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



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Proprioceptive Awareness

I claim that experts may be both present and immersed in the experience of movement. And the means by which such immersion occurs, I would now like to suggest, is via proprioception, our sense which provides information about the positions and movements of our own bodies, via receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles and skin. I shall have a good deal more to say about proprioception in the next chapter. But here let me say a few words about why we should accept the idea that we have proprioceptive awareness in the first place; for some have argued that proprioception is not a form of conscious experience. Yet if part of the pleasure of movement, as I have argued, comes from a sense of being immersed in movement, and if proprioception is the sense by which we experience such immersion, I am committed to the view that such experience is conscious.

Proprioception is a relatively little studied sense, among both scientists and philosopher, and among those philosophers who do talk about it, a number of philosophers claim that we are rarely aware of proprioceptive information. For example, according to Brian O’Shaughnessy, “proprioception is attentively recessive in a high degree, it takes a back seat in consciousness almost all of the time” (1998, p. 175). And Gallagher tells us, “when I am engaged in the world, I tend not to notice my posture or specific movements of my limbs” (2003, p. 54). If this is correct, then perhaps expert athletes and performing artists are not attending to proprioceptive input.

I question, however, whether proprioception is typically more recessive than any of our other senses. While working at your computer, your attention is typically not on your posture, but neither is it on any sensory information; rather it is on the content of what you may be writing or reading. So O’Shaughnessy and Gallagher may not be correct, if they mean to suggest that proprioception is more recessive than our other senses. Nonetheless, proprioception (along with all other sensory information) may be typically recessive, and if so, the perception of the expert, on my view, is often not typical.

There is also a rather knotty debate in the philosophy literature about whether proprioception is perceptual at all. According to Elizabeth Anscombe, we know the positions of our limbs without observation; nothing shows us, she tells us, the positions of our limbs (1957/2000: 13-14). Anscombe explains this by an analogy to the knowledge possessed by the director of a building project, who may know what a finished building will look like, not because she has observed it, but because she has designed it. Others have argued that that although we can be conscious of proprioceptive input, we are only conscious of it when the motor command fails to match the proprioceptive input (so that when all is going well, there is no sensory aspect to proprioception). For example, according to Anthony Marcel, “awareness of a voluntary action appears to derive from a stage later than intention but earlier than movement itself” (2003: p. 71). And Patrick Haggard claims “awareness of movement appears to be less related to the actual motor production than to preparatory process” (Haggard, 2003: p. 121).

However, I understand proprioception as a sense, which is sometimes conscious and which plays an important role in movement awareness. It may be that in everyday movement, one primarily notices mismatches between motor command and proprioceptive input, but I think that experts in bodily movement are often intent on monitoring proprioceptive input. Moreover, one must remember that such experts have a much higher standard for what counts as a match; because of the self-critical nature of dancers, for example, mismatches are common. Thinking of proprioception as a sense is standard in physiology textbooks114. And Hannah Pickard (2004) seems to see proprioception (though she does not use this term) as a form of perception. As Pickard, in defense of what she calls her “naïve proposal”, says, “just as we perceive the world through the five senses, we perceive our own bodies ‘from the inside’” (p. 210).

It seems that when proponents of the just-do-it principle warn against proprioceptive awareness, they typically have in mind sensory knowledge from the inside. But Anscombe’s “director’s knowledge” comes under fire as well, if we understand it as knowledge of our movement based on consciously directing our bodies to move. The idea that an expert dancer may experience pleasure in bodily immersion depends on Pickard’s idea of sensory knowledge from the inside. This, I claim, can be conscious and can involve a sense of self: you are consciously experiencing yourself as moving in a certain way via proprioception. However, I also believe that Anscombe’s director’s knowledge may be part of expert action as well, and indeed might provide for another form of pleasure in movement, for as Cole and I also speculated, part of the pleasure of movement arises from a close coupling between intention and movement. Directors’ knowledge provides one of awareness of what you are doing without observation, and proprioceptive feedback provides observation knowledge of what you are doing; when these two line up, one has a sense of harmony.115

But does the coupling between intention and movement implicate a loss of the self? Cole and I had said that given sufficient skill, “attention to movement is no longer required at all even though movement continues” (p. 312). And this is true inasmuch as an expert often can perform certain actions in her domain of expertise without attention to her movements. Yet such actions are not necessarily done best without such attention. Moreover, when one has total focus on one’s movement, other aspects of the mind do dissolve, but this does not mean that the mind is absent, for it is the mind that is focused on the movement.







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