Repetition in learning as iteration.


Webster's dictionary informs us that the word iteration can have the following meaning: a procedure in which repetition of a sequence of operations yields results successively closer to a desired result. The desired result that this site will address here is the idea of learning more each time through the sequence of operations. This kind of learning through the iteration of a series of operations, has been shown to be critical in the learning processes of very young children and is the most significant feature of all learning.

We should perhaps consider all learning as an iteration. We know, in science, that we can never be truly sure of any knowledge because our understanding of the moment may be swept away, or at least be significantly amended, at any moment. No discovery or theory is every truly finished. Despite the usefulness of the Newtonian universe, Einstein showed it to not be fully accurate and no doubt Einstein will be shown to be not fully accurate also. What works in this circumstance may not work in another circumstance. We cannot be totally sure of any knowledge. However, we can progressively get closer and closer to being sure and that is in itself iteration.



The word 'iteration' seems to nicely solve an apparent paradox in learning, namely that children learn by means of repetition. Yet repetition, as most understand it, is drills, rote learning and cramming, which are devoid of meaningfulness. The answer to this riddle, can be found in the creative endeavors of the clever people at "Sesame Street".


The "Sesame Street" people were constantly testing their show in various ways to see if children were learning from it. Two interesting tests that they performed on groups of young children are reported in Malcolm Gladwell's "The Tipping Point" as follows:

"...Lorch and Dan Anderson showed two groups of five year olds an episode of "Sesame Street". The kids in the second group, however, were put in a room with lots of attractive toys on the floor. As you would expect, the kids in the room without the toys watched the show about 87 percent of the time, while the kids with the toys watched only about 47 percent of the show. Kids are distracted by toys. But when they tested the two groups to see how much of the show they remembered and understood, the scores were exactly the same. This result stunned the two researchers. Kids they realized, were a great deal more sophisticated in the way they watched than had been imagined. 'We were led to the conclusion,' they wrote 'that five year olds in the toy group were attending quite strategically, distributing their attention between toy play and viewing so that they looked at what for them were the the most informative parts of the program. This strategy was so effective that the children could gain no more from increased attention.

Lorch for instance, once reedited an episode of "Sesame Street" so that certain key scenes of some of the sketches were out of order. If kids were only interested in flash and dash, that shouldn't have made a difference. The show, after all, still had songs and Muppets and bright colors and action and all the things that make "Sesame Street" so wonderful. But it did make a difference. The kids stopped watching. If they couldn't make sense of what they were looking at, they weren't going to look at it.


If you take the two studies together - you reach a quite radical conclusion about children and television. Kids don't watch when they are stimulated and look away when they are bored. They watch when they understand and look away when they are confused."

Malcolm Gladwell's book "The Tipping Point" is about how epidemics work, not so much epidemics of disease as epidemics of ideas. In this book Gladwell identifies three causes for this, one of which was, what he called, the stickiness factor. It should not be surprising to us to discover, that what turned out to make learning sticky (made it memorable) turned out to be the message's connectedness to what the learner already new and its connectedness within itself. Stickiness in learning turns out to be all about meaningfulness.

Iteration and the James Earl Jones Effect.

Some people say that children love repetition. They say that children do things over and over again the same way, and they often watch the same thing over and over again. This is a complete misunderstanding. Nobody likes repetition, certainly not children or even babies. Why then the seeming repetition? Probably one of the cleverest shows ever put on television is a children's show called "Blue's Clues". Each episode of this show, if presented correctly, is shown five consecutive times, before a new episode is aired. Educationalists, who revere rote learning, drills and cramming, might be inclined to say "Blue's Clues" is therefore banging its message into children's heads by their drill method. This is not the case. In fact, everything children do that seems repetitious, is not really repetitious at all. The reason children watch things several times, or perform an action, seemingly several times, is in order to learn more about it.

If you look closely at children's supposed repeated actions, you will discover that each action is not exactly the same but rather a variation on a theme. In other words the child is performing an experiment to see if a bit of knowledge, about the universe, will hold true under the same or varying conditions. Older people like ourselves, seeing this, and already knowing the limitations of the knowledge, see this as repetition, but the young child does not know the limits within which this knowledge works, and thus, they are experimenting to find it out. As young children, we did not have this knowledge either, but once we have obtained this knowledge, it seems like something we have always possessed. The people who made "Blue's Clues" came out of the Sesame Street group, where they took special note of what the Sesame Street people called the James Earl Jones effect. In his book "The Tipping Point" Malcolm Gladwell explains the James Earl Jones effect as follows:

"Not long afterward (and quite by accident), the Sesame Street writers figured out why kids like repetition so much. The segment in question this time featured the actor James Earl Jones reciting the alphabet. As originally taped, Jones took long pauses between the letters, because the idea was to insert other elements between the letters. But Jones, as you can imagine, cut such a compelling figure that the Sesame Street producers left the film as it was and played it over and over again for years: the letter A or B etc., would appear on the screen, then there would be a long pause, and then James would boom out the name and the letter would disappear. 'What we noticed was that the first time through, kids would shout out the name of the letter after James did,' Sam Gibbon says, 'After a couple of repetitions, they would respond to the appearance of the letter before he did, in the long pause. Then with enough repetitions, they would anticipate the letter before it appeared. They were sequencing themselves through the piece; first they learned the name of the letter, then they learned to associate the name of the letter with its appearance, then they learned the sequence of the letters."

"An adult considers constant repetition boring, because it requires reliving the same experience over and again. But to preschoolers repetition isn't boring, because each time they watch something they are experiencing it in a completely different way."

Blue's Clues.

The James Earl Jones effect is not really about repetition at all to a child. Even though the episode of is repeated exactly the same each time, what the child is learning each time through, is quite different. This is also what "Blue's Clues" was doing. Although the show is repeated five times in a row, each time through, the children are learning something different. Daniel Anderson who worked with Nickelodeon in designing "Blue's Clues" puts it like this:

"For younger kids, repetition is really valuable. They demand it. When they see a show over and over again, they not only are understanding it better, which is a form of power, but just by predicting what is going to happen, I think they feel a real sense of affirmation and self-worth. And 'Blue's Clues' doubles that feeling because they also feel like they are participating in something. They feel like they are helping Steve."

Conveyor belt. What we see here is that there are two types of repetition; one forced and one chosen. The forced one including the drills, the rote learning and cramming, is like a nail being driven into your head by the blows of a hammer, while the other, iteration, is like a conveyor belt going past loaded with all kinds of interesting things, and you can grab a few of them every time it goes past. For the young child this second kind of repetition (iteration), is essential.


Iteration in adult learning. Although this iteration is difficult to perceive in the world of adults, it is nevertheless, there. The adult, reading a textbook, may read it fully only once, but in fact, the interested reader will probably go back and read certain parts of it again. This is because, when we read a book, it has to make connections with what is already in our brains (in our map of reality), for it to be understood and thus learned or remembered. So when we read we understand and learn only some of what we read, and the rest of it is skimmed over. However, when we reach the end of any book, we often feel, that the parts we didn't understand might now be clear. We now have extra knowledge, already gained from the book, which might make other parts of the book understandable, so we read back over those parts. We may skim through, or scan a book several times in order to obtain increasing amounts of knowledge from it.

Pausing play and rewinding. The same thing applies to movies and dvds. We can stop a dvd, rewind and go over certain parts of it again; we can use the dvd chapter selection to view specific parts a second time, or we can simply watch the whole dvd a second or third time, (but perhaps less attentively). People who make movies, experience them quite differently to the average movie viewer. They notice how the lighting was done, how the camera is being used, how the movie cuts from one scene to another. They are in fact, seeing how the artist (director) did his work. 

Layers in knowledge. The presentation of all knowledge is like this. It has many layers of which we absorb only a few. There are of course many reasons for watching a movie many times, but some movies are so clever, that each time you watch, you see something new, or you learn something new. Such movies, like books, have many layers of meaning or knowledge which are meant to be uncovered. Thus they can speak to different people in different ways and speak to the same people differently at different times.

