Behaviors of our mind

We can pretty easily explain the evolution of traits such as upright walking, and the differences and similarities with our closest relatives are clearly visible in their behavior and physical features. Chimpanzees sometimes walk upright, e.g. to carry food, and we can well imagine that this behavior has survival and reproduction benefits under savanna-like environmental conditions, and thus can spread through natural selection over many generations in a population.

A chimpanzee chilling out at the Leipzig Zoo. What's going on in his mind?

But mental abilities are harder to compare between humans and other great apes. At the same time, these are questions that often fascinate us the most, expecially when we observe our closest relatives, and wonder – what are they thinking? Do they even think? What is “thinking”? What do they feel? What is important to them? Are they worried about the future, do they have hopes? Do they communicate with their conspecifics the way we humans communicate with each other? Are they talking about yesterday and tomorrow, complaining about the behavior of group members, wondering about us humans, making plans, exchanging their experiences, ideas, feelings?

We can not see the behavior that happens in the brain from the outside (researchers consider mental processes such as thinking and feeling also as “behavior”, i.e., something that the body does, only that we can not see it from the outside). Through language and other symbols, we humans can tell each other about our inner experience. But how can we then find out what other animals think and feel, and whether they have similar thoughts or ideas, as we humans do?

Using modern research methods, such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we can at least observe the activity of nerve cells in the brain while organisms do certain things – which brain regions are active how strongly, how are they interconnected? And how does brain activity differ between humans and other species while they are doing similar things?

Another method that scientists use to compare the mental faculties of humans and other species is to observe behaviors while performing certain tasks. If, for example, chimpanzees or small children can remember something from yesterday or think about tomorrow, then they would need to be able to solve a particular task that requires that mental ability – e.g. pick up a tool or save food for later, because they may need it then.

However, we can also easily observe and “explore” our own minds without much effort or fancy technology: what different things does our mind actually do? And why does it do these different things? Which of these different things do we share with other animals, and which not? With which do we come into the world, and which only develop in the course of our life?

Scientists have come up with various metaphors and analogies to describe and differentiate the different behaviors in our mind. For example,

Fast thinking, slow thinking

As we look more closely at our perception and thinking, we find that some of it is quite automatic and effortless. Other situations require our conscious concentration and make us tired very quickly. So solving the equation “2 + 2” feels quite differently to us from solving the equation “17 * 23”.

In psychology, these different processes are often roughly divided into two ways of thinking – a fast System 1, and a slow System 2. We often think our System 2 is in control; in fact, System 1 dominates our perception, thinking and acting. Because System 1 helps us to navigate quickly and effortlessly and survive in a complex, dynamic world.

The Israeli-American psychologist Daniel Kahneman has popularized the insights about System 1 and System 2 in in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, published in 2011.

Fast thinking or slow thinking

In this lesson students sort their own experience of thinking into fast and slow processes. Based on this, they come to understand that our thinking is shaped through experience such that things we do often and regularly become easier over time. 

Function of cognitive biases

In this lesson students learn about the concept of cognitive biases as well as a number of important cognitive biases that may affect our well-being and social interactions, identify their causes in evolutionary history, their functions, and reflect on how to cope with cognitive biases.

Fast thinking leads to a distorted or simplified perception of reality. Unfortunately, by definition, we can not see most of these processes because they are unconscious. But optical illusions allow us to watch our fast thinking “at work”. In doing so, we can reflect on why these automatic distortions are taking place at all – do they have a function? Do they allow us (and did they allow our ancestors) to cope with the environment, or are they useless “software bugs” in our brains?

The chessboard illusion. Square A and B are the same shade of grey. Image source: Edward H. Adelson. CC BY-SA 4.0

For navigating around the world, it is more helpful to perceive light-dark contrasts than absolute color tones.

Picture of a mountain range on Mars. We involuntarily recognize a face. Image source.

To navigate around the world, it is helpful to quickly recognize the presence of other living things (such as predators!) and other humans. It was better for our ancestors to be on the safe side: seeing no face where there is one can be deadly!

“Kanizsa Triangle” – We “complete” the picture and see lines where there are none. Image source.

For navigating around the world, it helps to turn even sparse information into meaningful information, regular and familiar patterns.

“Munker Illusion” – All balls have the same color (brown). Image source and explanation:

Why fast thinking?

We have many of the mental activities of “System 1” in common with other species of animals, and we are born with some of these abilities. Other intuitions are also developed in the course of our life through repeated experience of stimuli and practice. That’s why we can barely suppress reading words in our mother tongue or solving “2 + 2”, even though there was a time when this was new and hard work for us.

