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Automatic and voluntary processes in our body: Thinking

Our heart beats automatically, without any conscious effort from us. Fortunately, this is the case because if our heartbeat was under our direct control, we might forget to keep it going or disrupt its steady rhythm. This example highlights the fundamental difference between the body's automatic and voluntary processes.

The distinction between automatic and voluntary processes primarily revolves around the level of conscious control involved in initiating and conducting these actions or functions.

Automatic Processes are operations that occur without conscious awareness or effort. These are often innate or become learned and ingrained through repetition, becoming second nature. Examples include physiological functions like breathing and heartbeat, as well as psychological functions such as the quick recognition of faces or the automatic retrieval of well-known information like your home address. Automatic processes are efficient, requiring minimal cognitive resources, and occur simultaneously with other activities without disrupting them.

Voluntary Processes, on the other hand, are characterized by conscious control and intention. These processes require deliberate attention and effort, involving decision-making and often learning. Examples include learning to drive a car, studying for an exam, or making a conscious decision to react in a certain way in social situations. Voluntary processes are more mentally demanding and require more cognitive resources than automatic processes. They are generally slower and can only be performed sequentially with full attention.


Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" introduces the concepts of System 1 and System 2 to describe the two main modes by which our brains process information and make decisions.

System 1: Fast, Automatic Thinking

System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control. It encompasses the mental activities that are automatic or intuitive, including:

  • Instantaneous judgments and decisions based on experience, intuition, and immediate perception.

  • Recognizing patterns, faces, and expressions quickly.

  • Detecting danger or familiar situations with rapid responses.

  • Performing skilled tasks that have become automatic through practice, like driving on an empty road.

  • Generating impressions, feelings, and inclinations when we "just know" something without knowing how we know it.

System 2: Intentional ‘Slow’ Thinking

System 2 is essential for tasks that require careful planning and conscious decision-making. For instance, planning a birthday party requires you to deliberately think about what you need and the actions you will take. It is the mode of thinking that is deliberately focused, analytical, and controlled. Unlike the fast and automatic operations of System 1, System 2 requires conscious mental effort and attention.

Similarities Through the Buddhist Perceptual Theories

Through the Buddhist mindfulness lens for understanding the mind and mental phenomena, the automatic process of thinking bears similarities to Daniel Kahneman's description of System 1 in several key ways:

  1. Automaticity and Intuition: Through the Buddhist mindfulness lens, much of the mind's activity is automatic and arises from deep-seated habits and conditioning. These automatic mental processes are similar to what Kahneman describes as System 1, which operates effortlessly, quickly, and often below the level of conscious awareness. Just as System 1 can process complex information such as facial recognition or emotional responses without deliberate thought, the Buddhist Psychological perspective acknowledges that the mind automatically processes sensory input and past experiences to form perceptions and reactions.

  2. Immediate Response: Just as System 1 is responsible for quick judgments and decisions, the Buddhist depiction of automatic mental processes includes the immediate arising of consciousness and mental factors in response to sensory contact. These processes occur so swiftly that they precede and often bypass deliberate rational analysis, leading to instantaneous perceptions, feelings, and reactions.

Similarly, as the type of cognitive engagement required by System 2, through mindfulness, one cultivates the ability to observe and engage with thoughts and emotions from a place of centered calm. This intentional awareness and control are essential for tasks that demand detailed analysis and critical thinking, making mindfulness a complementary practice for enhancing System 2's effectiveness. It trains the mind to not react impulsively (a characteristic of System 1) but to respond with a reasoned and thoughtful approach, characteristic of System 2's operational style.


Studies on mindfulness have shown that regular practice can influence brain plasticity, enhancing the efficiency of both automatic and voluntary processes. This suggests a potential to train the brain to switch more seamlessly between these systems, improving cognitive flexibility and reducing the cognitive load during complex decision-making tasks. Such insights are crucial for developing targeted interventions that improve cognitive function and mental health, offering promising directions for future research and application.

Author Shima - Neurocalm Training Institute

Shima is the founder of the Neurocalm training Institute and author of the book ‘the sleep curator’. She is amongst others a certified yoga therapist and teacher, breathwork- meditation and trauma coach. With over 3000 hours of formal meditation training which of 2 years spent living a monastic lifestyle.

Considered an experienced meditator, she took part in scientific study on the effect of meditative states on the brain.

She provides experiential training to increase body mind awareness and release tension and stress.

She works with (ex) cancer patients, people with insomnia, burnout, therapists, psychologists, coaches and other professionals.

Overcoming amongst others Insomnia and anxiety attacks, has led her working from a deeper level of understanding.

She has worked with 100s people in her studio in The Netherlands and Internationally.


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