It is well established that good fictional books have several of these levels of meaning. Likewise, good textbooks can have also have layers, although they may be layers of expertise rather than meaning. TV shows are no different. "Sesame Street" for instance is quite different in this respect to "Blue's Clues" for "Sesame Street", though it was made to entertain and educate children, has layers of meaning that adults can find entertaining while "Blue's Clues" does not.

Child learning and adult learning.

The difference between children learning by means of iteration and adults doing the same is that adults are able to grab what seems to be a whole lot more from the conveyor belt as it whizzes past. Be that as it may, both children and adults are probably taking fairly a similar amount from the conveyor belt. The difference is that as adults already have such vast reserves of knowledge they do not need to take in most of the information children need to. By skipping taking in much of the material we adults seem to take in so much that it feels like we are getting it all, but actually we are not. Revisiting an iteration where we scan quickly through and pick up on specific information we missed before will always help us considerably. Children on the other hand need to pass through many iterations as (depending on their age) they will only pick up a small amount of what adults do each time through because they are also learning so much that adults have already learned. The younger children are, the less complete information they pick up as they pass through the iteration, because they have so much more to learn.

The reason there is this difference between children and adults in learning may have more to do with the amount of information stored and its internal connectedness than it actually has to do with age. Children simply have less information stored than adults and what information they have is less connected into coherent knowledge. It is not that they are learning less but simply that they are learning different information, information most adults have already learned.

Iteration as a Superior Method of Learning. 

Textbooks are of course, meant to be structured in a linear fashion. Each section, in a good textbook, tries to provide you with the knowledge you will need to understand the next section in the book. This is obviously helpful in learning. This said, it is probably not essential for it to be linearly structured. In fact, to structure a book perfectly is impossible without making it too easy. Thus a person can never understand everything when he reads a good text book anyway. If he can understand all of it, he already must know most of it before he reads it. Thus, if he reads it all, he is actually reading some of it a second time, which would be boring because nothing new is being learned.

This leads to the idea, that there is no such thing as a book that is too hard, provided the person is motivated to read it. Children, in all likelihood, can read and learn from much harder books than we give them credit for. Also, any kind of structure, imposed by the order of material, may be restricting to how it can be understood, and thus restrictive to new ideas and creation. The important thing about this iteration method of proceeding is that you the learner, are reading where your interest is, and developing interests as you read. For young children skimming, scanning or sampling a book several times may in fact be a better way of reading and thus learning.

Scanning, sampling or skimming as a superior method of learning. 

While iteration is helpful and necessary for very young children, it may well be that as children get older, exact repetition in iteration may become unnecessary. Instead of going back and reading the same book again, or parts of it, it may be better to simply move on and read other similar and connected books, with similar information. There is still a sort of iteration going on, but not real repetition. The important part of this process in reading may be the act of scanning or skimming.

Skimming is the act of attending to only the parts of the text, lecture, video or movie that you find interesting. All though you do not absorb or even take in all the details of the information it must come together to form the gist of what the whole work is about.


Scanning on the other hand is the act of looking for specific information when reading, watching or listening and ignoring anything that is not that specific information. It becomes important and useful when the information obtained by skimming does not make sense and it becomes necessary to look for other information.


Synthesizing is often the process of combining information obtained by skimming with information obtained by scanning to produce the necessary gist that allows all learning to make sense and thus be understood and have meaning. Children do this naturally without thought or being aware of doing it.

Moby Dick. John Holt clearly illustrates the importance of this skimming and scanning (in this case reading the parts that interest and skipping the parts that do not interest) with a story in his book "The Underachieving School". The story concerned a young girl in a class where he had decided to let the students read what they wanted to read, and had informed them they would not be tested on what they read. This particular girl, who had not been good at reading, decided to read some very simple books far below what was supposed to be her level. After some time, John Holt decided to give her a little push. He gently suggested that since she liked to ride horses she might like to read "Black Beauty" which was about the level of most of her classmates. She read it and liked it, and John thought she would then continue at about that level, but he was in for a surprise. His story continued as follows:

"During the spring she really astounded me, however. One day in one of our many free periods, she was reading at her desk. From a glimpse of the illustrations I thought I knew what the book was. I said to myself, 'It can't be,' and went to take a closer look. Sure enough she was reading Moby Dick, in the edition with the woodcuts by Rockwell Kent. When I came closer to her desk she looked up. I said, 'Are you really reading that?' She said she was. I said, 'Do you like it?' She said, 'Oh yes it's neat!' I said 'don't you find parts of it rather heavy going?' She answered, 'Oh sure, but I just skip over those parts and go on to the next good part."

"This is exactly what reading should be and in school so seldom is - an exciting, joyous adventure. Find something, dive into it, take the good parts, skip over the bad parts, get what you can out of it; go on to something else. How different is our mean-spirited picky insistence that every child get every last little scrap of 'understanding' that can be dug out of a book."

Though this story concerns literature, the principle is the same for textbook reading. For the writer will have maybe hundreds of thousands of readers and can in no way anticipate exactly what they will need to know. The reader is the only person who can possible know what he/she needs to know, and doesn't need to know, or already knows. So she/he should be the one to decide what to read. Schools seem to spend so much time checking what the student has not learned and then insisting that it be learned that there is often little time left for further interesting learning. This checking, apart from any other considerations, is a huge waste of the learner's time. He or she has already learned those parts of the knowledge that were interesting and meaningful to themselves and further efforts to learn in this area will tend to be counter productive.

Repetition as Drills or Repetition as Iteration. 

The ordinary person does not need to distinguish between various types of repetition, and is probably unfamiliar with the word iteration, but it is used here because it actually has the appropriate meaning for this kind of repetition. Another more familiar word is probably reiterate which of course means to iterate again. When we reiterate, what we do is, provide a second or third chance for the listener to learn something more by saying what we said previously.

Elsewhere in this site, the problems caused by using repetition to force a message into people's heads, has already been argued. However, from the above information, it should be clear that not all repetition is harmful in this way.

Iteration as repetition. 

The kind of repetition that is chosen by young children in their learning, is also a special kind of repetition that this site emphasizes is more properly called iteration. This kind of learning is essential in children's learning process. Clearly also this iteration is also not harmful for adults either, and it is often used by adults without them being aware of it.

All such activity, is using repeated reading, viewing or hearing to absorb new and interesting information that was missed the first time through an iteration. Each viewing or hearing, each time through, can be seen as an iteration that allows an experience that is quite different each time. The critical matter here is focus and choice. If we choose to go over something more than once, in order to learn, we are clearly learning something new each time. Also we are not even trying to take in all the many details that may exist in the work so it is not boring us to death. If we are forcibly exposed to something more than once it may be harmful to us. Forced repetition, likely induces boredom which can cause our minds to unfocus, and build unpleasant associations with the information or subject domain. The only escape may be falling asleep.

How and why iteration functions in learning. 

As we have seen iteration is essential for learning. It is by means of iteration that we learn skills by creating variant actions and action elements. Iteration also allows us to squeeze more information and understanding out of any media. Iteration makes use of the sensory perceptual suppression mechanism. Because when we read or hear something some of that sensory information will be suppressed there is the possibility that the sensory information we did not understand will become more salient as if highlighted by a marker. Also when rereading or rehearing we now know more than we did before and are thus more likely to understand the information that we did not understand before. 

Why are children better than adults at learning by means of iteration? Iteration works better for children than adults because the suppression of sensory information works differently in children. Adults are more likely to understand most of anything they see or hear because they have a far greater knowledge base or map of reality with which new incoming information can connect and thus be understood. Also adults try with all their might to understand everything the first time as society expects this. Children on the other hand with a much smaller map of reality usually understand far less on first seeing or hearing. Not only that but society expects less of children allowing them to reread or rehear to their hearts content.