The function of these unconscious and automatic intuitions, for us and other animals, is to quickly learn the regularities of our social and natural environment, to perceive them quickly and without much energy expenditure, and to respond to them rapidly. System 1 enables us to navigate and survive in a complex, dynamic world, but it does not always provide a factually accurate view. Simplified or distorted perceptions of the world have become part of how humans think because they may have no negative effects, and often positive effects for us. So we can not prevent that sometimes we see faces where there are none, or get “tricked” by other optical illusions. All we can do is learn when System 1 distorts and simplifies our perception of the world, and not always blindly trust our perception.

We can also change many processes of System 1 over time by using System 2 and a lot of practice. So we humans, if we want, can become all sorts of experts!

“The capabilities of System 1 include innate skills that we share with other animals. We are born prepared to perceive the world around us, recognize objects, orient attention, avoid losses, and fear spiders. Other mental activities become fast and automatic through prolonged practice.”

Causal Map: System 1

The evolution of System 1 began early in the evolution of life with the ability for associative learning.

Why slow thinking?

The mental processes of System 1 and System 2 are not strictly separable – many processes are more or less automatic, more or less conscious, more or less flexible depending on many factors. Other species, e.g. primates, may have certain “slow thinking” skills. Nevertheless, the activities of System 2 seem to be particularly pronounced in us humans. They probably originated throughout our evolutionary history because certain mental abilities, such as controlling emotional impulses in social situations, focusing on activities such as learning and teaching the use and manufacture of complex tools, and coordination of body movements, have become increasingly important to the survival of our ancestors.

System 2 is related to the activity of the cerebral cortex and we do not come into the world with it – it develops throughout our lives.

We often think that our System 2 (our ‘self’, our ‘intention’, our ‘will’) is in control, after all we are mostly only aware of System 2. In fact, System 1 generally dominates our perception, our thinking and acting, in part because System 2 consumes a lot of energy and is exhausting!

Observe how often and in what situations you and your mind use System 1 and System 2 thinking over the course of a day.

“The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration. (...) When we think of ourselves, we identify with System 2, the conscious, reasoning self that has beliefs, makes choices, and decides what to think about and what to do.”

Causal Map: System 2

The survival and reproduction of our ancestors increasingly depended on various cognitive and social abilities. Cooperative foraging and child care, the learning and teaching of toolmaking and other complex knowledge, the avoidance and resolution of conflicts in group life increasingly required individuals to be able to control their emotional impulses, focus on something even when it becomes difficult, flexibly change their strategy and attention, and keep several things in mind at the same time.

Riding a bike is a complex task, but once we have mastered it, we do it pretty easily – what once was System 2 thinking, becomes System 1. But then our brain will make it really difficult for us to ride a bike that functions differently.

What roles do System 1 and System 2 have in allowing us to learn and “unlearn” different things throughout our lives?

Backwards Brain Bicycle

This video is about a bicycle that works differently than normal bicycles, and how challenging it is for our minds to learn how to ride this new bicycle.

Carol Dweck talks about “Growth Mindset.” Growth mindset (as opposed to “fixed mindset”) stands for the belief or attitude that certain qualities and abilities of a person are not fixed or innate, but that one can continuously improve one’s own abilities through learning from mistakes, experience, and effort. These mindsets in turn have a strong impact on our motivation and thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The metaphors of fast thinking and slow thinking can help us to understand why it is often difficult and hard work to learn new things.

According to Carol Dweck, promoting a growth mindset in students is an important task of school education.

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t—you’re right.”

– Henry Ford

Moral Taste Buds

A basic insight of social psychology is that our beliefs and attitudes about ethical-moral issues are also largely influenced by “fast thinking”. People tend to quickly decide what is morally “right” and “wrong” through intuition and emotion, and only then, through conscious, rationalizing thinking, to find reasons that support their initial intuitions.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares these moral intuitions with our taste buds. This analogy may help us to understand the evolutionary origins and the individual development of moral intuitions, as well as the variation in “moral tastes” among humans.

Causes of our moral intuitions

In this lesson students explore the causes of our moral intuitions with the help of a sorting activity and reflection questions.

Moral taste buds

In this lesson students explore the causes and functions of, as well as ways to flexibly relate to our moral intuitions by engaging the analogy to our taste buds.

“Fair” does not always mean the same thing

These lesson materials introduce students to issues of fairness and various interpretations of it. Reflecting on results of a cross-cultural experiment with children, students discuss how we can use our understandings to create a more fair world.

