Mental Shortcuts – Outsmart your Brain

In chapter 5 of Outsmart Your Brain, Willingham explores the idea that the brain struggles with abstract concepts but thrives with concrete ones. Willingham explains the phenomenon as a kind of mental shortcut. Willingham first introduces this concept by having the reader read a short paragraph where he later exposes our brain to take a mental shortcut. He elaborated on this concept, “Readers are very likely to notice a word they don’t know. They are also very likely to notice if the grammar of a sentence is wrong. But they are much less likely to notice when two sentences contradict each other.” This is a particularly interesting concept for me because I have always been aware of how I tend to make assumptions and draw conclusions based on limited information and often leading to mistakes that could have otherwise been easily eradicated. However, I had never thought of why I fall prey to mental shortcuts. 

One of the reasons Willingham proposed is the availability heuristic, which states that we judge the frequency or likelihood of an event based on how easily examples come to mind. This was particularly eye-opening because I realized that I have fallen prey to this mental shortcut many times in my life. For example, recently I was completing a few mathematical questions about trigonometry, where I had skipped reading the question and completed the given diagram as the previous questions has asked for. Upon reviewing my answers, I found that the question was asking for a completely unrelated value from the previous questions and caused a few point reductions.

The insights I gained from this chapter have made me more aware of how I make decisions and form opinions while navigating through my life. Overall, I think that this chapter has helped me be more critical and mindful of the information I encounter and how I process that information. By understanding the mental shortcuts that I use, I believe I can better navigate the world and avoid falling into the traps of assumptions.