Child iteration. When a child rereads or rehears some information he/she will understand little. With each iteration of hearing, reading or seeing a child finds some information is less focused on by his/her brain because it is being repeated. But this is only the information that the child understood on previous iterations. Thus the information the child did not understand in previous iterations becomes far more salient. However, this understanding allows the child's map of reality to expand with each iteration enabling the child to process not only a smaller amount of information with each viewing or hearing but to be able to find new connections in his/her now expanded map of reality. Thus the child is able to understand more with each hearing or reading.

Adult iteration. An adult on the other hand has a problem with repetition because as he/she understands so much that it seems to the brain that the iteration of rereading or reseeing is just repeating with no new information and tends to suppress the very sensory information we are trying to learn by rereading or rehearing. Adults can usually only manage to get around this if they build a lifetime's habit of skimming through books and other media over and over.


Skill practice as iteration. 

In the military they say, you tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and then tell them what you've told them. This seems to me to be a drill, which might be okay in the military, where it is often dangerous to take the time to start thinking. War is often life and death situations where the speed of acting instinctively and reflexively is essential. This type of reflex is a habit or automatic action. It also seems very similar to what is required for any physical skill that we acquire by means of practice but this is not quite so.

Some people, and perhaps even dictionaries, tell us that practice is simply doing the same thing over and over again as though we have found some perfect way of doing something and are trying to make it automatic. By performing the action over and over again we can dispense with the need for thought and the set of actions sink to a deep place where thought is bypassed and action becomes automatic. What we call practice, however, means not one thing, but actually two uniquely different things which often occur simultaneously. One is a form of iteration.

Practice is: On the one hand practice is the process by which a sequence of actions sink to a deep place where thought is bypassed and the actions become automatic.

Practice is: On the other hand practice is the improving of an action sequence by means of learning a new variation or variations of the action sequence. Each variation is an iteration of the original action sequence. To put it another way: practice is when improved versions (iterations) of an action sequence replace the previous one. Or practice is the producing of iterations of an action that precedes learning or improvement in that action.

This said, there is no perfect way of doing things that we can aspire to when we practice. When we do something again it is hardly ever an exact reproduction of what we have done before. The golfer who is trying to make a, so called, 'perfect swing' is actually doing something quite different. We normally do not have some perfect swing already in our minds that we are endeavoring to make real. Oh we may have seen others perform a swing that we thought was perfect but even so it may not have been performed the way we are capable of performing it. We are ultimately stumbling in the dark inching our way toward something not perfect but better than before which we have no real idea about until we have achieved it.

Learning habits and skills. 

Habits. Learning structures for habits and skills, however, are not the same. When we are learning a habit we are usually not trying to learn it. We simply do learn it because we get close to performing the same set of actions over and over again until the brain paths for those actions become very fast and very automatic. They become automatic as we get close to repeating them without intending to and this lets them sink into our unconscious to become schemas as Piaget called them. These schemas can react to external cues without any further thought or input from our conscious brains. Once these habits have become automatic, by means of this process, we no longer have to think about them, to perform them, and they are burned into our brains and muscles as a regular way of doing things. 

Skills. However, the learning of skills and the various actions that make up skills is quite different even though they can look quite similar. In fact, any kind of intentional learning is quite different. This kind of learning always involves iteration. More information on this on our thin slicing page. Popper explains it like this:

"Learning by 'repetition' or 'practicing', as in learning to play an instrument or to drive a car. Here my thesis is that (a) there is no genuine 'repetition' but rather (b) change through error elimination (following theory formation) and (c) a process which helps to make certain actions or reactions automatic, thereby allowing them to sink to a merely physiological level, and to be performed without attention."

Iteration as practice in skill learning. 

When we produce a new variant of an action, we do not alter everything about the action, we try instead to keep those elements that seem to be working well and only change those elements that are not working well. The new action variant that we then produce is a combination of old and new elements and thus an iteration of the original action. If this was not so it would not be an iteration.

What we do when learning a skill like golf is this kind of iteration. We may try to do the swing the way we want it, but it does not work. We then examine the swing we made and try to eliminate or compensate for the errors that occurred. Each time through we vary the swing a little to see what happens. In this way we will find a number of optimum ways for us to make the swing work in varying  conditions. In doing this we may not really be perfecting a swing but rather eliminating errors for varying circumstances and that can continue to be improved in this way. 

This is not the only way iterative practice works. We may have seen somebody else make a seemingly perfect golf swing and be trying to duplicate the swing we saw. We see how the variant of the swing we have produced differs from the swing we are trying to copy and we try to eliminate those parts of the swing the the next time we try. 

Or perhaps we simply make a swing at random and judge whether it is good or bad, then make another swing similar if the first swing was good, and different if the swing was bad.

No matter which way it is done, what happens is that, our action, (the swing of the golf club) becomes a variant of its former self. Each swing is a different variant but errors are eliminated and each variant comes closer to what we want to happen when we make the swing. This is learning, as Popper would have it, by testing a theory and eliminating the errors. But it is also an iteration of the first golf swing that gets closer and closer to perfection without ever becoming perfect. When we are learning some action or skill like a golf swing it is improving by means of variant iterations. Learning occurs when an action is not repeated, but rather where a subtle series of variants of the original action are performed. From those variants we choose those that are getting closer to what we want the action to be and discard those which do not.

Repetition as consolidation. 

When we have chosen we then try to repeat those variations that are better and continue to do so until the new variant has become consolidated into the norm for that action. It sinks to an almost automated level while remaining flexible enough that new variations can still replace it. In the end the only place for trying to repeat an action is in consolidating new variants or maintaining them. Even then it usually ends up being yet another variant (see below).  

Improvement is iterative learning. 

When an action has reached the point where it is highly competent and automatic it no longer needs to be practiced as often, as it has been fully learned. We can therefor work on other actions at which we are less skilled. Actions need to be practiced (by means of iteration) when we are trying to improve them. That is to say it becomes an iteration or variant of the activity that is approaching what we want it to be. When an action or skill is being repeated as exactly as we can do it we are not learning anything. Curiously it is almost always the case that we are trying to improve, and if we are not, we should be.


Skills, actions and activities will be forgotten if they are not repeated. Repetition is essential to maintain any action, skill or activity. Its the old story of 'If you don't use it you will lose it.' So any skill must be routinely repeated just to be maintained. Highly competent learned actions will disappear through disuse. If we do not practice particular highly competent actions occasionally the action will become corrupted as neurons wither through disuse and we will thus forget how to perform the action. So it seems some repetition is required even after an action has become performable on demand. Habits usually do not need conscious maintenance as they tend to be automatically activated by cues in the environment. However, performing variants of actions, maintains the core elements of such actions, by repeating those core elements while changing only a few other elements. 

Is exact repetition possible?

It may well be that true repetition is not quite possible. As pointed out previously exact repetition is a matter of tolerance or accuracy level. True exactness is impossible and our perception of it happening is an illusion. Even when we are trying to produce true repetition what we produce is actually a variant of that action. We can still judge those action variants and choose which is approaching our goal for the action, and which variants are bad or less competent than what we previously performed. In this way we can be improving with each variant even though we may not really be trying to improve. In any case it is always better to be trying improve an action even though the action may seem already nearly perfect. Thus there there is really no need for to try and perform repetition at all except when we are consolidating our initial learning or maintaining skills in danger of withering from disuse. 

Imperfect repetition. How then does the repetition needed for consolidation work? When a variant or iteration of an action is created most of its substance is a repetition of the original action. So most of the action is repeated with each variant and is further repeated in part while we are actively attempting to consolidate it. Repetition does occur but it simply is not perfect repetition. Thus action schemas are maintained by this repetition. While they are being used or practiced they will not be forgotten.

Deliberate practice.

