Post No.: 0736
The brain can use as much as 20% of the body’s total energy consumption but only makes up about 2% of the body’s total mass. But whereas stronger muscles will show greater activation, more skilled brains (for a given specific task) will show lesser activation. This is because a more skilled brain is more efficient at performing a given task than a less skilled one.
The term ‘muscle memory’ doesn’t mean that the muscles themselves have a memory but one’s brain and nervous system has been trained, when using one’s particular body, so much that it has developed efficient neural motor memories for performing a particular task. When we first learn a motor task, our movements are usually stiff, slow and easily disrupted. But with practice, we gradually become more fluid, faster and eventually we’ll be able to do that task without much conscious effort whatsoever. Abilities like riding a bike will then become hard to forget. So motor learning is stored in the brain as a memory, not in the muscles themselves, hence you cannot just transplant the arms of a master potter in place of yours and expect to be throwing perfect vases almost instantly!
This is also why recent limb amputees can feel a ‘phantom limb’ – their limb and related muscles aren’t there anymore but the neural memories in the brain related to them are still present and so the brain still expects a limb to be there, and it’s believed that it’s this incongruence that’s what can exhibit as a fuzzy phantom pain.
When we practise and practise in order to master a skill – any set of skills, from walking upright to piloting a helicopter – we strengthen the neural networks involved and make them more efficient. We essentially physically hardwire or fix them into the very structure of our brains, as if laying down more durable, persistent and faster neural highways that’ll be utilised whenever we’re doing that particular task again. It’s the counter side to ‘if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’ i.e. ‘the more you use it, the stronger it gets’. The result is that the skill becomes more automatic, effortless and energy efficient. It’ll become conducted relatively more unconsciously or subconsciously.
But one risk of this is that we might end up operating too much on autopilot – like when driving and not paying full attention, which one can get away with if everything goes as most days go, but not if some novel situation suddenly appears.
I can type large passages rapidly without needing to look at the keyboard based on my years of experience successfully (in terms of reasonably consistently correctly typing the words I want) typing. Yet if someone asked me to draw a picture of a keyboard and label at least all of the letter keys correctly, I’d struggle because I’ve never bothered to deliberately, specifically and consciously learn the locations of the keys in that way. This demonstrates how much skills are specific – being skilled in one highly defined task won’t necessarily mean that one will be just as skilled in a novel yet seemingly quite closely related task (skill specificity). Even if and when I change to using another keyboard, especially if it’s a different size or has a notably different feel, I can stumble for a few moments with my typing until I get used to it.
Notwithstanding, when we master a skill, it shifts from us needing full conscious awareness of all of the individual actions required to perform a task to us having a relatively more unconscious or subconscious awareness of all of the required actions to perform it. If you’ve learnt to ride a motorcycle then compare when you were first learning to ride and had to consciously concentrate on getting the correct foot pressure to find neutral, remember what gear one is in, do your lifesavers, cancel the turn indicators, etc., to after having enough experience riding where all of the above steps now come mostly without you having to directly, consciously and discretely attend to each task, which frees more mental attention for the road. The task becomes more instinctive – a skilled intuition.
In fact, we might subsequently perform far more clumsily if we were to now try to consciously go through the steps of that task we’d mastered i.e. we can start to over-think in a task that has otherwise become quite natural for us to do. So if I start to consciously ask myself ‘where is the G key?’ or ‘where is the N key?’, for example, my typing fluidity and accuracy will drop. Over-thinking can cause skilled sportspeople to perform worse.
So it can be true that our instincts know better – or more accurately recognises that a particular situation has been encountered many times before and so reaches the answer more quickly and efficiently than a conscious analysis from scratch. However, in decision-making or judgement tasks, unskilled intuition guesswork based on crude cognitive heuristics will also create unconsciously-formed outputs too – and we might not be able to determine whether an unconsciously-formed decision is based on our crude cognitive heuristics (e.g. prejudiced stereotypes) or come from a honed skill (e.g. from years of reliably making the right predictions in a particular domain) because both answers arrive from an unconscious source.
Skilled individuals can rely on their intuitions if a present decision-making task is within their specific domain of expertise – but that doesn’t mean that laypeople should rely on their intuitions when attempting the same task too! But lazy laypeople who don’t want to put in the effort to hone their knowledge can end up believing that the skill is in always simply trusting their own intuitions no matter what – just like they might think that eating protein bars is all it takes to be fit and healthy because they’ve seen that eating protein bars is what many fit and healthy people do! Similarly, just because skilled sports coaches can perform worse if they over-think – that’s relative to their skilled thinking habits i.e. it doesn’t therefore mean that unskilled coaches will perform best if they don’t do much thinking whatsoever. Or it’s like seeing how elite sportspeople can over-train to the point of injury then assuming that we shouldn’t physically exert to the point when it feels challenging for us.
