When we need to make decisions or solve problems, we use two types of thinking. The first is subconscious, fast, and intuitive thinking (System 1) and the other is conscious, analytical, and deliberate thinking (System 2).
All of us use both rational and intuitive thinking, but some of us lean more on the intuitive side and others on the rational side. Deep thinkers are people who engage a lot in slow, rational, and analytical thinking.
This type of thinking breaks a problem down into its components. It allows the thinker to understand the underlying principles and mechanics behind phenomena. Deep thinking gives a person a greater ability to project the present into the past (understanding causation) and into the future (making prediction).
Deep thinking is a higher cognitive process that involves the use of newer brain regions like the prefrontal cortex. This brain region allows people to think things through and not be at the mercy of emotional reactions of the older, limbic system of the brain.
It’s tempting to think that intuition is irrational compared to analytic thinking, but that’s not always the case. One should respect and develop both their intuition and analytic thinking process.
That said, in some situations, intuition or knee-jerk reactions can get you in trouble. In other situations, they are the way to go. It always helps to analyze your intuitions if you can though.
Analyzing your intuition acknowledges your gut feelings and seeks to test their validity. It’s much better than downplaying or overestimating the importance of intuition.
You can’t intuit your analyses. You can only analyze your intuitions. The more you do it, the better.
What triggers deep thinking?
What thinking system we use depends on several factors. When you hit the car brakes hard upon suddenly seeing an animal on the road, you’re using System 1 thinking. In such situations, using System 2 thinking isn’t helpful or could even be dangerous.
In general, when you have to make fast decisions, your intuition is likely to be your friend. Analytical thinking, by its very nature, takes time. So it’s best used for problems that take a long time to solve.
People will first try to solve a problem quickly using System 1, but when you introduce some incongruity or oddness into the problem, their System 2 will kick in.1
The mind likes to save energy this way. It uses System 1 as often as possible because it wants to solve problems quickly. System 2 has a lot on its plate. It has to attend to reality, think about the past, and worry about the future.
So System 2 hands down tasks to System 1 (acquiring a habit, learning a skill). It’s often hard to get System 2 to intervene in what System 1 is doing. Sometimes, however, it can be done easily. For example:
At first, you used System 1 and probably read it wrong. When you were told you read it wrong, you engaged your System 2 to analyze the incongruity or anomaly.
In other words, you were forced to think slightly deeper than you did previously.
System 1 helps us solve simple problems and System 2 helps us solve complex problems. By making a problem more complex or novel or introducing an anomaly, you engage a person’s System 2.
Simple problems are problems that can often be solved in one go. They resist decomposition.
On the other hand, complex problems are very decomposable. They have many moving parts. The job of System 2 is to decompose complex problems. The word ‘analysis’ is derived from Greek and literally means ‘a breaking up’.
Why are some people deep thinkers?
Deep thinkers enjoy using System 2 more than the others. Therefore, these are people who analyze and solve complex problems. What makes them who they are?
As any parent would tell you, children have innate temperaments. Some children are noisy and reactive, while others quiet and inhibited. The latter types are likely to grow up to be deep thinkers.
Early childhood experiences matter, too. If a child spends a good deal of time thinking, they learn the value of thinking. When they use their mind to solve problems, they appreciate thinking.
Thinking is a skill one develops over a lifetime. Children who’re exposed to books at an early age are likely to grow up to be thinkers. Reading engages your mind more and allows you to stop and reflect on what you’re learning in a way other formats don’t.
It’s no accident that some of the greatest and deepest thinkers of the past were also voracious readers. Same is true for current times.
Signs someone is a deep thinker
Deep thinkers share some common traits:
1. They are introverts
I’ve never met a deep thinker who wasn’t an introvert. Introverts prefer to recharge themselves by having some “me time”. They spend most of their time in their head, constantly analyzing the information they’re exposed to.
Since deep thinkers give little importance to social situations and small talk, they’re at risk to feel lonely from time to time. It’s not that introverts avoid all social interactions or hate everyone.