What is clear, however, is that it is possible to repeat actions without learning anything. This is because, the choosing of whether an action is approaching greater competence or not, is what is all important and is what enables learning, and thus improvement, to take place. So we still have the problem that some types of practice (iteration) produce improvement while other types of practice (repetition) produce no learning or improvement at all. Anders Ericson sort to solve this semantic problem by giving iterative practice a new name. He called this type of practice 'deliberate practice.' This is a good name for this kind of practice as it draws attention to the fact, that to learn we must have intention to learn, and thus be ready and willing to choose what is better and what is worse in an action. To learn we must be able to repeat what is better and to discard what is worse. 

Improving our weaknesses by trying to improve our strengths. Although Ericson suggests in his writings that deliberate practice is best suited to refining those actions and parts of actions that are less competent or weakest this may not be optimal. The idea is that skills would be developed by improving their weakest parts one by one until the whole gradually improves. However, the problem with this is that we tend not to enjoy what we do badly so this can be highly demotivating. It may, in the end, be better to build on what we do well and approach our weaknesses through what we do well. In this way we may find better and more creative solutions to overcoming our weaknesses while improving our strengths.    

Habits are mindless simple repetition but skills are complex intentional change.

A skill like basket ball or any sport or a martial art or chess is not just a single skill or even a number of skills. It's more of a successive series of skill elements lodged one inside the other. None of these elements is completely rigid as we might expect from a well entrenched habit. Although such element/skills can be thought of as habits, and like habits can be run for short periods automatically, they nevertheless, remain flexible and are capable of being easily changed. Skills unlike habits are not usually finished in the way habits are, and thus they can become endless variants for varying circumstances and still be open to further variation. The beauty of a skill is each element can be a variant of another element and each performance of an element is then an iteration of the original element or partial action. Skills require the continual creation of of new iterations of actions to culminate in continual improvement while habits tend to freeze actions into an unchanging automatically activated single unique response to circumstances or the environment.  

How are skills and habits different? 

  1. Skills are highly complex variable programs while habits are normally very simple programs. 

  2. The most important difference between habits and skills is the skills' openness to change or their flexibility. What makes skills and their component actions so different from habits is the fact that with skills there is the intention to continually change and improve and they do. Skills change easily while habits are difficult to change. 

  3. With habits there is usually no perception that a person is learning a habit or often even awareness that a habit even exists.

  4. With habits there is no iteration or deliberate practice while (unfinished or flexible) skills are all about iteration and deliberate practice.

Action schemas are like computer routines.  

Each action variant gradually consolidates to become a small motor program in our minds/brains. These motor programs are what Piaget calls schemas and are analogous to small computer programs. Thus perhaps computer programs can help us to understand how they work. In computer programing small programs that are part of a bigger program are called routines. So these schemas can be thought of as routines within or making up an overall skill. In computer programs these routines are strung together to form a unit that performs some function. Similarly these schemas are also strung together to make up skills.

Activation. These action schemas are activated in two different ways. They can be activated consciously by an executive command from our mind/brain or they can be activated by some cue that occurs in our current environment. That is to say we can be in control of their activation or we can allow some aspect of our environment to activate the schema automatically. Both of these types of activation are important.

Suppression. Perhaps surprisingly, at their smallest elementary size action schemas run automatically. That is to say the smallest elements are like tiny habits. This has the advantage of making them very fast. We can react almost instantly with no thought required. However most of our prefrontal lobe (our executive function) is concerned with suppressing this automatic activation so that we can have some control over it. We can veto the action and make sure it occurs only when appropriate. 

Demonstration. Conscious activation occurs mostly when we are teaching or demonstrating. There is also conscious activation when we are learning new actions but no actual schema exists when we perform an entirely new action and when we are creating variants we are trying to replace an existing schema with an improved one.

Subroutines and branching routines. There are many different types of computer routines and for some of them the analogy with schemas holds up well. In computer programing there are subroutines and branching routines which are also applicable to our mental schemas. Subroutines are routines that are called within a routine which then runs and when it is finished it returns to the original routine. Branching routines are routines that are called by a routine under certain conditions but they never return to the original routine.

Invariant actions. What does this all have to do with skills? Well some skills are simple in that there is only one way to do something. Walking is a good example of this. When we walk, we are running an automatic program which needs very little vigilance and only needs attention if something goes wrong like an uneven surface. 

Variant actions. Other skills like playing games or sports where you have an opponent or many opponents are very complicated. This is most apparent in skills which depend on environmental feedback which is itself is open to massive variation. Games where you have an opponent or many opponents have environmental feedback from any action that varies alarmingly as those opponents try to counter the action.

Nested schemas and branching schemas.

Action schemas within action schemas. When playing games or a sport you try to predict what the other person will do and run programs to respond to what you think they will do but you also have to be able to respond instantly to what they actually do. To do this you run schemas that have cue detectors in them these cue detectors call other schemas to deal with changes your opponent has made. Sometimes the schema is a subroutine and it returns back to the original routine and but usually it branches off into a new schema that ends differently. This may sound very complicated but our brains and indeed most animal brains build these action schemas containing other schemas and branching off into other schemas very easily.

In this way we get action elements that are nested within actions and other action elements that are diverging into other action elements and other actions. We get actions that are nested within skills and actions that are diverging into other actions and other skills. We get skills that are nested within meta skills and skills that are diverging into other skills and other meta skills.

The problem of the speed of sensory data. Think about baseball. How does a batter ever hit a ball. By the time a batter sees that the pitcher has pitched the ball, the ball has already traveled about 9 feet. The information the eye of the batter receives is always that of what happened a tenth of a second before. There is a time lag of about 100 milliseconds. It would be impossible to hit the ball but for the fact that the pitcher tends to do many of the same things each time he pitches. With some practice the batter sets a cue to set off the swing of his bat. It has to do with the stance and movement of the pitcher. The batter has learned that when the pitcher is moving like that he can start to swing as soon as his brain has assessed where the ball will pass over home plate and how his bat will connect with the ball. Not only that but the batter is constantly getting updates as the ball moves toward him. This allows the batter's brain to take several ball positions at slightly different times and use them to extrapolate where the ball will be as it nears him. The batters brain then enables the batter to see the illusion of the ball being there. A bit more practice and the schemas of the swing is cued by the pitcher's movement and runs automatically. No thinking involved. For this to happen schemas have to be mostly fixed into habits or at the very least skills that are very close to being habits. But the difference is that each iteration of what the batter could possibly do exists simultaneously with multiple other iterations and the brain has to match each cue with the correct activation response. 

Of course it is not quite as simple as all that, as the direction of the ball and the spin on the ball, all have to be taken into account. There must be a variant schema for each type of spin. There must be a variant schema for each variation in the direction of the ball. 

Does it go exactly over the plate or is it veering off? Does the bat need to start sooner or later? Does the bat need to move faster or slower? What part of the bat are you hitting with? Do you need to move back or move forward? Do you need to be closer to the plate or further away? At what angle should you hit the ball? It seems like a lot of variations but an expert batter should be able to create schemas for most of them. It is, in the end, just a simple matter of matching a cue to an action.

Slow time.

Slowing down time.  

Now it may seem that all these iterated schemas, with sub schemas and branching schemas, all linked together to make up motor skills or habits, might be sufficient to explain everything about skills and habits, but it is not. There are some rare occurrences where (as explained on the thin slicing page) we are able to experience time as if we are thinking super fast or that the world outside us has slowed down. It appears as if the world and everything in it including us is moving in slow motion. This happens in a very small set of special circumstances. 

One type of focus, danger, pain and extreme skillfulness. The main special circumstances where time seems to slow are when we are in extreme danger, when we are in massive pain and when we have reached extreme skillfulness. However, any situation where we focus in on a small quantity of incoming sensory information with the exclusion of other sensory information may be able to make time appear to slow. In doing this we consciously try to eliminate any unnecessary information and consciously select a small set of sensory information to process. Danger, fear and pain, by means of unconscious emergency brain functions induce the automatic suppression of most incoming sensory information so that the information thus available for processing is only what is significant, salient and very small in quantity.


Eliminating irrelevant data. How does this slowing down of time come to occur? This site has theorized that this happens because in these states our brains are only processing a very small slice of information, a thin slice as Gladwell calls it. With visual data it is often referred to as tunnel vision. 


