Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Happy Cow Trails

Written by: on March 3, 2023

Have you ever heard of the concept of Cow trails?  When looking at a field where cows often graze you’ll begin to notice trails that there is no longer growth possible.  This is because Cows take the path of least resistance.  Day after day they follow this easy trail because it requires less work.  “That cow trail represents our thoughts. Over time, we develop patterns of thought in our brains and those patterns beat down a trail making it difficult for us to think and feel differently.”[1]  When reading Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow, it reminded me of this concept of the cow trail as it relates to system 1 which is the part of the brain that “operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control” [2].  Like Kahneman’s explanation of our automatic brain, we do the easy thing, the thing that does not require thought.  This way of thinking could be helpful like the article relating with Cow trails, we have a patterned way of thinking or responding that leads us down the same thought trail.  What if we were able to change the pattern or conditioned response that is part of our bad habits, or like this article it was a way through mental illness.

“A happy mood loosens the control of system 2 over performance: When in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative but also less vigilant and more prone to logical errors”[3].  “System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice and concentration”[4] .  In a video I watched regarding this concept of thinking fast and slow they gave an example of how easy it is to fall into system 1 thinking.  They had a picture of a baseball and a bat and said it was $1.10.  They noted that the bat was a dollar more than the ball.  So how much is each item?  If you land in the cow trail way of thinking like me you answered $.10 for the ball and the bat $1.00[5]  Guess what, we are wrong.  I will bribe you to read the rest of this essay by giving you the answer at the end.

This is one of those books that I’ve had to rethink and rethink, and just when I feel I have an idea of what it is about, I lose it.  I tend to be a person who functions in my cow trail mind.  Thankfully I feel I’ve had a good childhood with very few trauma’s that maybe would’ve set up cowtrails in my brain for responding to hardships and difficulties a certain way, but gratefully I think overall I have healthy cowtrail type of response.  In fact I pride myself in making decisions with my gut and not my head.  So in some ways I had a hard time wanting to throw that way of being out as ineffective system1.  I wonder if it comes down to trust in one’s self?  Does it have something to do with genetic predisposition of well being?  Why do I feel resistance to logic?  Last week we talked about Empathy in Failure of Nerve by Friedman, engaging our feelings to try to understand how someone else may be feeling.  What if encountering another’s suffering can be done with empathy AND logic?  Slowing our thinking down to fully engage in another’s suffering or problem, and using our slow system 2  way of thinking to disengage our thinking of the situation, and setting that aside to be there in their thoughts.  I’m think I need to wrestle through that statement more to make sense, but I feel I’m on the verge of a brilliant thought there.   As Kahneman says “Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it”[6].  And I think I am officially done thinking about it, for now.

System 2 Answer:  If the bat is $1.00 more than the ball and they cost $1.10 together, then the ball is $.05 and the bat is $1.05!  D’oh!

[1] Bierdeman, Janelle. Cow Trails and the Brain: Making Sense of Mental Health Treatment. Linkedin, 9/6,2018.

[2] Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking Fast and Slow. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011. Pg 20

[3] Ibid, 69.

[4] Ibid, 21.

[5] https://fourminutebooks.com

[6] Ibid, 402.

About the Author


Jana Dluehosh

Jana serves as a Spiritual Care Supervisor for Signature Hospice in Portland, OR. She chairs the corporate Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging committee as well as presents and consults with chronically ill patients on addressing Quality of Life versus and alongside Medical treatment. She has trained as a World Religions and Enneagram Spiritual Director through an Anam Cara apprenticeship through the Sacred Art of Living center in Bend, OR. Jana utilizes a Celtic Spirituality approach toward life as a way to find common ground with diverse populations and faith traditions. She has mentored nursing students for several years at the University of Portland in a class called Theological Perspectives on Suffering and Death, and has taught in the Graduate Counseling program at Portland Seminary in the Trauma Certificate program on Grief.

8 responses to “Happy Cow Trails”

  1. Noel Liemam says:

    Hi, Ms. Jana, I do have a problem following that bat and ball arithmetic. I kept saying that the answer is 10 cents and have difficult time convincing myself that the answer is 5 cents. I guess my system 2 is turned off and I need to work at it. Maybe that is what is going on with the cows. Their system 1 is always on while system 2 is always off which resulted in always taking the path of least resistance. From your sharing, I learn that concept of “cow trails,” thank you.

    • mm Jana Dluehosh says:

      Okay Noel…if the question says the bat cost’s 1.00 more then the ball, if the ball is .10 and the bat is 1.00 then it is only .90 more than the ball! Ack! so in order for it to be 1.00 MORE than the ball, it has to be .05 and 1.05:)

      Thanks for engaging your S1 mind too. It normalized it for me, I was even trying to engage S2 thinking and still fell into the cow trail!

  2. Esther Edwards says:

    “What if encountering another’s suffering can be done with empathy AND logic?” What a powerful question! Being a pastor, I often also walk into the grief season of others. To navigate a calm, non-anxious presence, and yet empathize with time and care takes intentionality. For me, it is the cares of life that cause me to give a pat answer or not take the time to truly question how the loss is affecting not only the family but myself personally. I would love to chat sometime about how you navigate this whole area as a spiritual care counselor in the grief process with others and with yourself.

    • mm Jana Dluehosh says:

      One of the best exercises I have to bring logic into empathy, is to (metaphorically) put my hand out to the other person I am providing empathy for and say “this is them”, and then place hand on myself and say “this is me”. This is what I would think is obvious for all of us in interacting relationally to another, but to stop and slow down and acknowledge that they are them and I am me creates a logical barrier that allows me to be present with, but not emeshed in with those that I’m serving with my presence. I seem to really struggle with this with my children however. I always say, when you have a child its as if your heart is beating outside of your body, so how to differentiate from them is a challenge….guess that’s what tween and teen attitude helps with:). Thanks Esther.

  3. mm Russell Chun says:

    Heavenly Father, Go before all my decisions today. Guide my S1 intuition/feelings them today. Align my S2 thinking in ways that glorify you. Amen.

    Hmmm..wondering if my decision to join this program was a S1 or S2 decision.

    • mm Jana Dluehosh says:

      Russell, I pride myself on being a person of intuition and I deeply trust my gut. According to Kahneman, this is most likely system 1 thinking, and I definitely made the decision to be in this doctorate in a System 1 way of thinking, however, I am finding all sorts of ways this work in the Doctorate program is challenging my System 2 thinking and all the ways I wrestle with system 1 thinking. When overwhelmed, I find myself in “good enough” thinking, which is definitely s1!

  4. mm Tim Clark says:

    How dare you bring math into this!!! 🙂

    But it DID keep me reading.. and I’m grateful.

    I realize as I read your blog that I often lean too heavily on System 1 thinking when providing pastoral care or mentoring. My brain is often moving 1,000 mph and I intuitively have quick, intuitive answers and ‘fix it’ solutions (honestly, it’s why most of the time other people in my church do the counseling).

    But if I could just get myself to slow down and listen and process, maybe I would be better at those things. You reminded me that “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19)

  5. mm Jana Dluehosh says:

    I think I’m going to meditate on this verse you provided Tim. I needed that! Thanks. When in stress, quick thinking and intuition works so great, but what indeed would it look like if I were slow to be quick to listen and slow to speak and become angry? I lead a support group for my colleagues weekly called Grief, Gripe and Gratitude. We try to honestly just be present to each other in hearing anger, sadness and then forcing ourselves to find gratitude. No matter how small. One of our rules comes from Parker Palmers Circle of trust and it’s this: Allow Silence to be an equal member of the group! SO HARD as a facilitator, we tend to get uncomfortable with silence and “fill it”. Silence allows the shy soul to speak, we often silence our own soul.

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