it may perform multiple tasks at the same time, it can’t really process two System II tasks simultaneously.  Therefore it wants to automate tasks (System I) so that it can be ready for the next System II task.  Automation may take time to fully take hold but once it does it is often communicated as, “this is how I’ve always done it” or “that’s just how we do things around here”, but at some point that task was new and a System II process.  The problem with automation is that we don’t realize that we are in automation.  We don’t feel the mental strain of these automated tasks and don’t even realize that we are involved in them hundreds, maybe even thousands of times a day.  But our brain isn’t finished trying to be efficient, not only does it want to automate tasks, it also wants to generalize tasks or behaviors that seem to be somewhat related.  Basically our brain says, “if that works here then it must work there as well”.  In that moment of trying to be super efficient our brains have bypassed the entire problem solving process for future tasks that seem to be related to the automated tasks that we have already problem solved.  This would seem to be highly efficient, but it can also lead to errors.  In two weeks we’ll revisit a previous topic…..the distorted view of context in the problem solving process (cognitive biases)…..and then also examine how we can make this brain science work in our favor.