But we use these thin slices of information at other times also where it does not seem to slow down time. What makes these circumstances unique is the fact that during them all other incoming data is temporarily mostly suppressed so that our brains are hardly processing anything else.


With extreme danger and excessive pain our flight or fight response is not only super charged but our brains seem to actively suppress any non relevant information. Irrelevant information is seemingly blocked off automatically and unconsciously as part of the brains function of focusing on this small slice of information. Thus we do not experience most of the irrelevant information at all unless it becomes a new focus.


Less information means better faster processing. With only a tiny amount of information to process our brains seem to be working super fast and our thinking appears fast because we have lots of brain resources left over much of which can be used for thinking or any other brain process. Our brains are working so efficiently we are able to experience minute time segments as if they were not only perceivable but rather could be examined at leisure. Things that would normally happen so fast as to be invisible are now plainly visible and can seem magnified or even hyper real.

Similarly, with extreme skillfulness, we enter a zone or a state of flow with greatly reduced distraction, reduced sensory experience and reduced other brain processing much like the other two states. However, this state is much more under our control and we need to feel it is safe to be willingly completely focused and thus exclude most other incoming sensory information.


Automatic action in slowed time. Some actions we perform we are hardly conscious of performing. Walking, for instance, become so automatic that we are not even aware of performing them most of the time. This because they have become deeply embedded habits that respond to environmental cues and are performed the same way over and over again.

Cue calls. In slowed down time much smaller programs or routines can run in much smaller time frames and still be executed automatically without thought. All it takes is years of learning and finely honed skills. In this slowed time state action schemas are activated by external cues which in turn call subschemas. An action within a skill routine becomes a routine with slight variants within it. The routine runs but while it is running it may switch to a slightly different tack and then switch back again. The original routine is still, for the most part, being performed but with a slight variation. With slowed time it can become possible to begin to perform one action and switch to another and back without thought or the need of conscious volition.

Branching schemas. Or more usually the brain when prompted by an environmental cue may call branching schemas that are really just switching to a different schema to run in place of the one that is already running. All these small adjustments are in turn all linked together into one massive motor program all of which is automatic. Very little external vigilance is possible in this state and can be turned off completely if we believe we are in a safe place. Josh Waitzkin in his book "The Art of Learning" explains his amazing ability in Tai Chi as follows: 

"The key is to understand that my trained mind is not necessarily working much faster than an untrained mind - it is simply working more effectively, which means that my conscious mind has less to deal with. Experientially, because I am looking at less, there are, within the same unit of time hundreds of frames in my mind, and maybe only a few in my opponent's (whose conscious mind is bogged down with much more data that has not yet been internalized as unconsciously accessible). I can now operate in all those frames that he doesn't even see.

This is why profoundly refined martial artists can sometimes appear mystical to less skilled practitioners - they have trained themselves to perceive and operate within segments of time that are too small to be perceived by untrained minds."

Josh then asks a question. Does this type of trained perception come from the same places as his experience when he broke his hand? His answer is yes and no:

"The similarity is that a life-or-death scenario kicks the human mind into a very narrow area of focus. Time feels slowed down because we instinctively zero in a tiny amount of critical information that our processor can breakdown as if it is in a huge font. The trained version of this state of mind shares that tiny area of conscious focus. The difference is that, in our disciplines of choice, we cultivate this experience by converting all the other surrounding information into unconsciously integrated data instead of ignoring it. There is a reason the human mind rarely goes into that wild state of heightened perception ... In most situations, we need to be aware of what is happening around us, and our processor is built to handle that responsibility."

Conscious adjustment of automatic skill schemas in an expanded real time.  An expert like Josh in martial arts, can by means of excluding most incoming data from being processed, and processing only the small amount of data that is focused on, create the perception of time slowing down. What is happening in reality is that the brain speeds up because it is processing much less data giving time the false appearance of slowing down.

Because true experts like josh are able to perceive and think within these micro time segments they are also able to act in them. It becomes possible to make adjustments to action element schemas in this expanded real time. It becomes possible to identify cues and adjust their positions in the schema. We can cue other action element subschemas or action element branching schemas or even create untested variants on the fly. All this can happen within actions that are so small and so fast that they would be a blur in any other mental state. We may even be able to suppress sections of schemas or reverse them. We may be able to introduce a new variant judge its effect and adjust again with another new variant based on that judgment all the expanded real time. 

At the same time, it is possible to pull back from a skill motor routine and see how it fits together with other skill motor routines in long chains of motor skills. From there, it is possible to become aware of how well each motor skill routine flows into the next motor routine to form plays or beautiful choreography. Thus we are able to see that the skills join together to form a meta skill. In psychology and memory study this process of placing information (routines) within information (routines) is called chunking. It is where we learn something and place it within something else we have learned. In this way the mind (working memory) is able to deal with a lot of information because it is only dealing with small information amounts at any one time.

Compensating for the slowness of perception.

Now you may think that our ability to see, or hear, or perceive in any manner, may be just too slow to allow us to see or perceive in these micro time segments talked about above. In this you would be both right and wrong.

How can the batter see the ball? Pro baseball pitchers routinely throw just under 90 miles per hour. (Tennis players have been clocked serving at 165 mph.) Obviously it's hard for even a major league baseball slugger to hit such a fast-moving target. But often they do. And they do it by using a phenomenon that happens in all of our brains every day.

It takes a tenth of a second for a nerve impulse from your eyes to reach your brain. That may seem very fast, and it is. Still, for any relatively fast-moving target - whether a car coming around a corner, a vase falling off a table, or hot coffee pouring from a pot - it's not fast enough to coordinate responsive movements, like stepping out of the way, catching the vase, or tipping the coffee pot back up before the mug overflows.

In other words, if a batter swung with that tenth-of-a-second lag between his eyes and his brain, a batter wouldn't swing until after the ball hit the catcher's glove. We would all run into the same problem throughout the day. Even someone walking toward you at a typical speed can cover about six inches in a tenth of a second. That's enough of a difference to cause collisions, or turn a handshake or high-five into an awkward miss.

So how does the brain compensate for the slight delay?

The brain compensates. The brain compensates for the delay by adjusting what you actually see. (By “see,” here, we mean experience as a visual image, which is what people usually mean when they talk about seeing.) Instead of perceiving a moving target where it was when your eye detected it, you perceive it as being where it should be, based on an on-the-spot analysis of its speed and direction. Since our brains are very good at prediction and illusion creating, where the batter perceives the ball is usually, in fact, where the ball actually is. As a result, it's as if he's seeing everything and reacting in real time.

Seeing is in the brain of the beholder. So let us return to how a batter hits a fastball in baseball. Some people tend to think that the reason batters say they see the ball where it is at the moment of impact with the bat is because the information does reach their brain but a tenth of a second later than real time. It would be simple for the brain to displace the memory of seeing the ball hit the bat back in time so that it matches with the time of impact. However this seems not to be the case. Instead the batter sees the ball and bat collide in real time at the moment of impact. This is possible because human brains do not simply interpret incoming sensory data but rather modify such data using skilled ability to predict the future in minute time frames. The result is human brains present us with an image that has been corrected for the tenth of a second delay. Our brains present an illusion of the position of fast moving objects such as the ball in baseball. We see the ball not where it was when the image was presented to our eyes but rather in a position our brains predict it will be that tenth of a second later. We do not see the sensory data that entered our eye instead we see a modified version carefully predicted to be a tenth of a second into the future by our brains and cast as an illusion or hallucination. It may be an illusion but the batter is able to see the ball in real time. In other words we see not with our eyes but with our brains.

Perception is constructed not recorded. It has been long known that brains are capable of this kind of illusion casting and that it goes on all the time. For instance, humans and many other animals have a hole in the screen at the back of our eyes where images are recorded.


