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

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Limitless Attention

A bedrock principle in psychology is that attention is limited, in the sense that attending to one aspect of your environment impedes your ability to attend simultaneously to another. “Everyone knows what attention is,” William James said: “it implies withdrawal from some things in order to deal effectively with others” (1890/2007: p. ). Such a view perhaps lends support to a moderate just-do-it principle, which would state that performing difficult tasks with consummate skill would require at least a high degree of automaticity, since one can only attend to a very limited number of components of the skill. But perhaps expert action may give us reason to question this bedrock principle. Experts (as we have seen in this chapter as well as the past two), when the pressure is on, or when the drive to win is present, may be able to focus fully on numerous different targets. Schaeffer is able, during performance, to think about the details of his technique and his artistic interpretation of the piece; the emergency room nurse I discussed in the prior chapter focused on doctors, nurses, patients, all at once and directed their attention; the ballet dancer Eric Dirk seemed to hold in his mind such features of performance as making sure he was in the proper space on the stage, moving together with other dancers, staying on the music, adjusting to injuries, and perhaps watching out for someone who might be new to a part and needed help. Do all or at least some of these thoughts occur simultaneously and with equal attention? It is of course hard to tell, but given that the laboratory settings that are typically used to investigate divided attention are a far cry from an emergency room, I think it is an interesting question to ask.

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