Since they’d rather be solving complex problems, they want their social interactions to be high quality. When introverts engage in a high-quality interaction, it can fill them up for months. If they get these high-quality interactions often, they thrive.
Since introverts like to process information deeply and slowly, they can’t tolerate high stimulation situations such as noisy parties or workplaces.
2. They have a high intrapersonal intelligence
Deep thinkers are not only observant of the world around them, but they’re also highly self-aware. They have a high intrapersonal intelligence i.e. they understand their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions better than others do their own.
They understand that self-awareness is key to navigating the world more effectively. Their own self, in addition to the world, is also an object their wonder and curiosity.
3. There are curious and open-minded
Deep thinkers aren’t afraid to think deep and wide. They’re not afraid to challenge the limits of their own thinking. Just like mountaineers conquer peaks, they conquer inner peaks of thought.
They’re curious because they love to learn. They’re open-minded because they’re so good at breaking things down, they know things aren’t always as they seem.
4. They have empathy
Empathy is feeling what others are feeling. Since deep thinkers understand their inner life better, they can also relate when others share their inner life. They also have what’s called advanced empathy. They can make others see things in themselves that the latter couldn’t see before.
5. Creative problem solvers
Again, this goes back to their unfettered thinking. A lot of complex problems require thinking out of the box, and deep thinkers are more likely than any other group of people to succeed in doing that.
Deep thinking vs. overthinking
Deep thinkers are not over-thinkers. Deep thinkers know how to think and when to stop. Over-thinkers will go on and on with their thinking fruitlessly.
Deep thinkers know what line of thinking has potential, and they immerse themselves in it. They do cost-benefit analysis of everything, even of their own thinking process, because they know thinking is time-consuming.
You can hardly go wrong with thinking too much. If you succeed, you’ll be called a deep thinker. If not, an over-thinker. Never worry about thinking too much unless it’s really costly for you. The world needs more thinkers, not fewer.
Do deep thinkers care about status?
Deep thinkers give the impression that they don’t care about status. After all, they’re not the ones to show off their possessions, etc. It’s not that deep thinkers don’t care about status; it’s just that they care about it in a different domain- knowledge.
Deep thinkers compete intellectually with other deep thinkers to raise their status. Every human being on the planet wants to raise their status in some way.
Even those who give up their possessions to live like a hermit and make a show of it are communicating, “I’m not trapped by material possessions like you. I’m better than you. I’m higher in status than you.”
Psychological problems require deep thinking
Many psychological problems are complex problems that need careful analysis. Since we prefer using System 1 as often as we can, the mind needed something to nudge us to use System 2.
If I ask you to solve a complex math problem, you can outrightly refuse and ask me to stop bothering you. If I tell you you’re going to suffer if you don’t solve it, maybe then you’ll comply.
Because you don’t want suffering inflicted upon you, you’re willing to solve the problem.
Similarly, the negative emotions you get are mostly your mind’s way to push you into using System 2 to solve your complex life problems. Negative moods give birth to analytical thinking.2
For decades, psychologists thought rumination was a bad thing. Many still do. The main problem they had with it was that it’s passive. Instead of solving their problems, those who ruminate mull over them passively.
Well, how the heck can someone solve a complex problem, a complex psychological problem at that, without ruminating over it first?
Exactly! Rumination is important because it can provide insights to those facing major life challenges. It allows them to engage System 2 and analyze problems deeply. It’s an adaptation the mind uses to push us into System 2 mode because the stakes are too high.
Once we’ve understood the problem, only then can we take take appropriate action and stop being passive.
You can ignore me all you want and call me bothersome if I ask you to work on getting out of depression but try ignoring your own mind. Hint: Don’t.
- Smerek, R. E. (2014). Why people think deeply: meta-cognitive cues, task characteristics and thinking dispositions. In Handbook of research methods on intuition. Edward Elgar Publishing.
- Dane, E., & Pratt, M. G. (2009). Conceptualizing and measuring intuition: A review of recent trends. International review of industrial and organizational psychology, 24(1), 1-40.