This is called our blind spot and our brains have to work all the time to fill in that hole with with data the brain has to create. In other words we should see an image with a hole in it but we do not because our brains fill in the missing data with its best guess and we never see that hole. Also a whole form of entertainment called cinema or movies would be impossible if our brains could not take a series of still images entering our eyes and turn them into a smooth moving panorama.

The construction of the inversion in the mirror. "Noble laureate physicist, Richard Feynman, wrote about the classic teaser of the mirror. Why, Feynman wondered, does a mirror seem to invert left and right but not top and bottom? That is, why are the letters of a book backward but not upside down, and why would Feynman’s double behind the mirror appear to have a mole on the wrong hand?

Imagine yourself standing before the mirror, he suggested, with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its head is up. Its west hand lies to the west. Its feet are down. Everything’s really all right.

The problem is on the axis running through the mirror. Your nose and the back of your head are reversed: if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south. The problem now is psychological. We think of our image as another person. We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so our brains imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way.

It is in this psychological turnabout the brain makes that make us believe that left and right are switched. This is another example that shows the extraordinary extent to which the information obtained by an observer depends upon the observer’s own assumptions and preconceptions. We cannot imagine our image squashed so we construct a reality that assumes an image of ourselves as if we walked around the pane of glass."

This is a difficult concept, because it implies that everything you experience through your senses is basically an illusion created by your brain. And it is. It's just that our brains and sensory organs have evolved to make that illusion as true to reality as possible, or at least as necessary for our purposes: We are always in the presence of colors we can't see, sounds we can't hear, and odors we can't smell, all of which some other animals perceive naturally, as clearly as we can see red, hear a piano note, or smell chocolate.

Hitting the ball. So how does the batter hit the ball? How does a tennis player hit a ball that is served at just under 165 miles per hour or a baseball traveling toward the plate traveling at just under 90 miles per hour? Sure we have explained how the batter can see the ball in real time but that still does not explain how the the batter can hit the ball.

A fast ball in slow motion. To really understand how a batter can hit a 90 mph ball we have to turn again to what a skill is. We have to understand that a skill is made up of sub skills which in turn are composed of what Piaget called "action schemas" or "motor schemas". These schemas were envisioned as small programs or routines stored in the brain that are the result of variations or differing iterations of various actions or activities. These action schemas are are in fact teeny, tiny habits which are both capable of being consciously activated by human will or can be activated by cues occurring in the environment. When activated by environmental cues these action schemas run very fast because no thinking is involved and this reduction in brain processing greatly helps in the batter being able to hit the 90 mph ball. Less incoming information means better faster processing and seeing a fast ball moving in slow motion allowing the batter to hit the ball.


It works like this:- A cue appears in the environment and an automatic action (a schema) is activated in response to it. This cue is probably one of various possible wind up, and release possibilitys that are possible for the pitcher to perform. The batter observes and identifies the correct cue from multiple possibilities and his brain activates the required response schema. Even as an action begins the brain of the batter is still scanning the continually expanding trajectory of the coming ball. With the first schema the batter prepares to move the bat, or not move the bat. When the ball has traveled half way along the pitch the batter has managed to observe a significant arc for the ball such that his brain can predict a final destination for the ball at the plate. This is a second cue and a new schema is activated causing the batters hands and the bat to begin to move. 

Branching paths. After this the batter is still observing the trajectory of the ball and this may create another cue that begins a slightly different schema on the fly because the longer arc provides a more accurate prediction about the possible ultimate position of the ball at the plate. Thus the arc of the bat can become more likely to connect well with the ball providing a solid hit. Or alternatively the movement of the bat may be stopped because the ball is going to miss the plate. This is a branching routine causing a branching path for the bat. It is started in the middle of the existing routine and its outcome will be different to the original routines outcome. This branching could occur again in the second routine causing yet another cue and a further schemas activation which modifies the path of the bat. Ultimately the bat does or does not hit the ball all without any conscious thought.

The science of how the brain compensates for its own slowness.         

Time lag perception prediction.  This new information has come to light only recently through the work of vision scientists at the University of California, Berkeley. They studied how the brain processes visual information, and located the specific region of the brain responsible for calculating where a moving object will most likely end up. When human eyes see an object, it takes one-tenth of a second for the brain to process that information, said Gerrit Maus, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at UC Berkeley, and lead author of the new study detailed (May 8 2016) in the journal 'Neuron'. 

“For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain,” continued Gerrit Maus.

Simply put the brain adjusts the signal from the eye to fit what it anticipates the position of the moving object to actually be. It is transformed in such a way that we see, not the image that entered our eyes, but rather a reconstruction of the image the brain makes about where the moving object is at the moment we are interacting with it.

Maus goes on to explain: 

“Light hits our eye and the information needs to get to our brain. That takes a tenth of a second. After that we make a decision to move, [more likely our unconscious brain makes a decision] and that signal needs to get to our muscles. Everything our brain receives is actually already out of date by the time the information gets to the brain. If we didn’t have the prediction mechanism going on, then you would see the ball [in baseball or tennis] possibly 3 or 4 yards behind where it actually is.

It’s not only important for baseball or tennis, but also in everyday life. For example, when we’re driving, we would always think we’re not as far down the road as we actually are. For the first time, we can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human brain. The image that hits the eye and then is processed by the brain is not in sync with the real world, but the brain is clever enough to compensate for that. 

What we perceive doesn’t necessarily have that much to do with the real world, but it is what we need to know to interact with the real world. But you don't need to think about it, because the brain does it automatically. The brain doesn't work in real time. The brain does not think the object is in the position where the eye tells us it [that it] is. The object is shifted forward in the direction that it's moving, so we're actually predicting where things are going to be."

Obviously, we can now understand how people can report seeing things that would be impossible for them to see with their eyes even if their brains are speeded up. They are seeing instead with their brains. Their brains create the images and they actually do see them because their brains simply push images forward in time so that any time lag is adjusted for. This means the seemingly supernaturally impossible actions seen in sports, martial arts etc. are indeed possible and require only great expertise. We should not be surprised by this. After all who of us have not read things on a page that were not there? Especially if we have just written something ourselves it is very hard to see any mistakes we ourselves have made. 

This also inclines us to wonder if the brain also on occasion enables us to hear things we expect to hear, smell things we expect to smell, feel things we expect to feel and taste things we expect to taste. Scientists in the field of marketing have long known that how things look can have influence over how things taste and smell. The look of things especially color can give us expectations that actually produce the expected taste or smell. For instance butter tastes more like butter when it is a nice yellow color and margarine will taste more like butter when it is yellow. We may sometimes perceive or experience what we expect rather than the sensory information coming in through our senses. Indeed our brains, in special circumstances, push this kind of information forward in time as previously explained.

Prospective and retrospective time.

There are many old sayings about time such as “Time flies when you’re having fun,” and “The watched pot never boils.” Are these old sayings wise or true? Does time seem slow when we are young and fast when we are old? Do exciting and novel experiences speed up time or slow it down? The answer is it depends on whether we mean in the moment or looking back over a life. Dr. David Eagleman, suggests that there are two types of time perception: prospective and retrospective.


Prospective time. Eagleman explains that prospective time occurs when you’re in the moment, and your brain is anticipating what will happen next. When you’re busy and a lot is happening, "your mind is no longer attending to time at that moment - you’re not checking your watch or clock - so it seems like time is going by fast." If you enter a state of flow all perception of duration disappears and when you come out it's as if no time has passed or that you have leaped forward in time. 

Two types of focus. There are then two types of focus. One type of focus causes much of the incoming sensory data to be eliminated and only a small set of sensory data to be processed. This causes time to appear to slow down. The other type of focus is where the brain is processing the normal amount of sensory data but loses awareness of duration due to intense specific focus on one thing. This makes time appear to speed up. Any activity where focus or concentration is essential can cause this perception of time speeding up or slowing down in the moment.


On the one hand we have a tennis player seeing and hitting a 165 mph served ball and on the other a waiter on a busy night will tend to find that his/her shift can fly by. The waiter's mind is super focused on serving customers and his/her next task rather than on the clock.


