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Art & Life, Fast & Slow- Nancy Hiliis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

Art & Life, Fast & Slow- Nancy Hiliis MD & Bruce Sawhill PhD

In last week’s blog post, we addressed the occurrence of anti-events—the process of becoming pointedly aware of something that didn’t happen.

Not obvious things, like your 8:15 train not showing up at 8:15, but subtle things like suddenly realizing you haven’t heard the buzz of a fly in months. Things you didn’t even know you expected to happen.

I believe that all of us construct models of the world, including natural phenomena as well as how other people behave or don’t behave.

This saves time.

If we had to think everything through from some set of fundamental principles, it might well deliver us solid results, but it would most likely be too late to be useful.


Internal Mental Models


If you’ve ever watched a baby push objects off a high chair onto the floor, in addition to making a mess they are developing an internal model of the world. It is governed by the laws of physics, but there are no equations involved, it’s all neural patterns.

They’re doing rigorous testing!



Child and high chair



There is a certain appearance to things falling, how they accelerate, the sound they make when they hit the floor, whether they break or splatter or not. This all gets internalized, but it requires many examples with accompanying messes.

The Nobel Prize winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman wrote a book Thinking Fast and Slow.


Bestseller In Cognitive Psychology

The Adjacent Possible: #1 Bestseller In Cognitive Psychology



We were honored and delighted to see our book The Adjacent Possible alongside Kahneman’s seminal book.


Fast & Slow


The “fast” part is governed by our neural model of the world, which is capable of delivering very rapid results based on likeliness of patterns.

The “slow” part is considered, analyzed, evaluated. It’s slow because it requires abstraction, language, symbols, process, pencils, paper, and computers.



Harvard/Google high resolution map of section of brain



It occurred to me since writing the last blog post that there is an important message carried by anti-events.

They are telling you that your model of the world is not 100% accurate, a very useful bit of information.

Sometimes it has to do with the buzz of a fly, other times the behavior of people in your life. The anti-events are telling you to stop and think. They may be saving you from bad surprises, sometimes even saving your life.


The Knowing Before Thought


We think of the “fast “ part of one’s brain as an example of “the knowing before thought” described by Christopher Bollas in his book: The Shadow of the Object: Psychoanalysis of The Unthought Known.

A story from Nancy:

Nancy was on night call at a hospital. A medical student decided to tag along.

She got a call at 4 am to see a patient who was not responding to the nurses. He was in three-point restraints (two legs and one arm) due to previous behavior. Nancy and the student stood at the patient’s bedside.

Nancy spoke to the patient, who was turned away form her and unresponsive. Sensing danger, she got a “gut feeling” to move back, and signaled nonverbally for the student to move back also. 

As the two moved back, the patient suddenly swung his meaty right arm through 180 degrees in a sweeping roundhouse haymaker out to where they had been standing, scything through empty air.

Later, the student asked, “How did you know to move back?“

Nancy said, “I felt it.” 

This is “fast” neural pattern thinking in action. No reading of charts or debate occurred. Injury avoided.

This is analogous to the old Western movie cliché, “It’s quiet out there…Too quiet.” Revolvers are cocked.



Cowboy and horse



The seductive aspect of the “fast” or neurally modeled type of thinking is that it is right a lot of the time, well over 90% in many cases. 

This is also the seductive aspect of the current incarnation of AI, as the process of creating it is modeled after neural learning using a computational structure called “neural nets”—It is informed by ingesting enormous numbers of patterns which tell it what to expect.

It’s a big and quick baby with a huge appetite, fueled by boatloads of electricity and data instead of baby food.

Baby Huey.




Human-created computational neural network




If neural models were right all of the time, we would have never had any need to develop analytical thought and all of the languages that accompany it. 


Art: Fast & Slow


Art is both fast and slow, events and anti-events.

The process of painting might be highly intuitive and emotional, but sometimes things happen that don’t fit.

Something happens by surprise, something that should’ve happened doesn’t. This is your unconscious model of the world sending up flares to your conscious self. 

This means stop and consider. 


The Spontaneous & The Considered


If many paintings aren’t turning out like you would like, it’s time to step back and take a deeper look.

Why does this work not move me? Why are these paintings muddy/flat/chaotic/turbid/depressing/etc?

You are not giving up intuitive painting when you do this. Intuition needs help sometimes. You will go back to it. 

It’s like the old definition of a dry martini:  It’s pure gin, but you bought a bottle of vermouth in the same store. 

Except in painting, the spending of some time with considered thought affects the “taste” of your intuition.

The martini actually comes out differently. The dance of the spontaneous and the considered.


Emergent Intuition


Intuition is emergent and can change over time.  The brain is seeded. There’s a sort of starter set, innate at birth that gets further developed.

Long ago, our intuition didn’t involve things like airplanes, quantum mechanics, black holes, or relativity. Even if we don’t understand those things, they inform some of our intuition because they’ve entered what we think of as the collective subconscious. Unlike Jung’s collective unconscious, this is not something we come into the world containing.

And that collective subconscious affects our individual subconscious, perhaps in a different flavor of slow/fast pattern than Kahneman’s. 

It’s why we are products of our time.

Despite his amazing brilliance, J.S. Bach was not going to suddenly uncork some Aaron Copland. Or Newton some chaos theory.Or Aristotle some Newton. Or Rembrandt some Picasso.



Rembrandt with bust of Aristotle, self portrait



With gratitude from our studio to yours,

Nancy & Bruce


P.S. NOW is the perfect time to create.

This is the existential moment- this is the time where we see what our life is about. We notice what is meaningful and alive for us.

You might be thinking…I’m just too blocked, too down, too scared or frozen….or even just shy….

You may be feeling that you can’t create now….

But I say to you that you’re a creator…you’re an artist and artists create.

And there are many ways to create and be creative….

Pair your explorations in your art studio with our Art of the Possible Book Series!


QR Code- The Art Of The Possible Series

QR Code- The Art Of The Possible Series






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