Mental Time Travel

As we look more closely at our perception and thinking, we also find that we are quite often “somewhere else”. We may be physically sitting in the room, walking down the street, or lying in bed, but in our minds we are wandering around in time and space: we remember a situation of yesterday or last year and replay it like a movie, we imagine ourselves in a situation tomorrow or in 10 years, and wonder or worry about all sorts of situations that have nothing to do with our perception in the here-and-now.

Scientists call this behavior of our mind “mental time travel”. Why do we have this behavior? Can other species do that too? Why, or why not? None of us can remember our first birthday. But if you are old enough to read this text, then mental time travel probably determines much of your everyday experience, sometimes in a negative way, and sometimes in a positive way. How and when do we develop this behavior in the course of our lives?

While these questions are still being debated, most scientists who study these issues believe that mental time travel has become particularly elaborated in our species. Moreover, we are not born with it- children from the age of about 4 years are increasingly beginning to have ideas about the past and the future and to include them in their actions. Today, thanks to stories, historic documents, calendars, science and other cultural knowledge we have a concept of and can imagine a past tens, thousands, millions or even billions of years ago, and we can imagine and prepare decades into a forseeable future. Relationships with other people, language and cultural knowledge are seemingly important factors that play a role in the development of these abilities for mental time travel.

“What is in your pockets? Chances are you carry keys, money, cosmetics, a Swiss Army knife, or other tools—because they may be useful at some future point. Humans have the ubiquitous capacity to imagine, plan for, and shape the future (even if we do frequently get it wrong). This capacity must have long been of major importance to our survival (....) and may have been a prime mover in human cognitive evolution. Stone toolkits and spears from archaeological finds suggest that the ancestors of modern humans already prepared for the future hundreds of thousands of years ago. (...)

Of course, other animals also act in ways that increase their chances of future survival. Many species have evolved preparatory instincts that lead them, for example, to build nests or hoard food. [Learning] further allows individuals, rather than entire species, to predict recurrences on the basis of cues (for example, a smell signaling food). (...)

Great apes even seem capable of imagining situations they cannot directly perceive. They can also make simple tools to solve nearby problems, such as fashioning an appropriate stick to obtain food that would otherwise be out of reach. Yet there seems little evidence that animals ponder the more distant future.”

If a group of Homo erectus sighted a dead or weak animal, it was of great advantage to have stones to throw and good tools ready to fend off competitors and predators and quickly cut valuable meat from the carcass.

The production of more complex tools took more and more time and more and more steps – it takes about 45 minutes to make a handaxe. It was not enough to start making a handaxe, or looking for useful stones, when looking at a herd of antelopes or a fresh carcass, or when a lion is approaching, or when one is hungry. The tool or the weapon had to be ready to be used at that moment! Those who had stones and good tools available “just in case” would have better chances of survival and reproduction than others.

This is just one of the presumed selection pressures in the lives of our ancestors, which provided an advantage for skills of mental time travel.

  • Teaching materials: Experiments on the development of mental time travel in children (in preparation)
  • Teaching materials: Reading text about the evolution of mental time travel (in preparation)

The Noticer, the Discoverer, the Advisor

Other behavioral researchers and psychologists have developed the metaphors of the “noticer,” “discoverer,” and “advisor” to distinguish different behaviors in our mind.

The Noticer or the Observer

  • Function: To detect physical, psychological, and environmental stimuli in the immediate here-and-now
  • The noticer is evolutionarily very old, depending on how one defines “sensing” and “perception”.
  • We are born with the noticer, but it also develops over our lifetime, being able to notice more and more different things.
  • The noticer is automatic (System 1), but can also be consciously controlled by us (System 2). For example, if we want, we can notice a sensation in our left foot (or another part of the body) exactly RIGHT NOW, or observe sounds from the environment, or watch our breath, or observe if our mind is also “elsewhere” (see Mental Time Travel), or we can perceive/observe what our inner voice (the “advisor”, below) wants to tell us. Our noticer therefore does not travel around in space and time, but always perceives everything in the here-and-now.

The noticer or observer is related to our ability for “mindfulness”.

Mindfulness is a concept that many people talk about, including in sustainability education.

But what exactly is “Mindfulness”? What do you associate with this term? How would you define it?

In this video, Russ Harris tells you about five “Mindfulness Myths”, or misconceptions.

Has your own understanding of mindfulness changed after watching the video? If so, how?