A poverty of sensory data. The flip side of prospective time occurs in situations that lack stimuli to engage your brain. This usually means uninteresting or repetitive sensory data. If you’re in a boring meeting, or on a long flight, “your mind is deeply attuned to time because you’re always checking your watch every 10 minutes or so.” You have little else to do besides watch the minutes tick by, which makes time seem to slow way down.

Retrospective time. Once your mind reflects on what you’ve been doing (which happens pretty immediately), you transition into retrospective time. If you’ve been doing something boring and bereft of stimuli, your brain won’t have recorded much "footage" from the experience, and it will seem like a quick episode – a waft of cerebral nothingness – in your memory. If you look back on that boring meeting or long flight, it barely registers as a happening in your brain. In this way time seems to speed up.


Dangerous and novel experience. But when you reflect on a dangerous or novel experience, you should find that your mind’s got plenty of detailed footage for you to peruse. This is because such information is important to you and often essential to your survival. Your brain tends to interpret this to mean that a long time must have passed because a lot of data was recorded and normally not much detail about events is retained.

Time flies. Hence, time does fly when you’re having fun, but then can stretch out in your memory if the experience is new, novel, interesting or useful. Such memories are often recalled because they are are enjoyable or useful which further guarantees their retention.

Boredom, and the perceptual slowing of time. Curiously boredom also seems to affect our perception of time also causing it to appear to slow down. Boredom can be thought of as a situation where our sensory intake of information is either unchanging or is repeated over and over. Boredom is basically a lack of surprise or novelty bought about by lack of change or repetition. The brain in a bored state eliminates incoming information because it seems to be repetition of what is already known not in order to focus on the rest.


However, there still has to be some sensory information coming in because the brain will never shuts out all sensory information. We must remain alert to danger. But because it is only a small amount of sensory information coming in, it is processed quickly over and over causing time to seemingly stretch longer and longer. This poverty of incoming data forces the brain to become overly aware of duration and perform self defeating activities such as checking the time. This further slows down our perception of time.

In this unproductive state the brain may try to shut down completely and go to sleep. If the brain goes to sleep the perception is that time has speeded up. When we wake from sleep it is like no time has passed (unless we remember a dream) so in the moment or in prospective time our perception is that we have gone instantly from when we dosed off to when we awake. Also as we tend to quickly forget dreams when looking back later we have usually recorded no memories while we slept and very little while we were bored. Thus in retrospective time our perception is also that time has speeded up.  

Being interested and enjoying sensory info. On the other hand when we are interested in and enjoying the incoming sensory information we tend to enter a state of flow where our awareness of the passage of time shrinks to zero. When a person enters a state of flow they do not experience time as if it has speeded up. It is more like going to sleep. When we go to sleep we do not experience time at all. We were awake then asleep and then awake. Our only memory of time experience is if we remember a dream. 

In flow or in the zone we are also not aware of the passage of time as we are not thinking. Our body is reacting automatically to cues in the environment without thought or experience of time. We have experienced very little time at all. However time does pass while we are in this state and when we emerge from it we feel like we have jumped ahead in time. This loss of time seems like time has speeded up because it's an almost instantaneous jump from one time to another. This is not the opposite of boredom as it does not involve the loss of brain resources. Brain resources for flow need to be optimal.

Time perception in the young. When you’re young, everything is new – you’re constantly figuring out how the world works and learning the rules that govern nature and society. And you’re regularly engaging in “firsts”: first day of school, first time driving, first real job, and so on. With all this novelty, your brain is regularly laying down the kind of rich, dense memories that stretch out your perception of time.

Time perception as we get older. In contrast, when you’re an adult, you’ve pretty much been there and done that. You’ve discovered the patterns of life, and your day-to-day doings are likely much more routine and predictable. Your brain doesn’t have any reason to expend energy on capturing your repetitious and predictable morning commute, ceremonial eating of a ham sandwich at your desk at work, and nightly watching of Game of Thrones. “Nothing to see here,” your brain says, and its camera clicks off. Thus, when you look back on each week, month, and year, there’s very little footage to read out, and your life seems to have passed in a fleeting blur.


Those who live a mundane, repetitious life are actually hit with a double whammy: in the midst of their boring day-to-day lives (prospective time), time seems to drag interminably on. Yet when they reflect on their lives (retrospective time), it seems to have sped by!

We can control time perception. Yet such a fate is not inevitable. The very cool thing about this research is that it shows us how easily time can be manipulated – how “rubbery” it is, as Eagleman puts it. You have it in your power to slow down (or speed up) your perception of time. You can’t literally make your life longer, but you can make it seem longer. All you need to do is regularly inject a little novelty into it. Think about the last time you went on a great, action-packed vacation. Dimes to donuts, at the end of the trip, you said something like, “We were only here a week, but I feel like we’ve been gone forever.” All that new adventure slowed down your perception of time. Even as we get older, we can still seek out new horizons and new “firsts.

You don’t have to do big things like traveling in order to stretch out time either. Eagleman says that even very small changes that “shake up your neural circuits” will do the trick. He recommends trying things like:

  • Switching the wrist you put your watch on.

  • Changing around the arrangement of your furniture at home.

  • Driving a different way to work.

Once you start looking for them, you can find tons of ways to mix things up and re-capture your youthful curiosity and penchant for exploration. When you reach the end of your days, and look back over the course of your life, you can either feel like you were just 18 yesterday and that the subsequent decades passed in the blink of an eye; or, you can run the tape on a seemingly never-ending stream of rich footage of your many adventures, your interesting everyday life, and the wealth of knowledge you accumulated. If the latter, instead of seeing your life flash before your eyes, you will enjoy the satisfaction of watching it languidly unfold and relish the sense of having fit several lifetimes into a single one.

In their book "The Power of Moments" Chip and Dan Heath provide experimental evidence showing that novelty changes our perception of time. They say:

"In an experiment by Vani Pariyadath and David Eagleman of Baylor College of Medicine, participants were shown a series of images. Most of them were identical, but every now and then, a new image would appear: brown shoe, brown shoe, brown shoe, brown shoe, alarm clock, brown shoe, brown shoe, and so on. Even though all the images were displayed for the same amount of time, it didn't feel that way to the participants. They were convinced that the alarm clock - the pattern breaking image - was displayed longer. This misperception has become known as the 'oddball effect.'

Eagleman a neuroscientist, argued that what causes the oddball effect is in effect, your brain's boredom with the brown shoe picture. The first time you see it, you examine the picture carefully. Your memory [brain] is 'taking notes' rapidly. But with each repetition of the image, you devote less and less energy to inspecting it. By the seventh time, a quick glance tells you that, well, it's just the same shoe again. Then when you see the anomalous alarm clock, you start logging notes again. The resulting gap in the 'density' of your memory - copious notes for the alarm clock, sparse notes for the repetitive shoe - leads to the misperception that the alarm clock picture is displayed longer. In other words surprise stretches time."

Sensory deprivation. What happens when there is no novelty, no surprises at all? This of course does not happen unless you are in a sensory deprivation tank. In such a tank the brain has only three options sleep, daydreaming or usually hallucination.

The amount of sensory information to be processed. How we experience time depends on a number of factors but the amount of sensory information that is processed is probably the most important factor influencing any organism's perception of time as it is the primary way processing time can be reduced. It also should be pointed out that both focus and boredom free up large amounts of brain resources which is another way of saying they both tend to slow down time.

Perception and evolution. Evolution has shaped the way all organisms perceive. As far as evolution is concerned surprise and change are everything and therefor all living organisms are provided with a mechanism to prejudice perception in favor of surprise and change. In most animals including humans when surprise or change occurs an alarm goes off sending perception into being most fully alert and focuses on the surprise or change. Also in extreme cases such as danger, fear, and pain our brain seems to automatically suppress sensory information that is not relevant to the danger fear or pain. That is to say our brains ignore lack of change and suppress sensory information that remains unchanged or repeats.