So it’s not always a great sign if we think ‘I have this feeling that x will happen or y is going to do z but I can’t explain it’, because the unconscious source could be one’s biases, such as one like ‘I don’t trust him/her because of the shape of his/her eyes’ or something prejudiced and unreliable like that. If we’re correct then it’ll be more down to a fluke than skill (but we’ll biasedly proclaim to all that it was skill while we’ll simply forget about all of our missed predictions!) Moreover, if an intuition is truly skilled, we will most of the time be able to consciously explain the reasons for our decision, like how a skilled motorcyclist could consciously explain step-by-step how to operate a motorcycle if ultimately required. Or it’s like we could fluke solving a Rubik’s Cube, but a skilled speedcuber would ultimately be able to consciously step-by-step explain his/her technique, even though while they’re speedcubing they’re operating on autopilot and would have no time to do that without slowing down. Therefore we should rather not listen to the predictions of people who say they have a feeling that something’s going to happen but they cannot satisfactorily explain their reasoning when given the time and opportunity to do so.
In short, if you’ve earned the skill to perform a particular task reliably and consistently well then you can rely on your fast intuitions – although if it’s a decision-making task that gives you time to consciously think things through then why not think things through? But if you’re not skilled at a particular task then don’t assume you are and that you can rely on your fast intuitions – put in the effort to think and reason things through. Don’t be overconfident or lazy. This is obvious in the case of a task like learning to ride a motorcycle because a novice will be jerky if they assumed they could ride fast before they could even smoothly change gears. But it needs to be obvious for novices in specific decision-making or judgement tasks too, even though absolutely anyone can rapidly make a decision or prediction regardless of their level of expertise and ‘appear’ competent in these situations (like most politicians!) If there’s no time afforded to think then all anyone can deploy are their fast intuitions though.
So a gut feeling can be either a skilled or an unskilled heuristic intuition, and we mightn’t recognise the difference. This is arguably most problematic when someone has a true honed skill in one area but is now over-extrapolating it to assume that it also gives them the same level of skill in a different area, like thinking that one’s successful experiences in the electric vehicles industry qualifies one to be an expert in the social media industry. It’s problematic because others might over-trust them based on their general history.
When it comes to changing environments – highly-experienced people in a particular task environment can be slower to adapt to changes in that environment compared to novices who don’t have any preconceptions, muscle memories or habits yet. The rules or parameters have changed and the strategies that worked before don’t work anymore, yet highly-experienced individuals won’t be able to help but fall back into the automatic grooves they’ve worn down for years. That’s the pros and cons of skilled expertise – the ways we think and behave have become so efficient that they’ve become more automatic and effortless in their execution, and they’ll still be automatic habits at least for a while even if the way we think and behave has become outdated. So someone who’s skilled at using a regular QWERTY keyboard will suddenly make tons of errors if the C key suddenly moved elsewhere, for example.
A major change should perhaps force us to slow down because we should recognise that we have inadequate skill to perform this, essentially new, task because it’s sufficiently different to what we’ve done before. But a less dramatic environmental change might make us hubristically think that we can, without needing to consciously and effortfully think much about it, go at about the same speed as before because we think our previous skill still applies to this new situation; hence the errors, and likely frustrations. According to one study, when experienced accountants were asked to use a new tax law for deductions, they performed worse than novices.
We also frequently overestimate our ability to multitask – see Post No.: 0401.
‘Cognitive entrenchment’ is the tendency to find it increasingly harder to see outside of one’s sphere of existing expertise and in turn regressing to what one knows best despite the rest of the world moving on. We’ll brashly assume we already know so much about an area that we deem we have expertise in hence we’ll already think we’re correct, so why should we need to think flexibly? Well what was expertise at one time can become out of date the next. There can be doubts cast upon the assumptions we’ve relied upon – assumptions we’ve forgotten were only assumptions because we’ve taken them for granted for so long. Experts might dismiss ‘upstarts’ with their novel theories and furry ideas; but in many industries, disruptors have caught existing established businesses napping. Even Nobel Prize winning theories can be proven wrong over time hence it’s more important to be right than a Nobel Prize winner.
That’s why we’ve got to keep updating our knowledge and beliefs. We should think more flexibly. And we should at least question what we think we know in the face of new evidence.