Repetition in learning as
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.
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.
LEARNING AND 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
"...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
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
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
again. But to preschoolers repetition isn't boring, because each time
they watch something they are experiencing it in a completely different
The James Earl Jones effect is not really about
repetition at all to a child. Even though the episode of
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
of meaning that adults can find entertaining while "Blue's Clues" does
learning and adult learning.
difference between children learning by means of iteration and adults
doing the same is that adults are able to grab what
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
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
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.
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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,
already knows. So she/he should be the one to decide what to read.
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
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
harmful in this way.
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
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
that allows an experience that is quite different each time. The
critical matter here is focus and choice. If we choose to go over
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
LEARNING AND 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
is often dangerous to take the time to start thinking. War is often
and death situations where the speed of acting instinctively
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.
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
practice, however, means not one thing, but actually two uniquely
things which often occur simultaneously. One is a form of iteration.
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.
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
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
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.
habits and skills.
for habits and skills, however, are not the same. When we are learning
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.
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
of intentional learning is quite different. This kind of learning
always involves iteration. More information on
this on our thin slicing
Popper explains it like this:
"Learning by 'repetition' or
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
Iteration as practice in skill
When we produce a new
variant of an action, we do not alter everything about the action, we
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
subtle series of variants of the original action are performed. From
those variants we choose those that are getting closer to what we want
action to be and discard those which do not.
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
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).
is iterative learning.
When an action has reached
the point where it is highly competent and automatic it no longer needs
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
approaching what we want it to be. When an action or skill is
repeated as exactly as we can do it we are not learning anything.
Curiously it is almost
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
Highly competent learned actions will disappear through disuse. If we
do not practice
particular highly competent actions occasionally the action
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
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.
exact repetition possible?
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
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.
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
to consolidate it. Repetition does occur but it simply is not perfect
repetition. Thus action schemas are maintained by this repetition.
are being used or practiced they will not be forgotten.
is clear, however, is that it is possible to repeat actions without
learning anything. This is because, the choosing of whether an action
approaching greater competence or not, is what is all important and is
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.
our weaknesses by trying to improve our strengths.
Ericson suggests in his writings that deliberate practice is best
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
we may find better and more creative solutions to overcoming our
weaknesses while improving our strengths.
are mindless simple repetition but
are complex intentional change.
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
these elements is completely rigid as we might expect from a well
habit. Although such element/skills can be thought of as habits, and
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
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.
are skills and habits different?
Skills are highly complex
variable programs while
habits are normally very simple programs.
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.
With habits there is usually
no perception that a
person is learning a habit or often even awareness that a habit even
- With habits there is no iteration or deliberate
practice while (unfinished or flexible) skills are all about iteration
and deliberate practice.
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
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.
action schemas are activated in two different ways. They can be
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
of these types of activation are important.
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.
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.
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
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.
actions. Other skills like playing games or sports where
you have an opponent or many opponents are very
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.
schemas and branching 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
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
may sound very complicated but our brains and indeed most animal brains
build these action schemas containing other schemas and branching off
other schemas very easily.
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.
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
about 9 feet. The information the eye of the batter receives
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
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
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
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
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
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.
it may seem that all these iterated schemas, with sub schemas and
branching schemas, all linked together to make up motor skills or
be sufficient to explain everything about skills and habits, but it is
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
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
sensory information to process. Danger, fear and pain, by
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
does this slowing down of time come to occur? This site has theorized
that this happens because in these states our brains are only
very small slice of information, a thin slice as Gladwell calls it.
With visual data it is often referred to as tunnel vision.
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
With extreme danger and excessive pain our flight
is not only super charged but our brains seem to actively suppress any
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.
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
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
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
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
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
the need of conscious volition.
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
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.
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."
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:
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
adjustment of automatic skill schemas in an expanded real time.
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
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.
the same time, it is possible to pull back from a skill motor routine
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
motor skill routine flows into the next motor routine to form plays or
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
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.
for the slowness of perception.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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?
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.
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.
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."
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
The science of how the brain
compensates for its own slowness.
Time lag perception prediction.
information has come to light only recently through the work of vision scientists at the
University of California, Berkeley. They studied
the brain processes visual information, and located the specific region
of the brain responsible for calculating where a moving object will
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
new study detailed (May 8 2016) in the journal
the first time, we
can see this sophisticated prediction mechanism at work in the human
brain,” continued Gerrit Maus.
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.
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
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
is. The object is shifted forward in the direction that it's moving, so
we're actually predicting where things are going to be."
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
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.
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
prospective and retrospective.
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.
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
serving customers and his/her next task
rather than on the clock.
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
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.
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
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.
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
recalled because they are are enjoyable or useful which
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
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.
has to be some sensory information coming in because the brain will
shuts out all sensory information. We must remain alert to danger. But
because it is only a small amount
sensory information coming in, it is processed quickly over and over
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
(retrospective time), it seems to have sped by!
We can control time perception.
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
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:
the wrist you put your watch on.
around the arrangement of your furniture at home.
a different way to work.
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
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.
their book "The Power of Moments" Chip and Dan Heath provide
experimental evidence showing that novelty changes our perception of
time. They say:
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
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
'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."
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
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
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.
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
when fixed habits produce productive outcomes.
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
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
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
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
in fact have to be more like habits than ever improving
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
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.
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
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.
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
trick plays and misdirection. Coaches with the thickest playbooks and
most complicated schemes usually win. Dungy, however, has
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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,
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
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.
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
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.
and life long learning.
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
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.