The Loss of System 1 Thinking

During the last 8 years of my military career I sometimes worked for the Armed Forces Medical Examiner and deployed to scenes of large disaster along with significant death (and have written about this before at

The most disturbing part of those situations was not seeing the bodies at the crash site, although the sight of a large plane completely destroyed by fire and crash is impressive in itself, but the sights later in the morgue.

Forensic autopsies really reduce the human body to a sack of loosely related clumps of meat. A recovered body from a plane crash will not be viewed by the family and so there is little real effort by pathologists or their assistans helpers to keep the bodies much more than superficially intact. The working term was ‘make them a canoe’.

Beyond the horror of seeing what gravity and momentum do to the soft container of our consciousness, there is that last blow to one’s sense of immortality, that irrational belief that our mind and our consciousness is somehow immortal.

Experiencing my wife’s degeneration is somehow like that. She recognizes quite well that her boundaries are shrinking and she guards whatever she has left. Yesterday she lectured me for quite a few minutes on how to get clothes best ready to be washed, spraying spots, turning shirts inside out. She was lucid and in control. Then, finished, she turned and I asked a short question that somehow was out of her zone and she was lost, she couldn’t understanding whatever I said.

Yesterday I was working away on an article I’m trying to write and she came into my office. She asked if I had eaten lunch; I hadn’t and asked if she would bring me a peanut butter sandwich and a diet coke. She didn’t understand and I eventually had to write down and deal with the items one by one.

She returned a while later with them, not just a sandwich on a plate and a bottle, but with the sandwich beautifully wrapped in shrink wrap on a plate, also covered, all this on a tray with a large glass of ice and a bottle of soda.

All this was done when she knew they were going to be eaten immediately and yet she spent 10 minutes wrapping them. No irony, no joke intended. It seems she is losing any ability to understand situations and so is retreating to methods and ways she knew before and is comfortable with.

There is a book called ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ by a Nobel Prize winning psychologist, Daniel Kahneman, who makes the point that there really are two ‘systems’ at work when anyone encounters the opportunity to make a decision, either to judge something or how to proceed. Decisions or actions, that one has made many many times previously, spring to mind instantly without conscious thought -‘Scotch whiskey tastes bad’,’that flower smell good’, ‘I will go this way to my house,etc.

This System 1, as it is called, can make surprisingly complex decisions; too often I have driven from home to office without conscious thought until I’m parked – and it makes them instantly, almost unavoidably. System 2 decisions, ones that require actually thoughts and calculation, take much longer – ‘how much is 13 x 57?’, how to I get to Frederick from here?’, ‘whatever time will you be ready?’.

System 2 decisions require the mind to ramp up, to call on various skills and memories to render a result.

It seems apparent to me that, along with memory, my wife is losing or has lost much of those parts of of her brain that allow to her deal with anything that requires ‘thinking’ at anything at length, the System 2 type decisions, and she is now running mainly on whatever she has learnt and embedded deeply.

This makes sense; as she progresses she will forgetting more and lose deeper controls as the deterioration continues.

As much as I am sad about her, there is also this shock of realization at how intricate and fragile our total being is. 

I will do the most I can while she still knows me.


Thanks for reading. I would appreciate any comments or if you mention this blog to any of your friends or relatives who might benefit from reading one man’s perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *