The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action preface

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Self-reflective thinking, as I see it, is thinking about what you are doing while you are doing it. You engage in self-reflective thinking, for example, when you pick up a heavy box, if while doing so you are telling yourself: Bend from the knees and not the back, keep the elbows relaxed, and so forth; or when in the act of improving your posture you think, I’m straightening my back, while you are sitting more upright in your chair; or when you think, I had better make that a tight turn, while you narrowly avoid driving your car over the sidewalk; or when you think, I’m going to move this pawn to take control of the center, while you are taking such control. These examples involve thinking about your actions—mental or physical—while you are making them.

In addition to self-reflective thinking, which involves thinking about what you are doing as you are doing it, proponents of the just-do-it principle may inveigh against planning, which I understand as thinking about what you aim to do or what you should do, and predicting, which I understand as thinking about what you think you will do. You are planning your movements when, for example, you are walking down the street and decide to turn left at the next corner. And you are making a prediction about your movements when you, say, have the thought that you’re about to step in a puddle and you deliberate over your actions, considering whether it would be better to avoid the puddle with an extra long, awkward stride, or simply to step down and suffer the consequences. Some of these forms of thought involve deliberation, but not all do. For example, in thinking about what you should do (a form of planning) in order to make the putt, you may be deliberating over possibilities or simply telling yourself: “keep the torso stable.” (Thinking about what you ought to have done, may, I admit, very well be detrimental to performance; though even this, I think, is not necessarily detrimental).26

The examples of thinking I just presented are all examples of declarative thoughts: they are thoughts in words. And this is one aspect of interfering mental processes that Fitts and Posner (1967) warn against. They tell us that “there is a good deal of similarity between highly practiced skills and reflexes [since] both seem to run off without much verbalization or conscious content”, and that “overt verbalization may interfere with a highly developed skill” (p. 15). In contrast, think-to-win allows for declarative thought. The clearest case of this would be when an expert thinks aloud. Of course, thinking aloud would be ill-advised in an activity like chess where you do not want your opponent to know your thoughts. However, a dancer might think aloud, even on stage, by counting the music, or telling himself “shoulders down,” and expert tennis players, Andre Agassi tells us in his autobiography, are always talking to themselves.

Some just-do-it advocates, however, do not see declarative though as the only culprit. Fitts and Posner, as I mentioned in the last chapter, say that expert dancers “ignore kinesthetic information and visual information about their movements,” and if an expert golfer thinks about, say, stabilizing her torso muscles during a swing, she may not be successful (1967: p. 16). “In learning a dance step, one attends to kinesthetic and visual information about the feet,” they tell us; yet once one develops expertise, on their view, such information is ignored. This could be seen as a form of nondeclarative thought (or some might prefer less-declarative thought) about what you are doing, or one might it put it under the heading of attention to or monitoring of one’s own bodily movements.

Attention, itself, is a multifarious concept. For example, we can distinguish ‘top-down’, endogenous attention—attention that you direct—from ‘bottom-up’, exogenous attention—attention that arises because something in the environment captures your attention. For example, you employ ‘top-down’ attention when you search for a matching sock in a pile of variously patterned black socks; you are directing your attention to the socks and the colors. Conscious control of your movements often calls for top-down attention. For example, consciously controlling the action of gently lowering down to one’s knee, involves, among other things, top-down attention to the standing leg. In contrast, ‘bottom-up’ exogenous attention might arise-when the loud crash in the kitchen alerts you to the fact that someone has just dropped your crystal tumbler; you don’t need to direct your attention to the noise; your attention is directed automatically.

Attention can also be divided into focal versus peripheral attention: when you look at your watch, your focal attention is on the watch, but your peripheral attention may provide information about your hand, arm, and so forth. When advocates of the just-do-it principle claim that, say, an expert rock climber should not be aware of the movements of her limbs as she scales the crag, they typically mean to proscribe top-down, focal attention, as that is what a person has direct control over. However, one sometimes hears advice, such as the counsel to keep your mind on other matters when performing, which suggests that an athlete or performer should place herself in a situation which guards against interference by bottom-up attention to one’s own bodily movements. Peripheral attention, however, is usually not inveighed against, except by the extreme just-do-it advocates such as Hubert Dreyfus (1986, 2005, 2007a, 2007b), who view expertise as entirely nonminded.

We can also distinguish sensory attention from cognitive attention. Whereas cognitive attention is more in line with what I referred to as “self-reflective thinking,” sensory attention during action is awareness of your body through your senses, either because your senses are directed at your body (top-down), such as when you visually focus on your hands grasping the golf club, or because the sensory experience itself captures your attention (bottom-up), such as when you become aware of an unusual tactile sensation in your fingertips when hitting a chipped piano key. You can’t think about the mechanics of your golf swing, Dave Hill tells us. And such thought or attention to your swing can involve focusing on the sensory information you receive about your movement (the way it feels from the inside, or looks from the outside); it could also involve certain declarative thoughts, or it might (and perhaps typically does) involve both. Let us look into these forms of attention in more depth, focusing on the sensory side first.

As I’m understanding it, sensory attention is if not entirely, then to a large degree nondeclarative—that is, not easily captured by words or articulated in sentences in our minds, but rather more like the visual impression you may have of a sunset that leaves you speechless. You may, in seeing the scene, still conceptualize it as a sunset of brilliant oranges and reds, but there may be no particular sentences in your mind describing it. For example, you are not or at least need not be thinking this sunset exhibits the most spectacular array of colors I have ever seen. Nonetheless, you may be attending to the scene before you.

Sensory attention can be secured, of course, via any one of our senses. An opera singer might focus on her voice by hearing it. A gymnast might focus momentarily on his hands as he grips the rings by seeing them. A dancer might focus on her movements via proprioception. Even heart rate or body temperature might be noticed, and pain might be attended to (top-down) so as to prevent injuries, or it might capture an athlete’s attention (bottom-up) after a fall. An expert wine taster might focus (top-down) on the taste of the Bordeaux, or a certain taste in an athlete’s mouth might reveal to an athlete (bottom-up) that she has entered a state of ketosis.27

According to Dreyfus as well as a number of psychologists, the expert performs best when she does not conceptualize her actions. I understand this to mean seeing an action under a certain category, which can often (though not always) be verbalized. This is a controversial view, as many researchers assume that conceptual content is always declarative. Yet, although I think that much more is expressible in words than proponents of just-do-it often claim, I allow that some conceptual content is nondeclarative. For example, a chess player might look at the board and see an isolani (an isolated pawn) —or they might conceptualize the board spatially, as being of a certain type to which spatial or visual concepts apply. The chess player sees the board as “that”, where the “that” refers to a visual image, which might, after the fact, be drawn and described, though the description may have never been present in the mind of the expert in action. Similarly, although a proof in math must ultimately be expressed in words, some thinking might occur in images to which words apply, but which might not fully capture the content of the thought, or at least might not have been present during the process of coming up with the proof.28

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