Change. Why is this so? Well anything that is important to an organism is about change. Change warns us of dangers, it provides us with nourishment, it provides us with shelter, it provides us with escape, it provides us with reproductive opportunitys. Any change in brightness, color, shape, loudness, movement, sharpness, roughness, pressure, smell, taste focuses our perception.

Habituation. When we first enter a noisy factory we cannot hear anything as the noise is all blurred together into an unrecognizable cacophony. Gradually overtime, however, we will cease to hear the cacophony and begin to hear people speak as if there is no noise. This happens because the repeating noise is suppressed in our perception. Our brains recognize the repetition and process it less and less with each repetition. In other words we get used to things that repeat and stop processing repeating information. The scientific name for this is habituation.

Teamwork, when fixed habits produce productive outcomes.

Football complexity. Football, no matter which version you are talking about, is even more complicated than baseball. This is so because not only are there huge numbers of schemas that need to be formed but with a game like football there are many more occasions when subroutine schemas have to be called, and when branching schemas need to be called. Some of these can be activated consciously on the fly as football is much slower than baseball. However, even here in the middle of plays, opposition action is so fast that reactions need to be automatic to be effective. Fixed habits or very nearly so are needed for this to happen. This acting and reacting without thought is often referred to as being in the zone. There is no time to decide whether to continue or to pass the ball. There is no time for the football player to think about the opponent behind and what he might do. There is no time to think about the opponent in front and how he might be avoided. If the schemas he needs are there so are the cues to activate them the player simply avoids so quickly, suddenly and expertly that his opponent is dumbfounded. Such feats can seem almost super human but they usually do not last long. The player soon makes a mistake (he misses a cue or fails to anticipate an opponent) and he falls out of the zone. 

Automatic teamwork. Of course football in all its versions is a team sport. Thus it should be possible, in theory, to coordinate the players and the schemas of a team so that they act as single flowing unit. In time past this is how military units were supposed to act, as seeming well oiled machines. Although a lot of what happens in modern warfare prohibits this, the military still trains its soldiers to react in habitual ways. To do this with football the plays would have to be performed by each player almost exactly the same way each time. They would in fact have to be more like habits than ever improving skills. 


In his book "The Power of Habit" Charles Duhigg describes such a possibility looking at the work of Tony Dungy coaching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (American football) as follows:

[Dungy] "...wanted to get players to stop making so many decisions during a game. ...He wanted them to react automatically, habitually. If he could instill the right habits, his team could win. Period.

...he wasn't going to create new habits... Players spent their lives building those habits that got them to the NFL. No athlete was going to abandon those patterns  simply because some new coach says so. So rather than creating new habits, Dungy was going to change player's old ones.

Dungy's system would eventually turn the Bucs into one of the leagues winningest teams. He would become the only coach in NFL history to reach the play-offs in ten consecutive years, the first African American coach to win a Super Bowl, and one of the most respected figures in professional athletics. His coaching techniques would spread throughout the league and all of sports. ...But all that would come later. Today, in San Diego, Dungy just wanted to win.

...The play clock begins, and Humphries is poised to take the snap. But Dungy is not looking at Humphries. Instead, he's watching his own players align into a formation they have spent months perfecting. Traditionally, football is a game of feints and counterfeints, trick plays and misdirection. Coaches with the thickest playbooks and most complicated schemes usually win. Dungy, however, has taken the opposite approach. He isn't interested in complication or obfuscation. When Dungy's players line up, it is obvious to everyone exactly which play they are going to use.

Dungy has opted for this approach because, in theory, he doesn't need misdirection. He simply needs his team to be faster than everyone else. In football milliseconds matter. So instead of teaching his his players hundreds of formations, he taught them only a handful, but they have practiced over and over until the behaviors are automatic. When his strategy works, his players can move with a speed that is impossible to overcome.

...This time ...something is different. ...Upshaw is looking only at the cues that Dungy taught him to focus on. First he glances at the outside foot of the opposition lineman (his toes are back, which means he is preparing to to step backward and block while the quarterback passes); next, Upshaw looks at the lineman's shoulders (rotated slightly inward), and the space between him and the next player (a fraction narrower than expected. Upshaw has practiced how to react to to each of these cues so many times that, at this point, he doesn't have to think about what to do. He just follows his habits.

San Diego's quarterback approaches the the line of scrimmage and glances right, then left, barks the count and takes the ball. He drops back five steps and stands tall, swiveling his head, looking for an open receiver. Three seconds have passed since the play started. The stadium's eyes and the television cameras are on him.

So most observers fail to see what's happening among the Buccaneers. As soon as Humphries took the snap, Upshaw sprang into action. Within the first second of play, he had darted right, across the line of scrimmage, so fast the offensive lineman could not block him. Within the next second, Upshaw moved three strides closer to the quarterback, his path impossible for the lineman to predict.

As the play moves into the fourth second Humphries, the San Diego quarterback, is suddenly exposed. He hesitates, sees Upshaw from the corner of his eye. And thats when Humphries makes his mistake. He starts thinking.

Humphries spots a teammate, a rookie tight end named Brian Roche, twenty yards down field. There's another San Diego receiver much closer, waving his arms calling for the ball. The short pass is the safe choice. Instead, Humphries, under pressure performs a split-second analysis, cocks his arm and heaves to Roche.

That hurried decision is precisely what Dungy was hoping for. As soon as the ball is in the air a Buccaneer safety named John Lynch starts moving. Lynch's job was straightforward: When the play started he ran to a particular point on the field and waited for his cue. There's enormous pressure to improvise in this situation. But Dungy has drilled Lynch until his routine is automatic. And as a result when the ball leaves the quarterback's hands, Lynch is standing ten yards from Roche, waiting.

As the ball spins through the air, Lynch reads his cues - the direction of the quarterback's face mask and hands, the spacing of the receivers - and starts moving before its clear where the ball will land. Roche the San Diego receiver, springs forward, but Lynch cuts around him and intercepts the pass. Before Roche can react, Lynch takes off down the field toward the Charger's end zone. The other Buccaneers are perfectly positioned to clear his route. Lynch runs 10 then 15 then 20 then almost 25 yards before he is finally pushed out of bounds. The entire play has taken less than ten seconds.

Two minutes later, the Bucs score a touchdown, taking the lead for the first time all game. Five minutes later, they kick a field goal. In between, Dungy's defense shuts down each of the San Diego's comeback attempts. The Buccaneers win, 25 to 17 one of the biggest upsets of the season."

Good habits. Habits then, can be far more than something we need to overcome. There are in fact good habits and bad habits. Habits can be and are parts of skills. In fact it could be said that any part of a schema that produces actions in response to external cues automatically is in fact a habit even though it may be far more flexible than what we usually expect habits to be. Even so keep in mind that good habits themselves have to be created and learned and this is done by means of iteration.

Iteration and life long learning.

Iteration, of course, does not make life long learners. However physical learning, which is to say the learning of skills has iteration at its core in that most learned actions are variations of previous learned actions. Or to put it another way most new actions are a new iterations of a previous action. But we can stop learning skills as easily as we tend to stop learning most academic subjects when we leave school. Life long learning is a product of interest, passion, and finding joy in learning. This is where iteration can help facilitate any learning. The process of iteration in learning forces the learner into those areas that he/she finds most pleasurable, because it is most interesting, thus making the possibility of life long learning more likely. It does this by suppressing sensory information that is boring and skipping over what is not understandable to make what is left more salient and ultimately more understandable. This in turn is what makes us want to learn more, the joy of knowing and understanding an ever expanding mental model of the universe.

Needs Interest Method Reality Keys How to Help Creative Genius Future What is Wrong Theories Plus
George Kelly Cognitive Structure Myths Meaningfulness Thought Codes
Conjecture Convergence Reality Patterns Correlations Symbolism Reality Tests Multi Causes Gray Area
Standardization Adult Development Thin Slicing Expertise Self Determination Self Theories Answers