The Discoverer

  • Function: To increase our possibility for new behaviors and understandings through trial-and error learning
  • The discoverer originated about 500 million years ago and we have it in common with many animals – many animals have a motivation to explore their surrounding. Apes in particular seem to have elaborated motivations to explore and try out new ways of doing things.
  • We are born with the discoverer. The fact that we humans like to play shows the activity, curiosity and imagination of our discoverer-mode. In childhood and youth, our discoverer is particularly active and willing to take risks. Even in adulthood, we still like to play, have hobbies, travel, read books, and want to try new things, just because we enjoy the discovery mode. Each of us has her own discovery mood that motivates us for certain activities, and in some it is more, in others less active.
  • The discoverer can make use of the noticer and advisor, and can travel in space and time.

See also: Creativity

The Advisor

  • Function: To use prior learning, experience and language in order to learn from experience, simulate possibilities, and reduce the need for trial-and-error learning
  • The advisor may be an evolved trait unique to humans (because of our ability for symbolic thinking).
  • The advisor develops across our lives through relationships with other people and language learning. The things that people say or otherwise communicate to us in the course of our development, and the things we say/communicate to other people, become the repertoire from which our advisor continually builds our thoughts in unlimited combinations.
  • The advisor is influenced by fast thinking (System 1), but it can also be controlled by us sometimes and to some degree (System 2). It often travels around in space and time. It does a lot of judging, evaluating, looking for causes and patterns, predicting.

See also: Symbols and Language

The behaviors of our mind are not always helpful

While all of these behaviors or characters in our mind have important functions and help us act in ways that are important for our survival and well-being, sometimes they are not very useful. For example:

  • Fast thinking can give us distorted information that is not helpful to us or leads to social conflict.
  • Mental time travel can make us experience negative experiences from the past over and over again, and can make us worry too much about the (imagined) future. It can affect our well-being and behavior in the here-and-now in ways that are not helpful.
  • The advisor (the inner voice) can give us too much useless advice or too many negative evaluations (about ourselves, our life, other people, our circumstances), and it can drown out or restrict our Noticers and Discoverers (that is, our ability and motivation to notice the here-and-now and try out new things). It can affect our well-being and behavior in the here-and-now in ways that are not helpful.

“Although we humans have gained the ability to extract ourselves from the physical jungle, through language we are now recreating the danger of the jungle in our heads again and again.”

Ciarrocchi & Hayes (2018, p. 118)

"I've lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”

A short film about the function and evolution of the human mind.

Possible discussion questions:

  • Which of the different behaviors of our mind explored above do you recognize in this video? (slow thinking, fast thinking, mental time travel, noticer, discoverer, advisor)
  • What functions do these processes of our mind fulfill? What was their adaptive value in the course of our evolutionary history?
  • Why can these adaptations lead to problems for human well-being under today’s (social) environmental conditions?
  • What possibilities do you see for mitigating these negative consequences? What can one do as an individual? What can / should we do as a society? What can / should education do?exp
A short film about how experiencing our “Advisor” more like a radio can help us listen to it more flexibly, in order to reduce its negative effects on our behavior and well-being.
Another metaphor to help us observe mindfully and create a more flexible stance towards all the things going on in our mind and body – the Sushi Train Metaphor.

see also:


Teaching resources and information for learning about the concept of evolutionary mismatch in human behavior and its potential role in sustainable development

Human needs, values, and wellbeing

Human Evolution Resources Human needs, values, and well-being What do humans need? What do you think is important for all or most humans to have

Symbols and language

Human Evolution Resources Symbols and Language Human language and our capacity for symbolic thinking are probably among the most challenging set of human traits to


Human Evolution Resources Emotions What is an emotion? What are emotions? How would you define the term? What characterizes emotions? What are some examples of


  • Ciarrochi, J & Hayes, L. (2018). Shaping DNA (Discoverer, Noticer, and Advisor): A Contextual Behavioral Science Approach to Youth Intervention. In: Wilson, D.S. & Hayes, S.C. Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science (S. 107-124). Oakland: Context Press.
  • Hayes, L. L., & Ciarrochi, J. (2015). The Thriving Adolescent. Using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Positive Psychology to help teens manage emotions, achieve goals, and build connections. Oakland, CA, USA: Context Press.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Suddendorf, T. (2006). Foresight and Evolution of the Human Mind. Science, 312, 1006–1007.
  • Osvath, M., & Gärdenfors, P. (2005). Oldowan Culture and the Evolution of Anticipatory Cognition. Lund University Cognitive Studies, 122, 1–16.