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Automaticity

Two reliable occurrences with any motor skill practiced repeatedly are simplifi­cation and automaticity. Simplification of a routine skill involves leaving out unnecessary movements and reducing energy expenditure.

Anything an organism can accomplish with a complex motor movement, it eventually (with practice) tries to accomplish with less motor movement. This was well known to psychologists in operant conditioning laboratories.

Unless required to maintain good form, laboratory rats and pigeons let their responses "deteriorate." Gradually the movements are rounded off, made shorter, and components were left out.

A bar-press by a rat in a Skinner box would become quicker and more cursory until, finally, the bar was not pressed enough to dispense a food pellet. That corrected the problem. The rat had to maintain sufficient force to get fed.

One could say the animals were acting lazy. Or one could say they were showing a relentless drive to economize. That is surely adaptive in natural settings.

What happens to motor responses of trained lab animals, if allowed?

Automaticity is the ability to do some­thing without thinking about it. It occurs with virtually all overlearned behavior.

Overlearned behavior is behavior practiced well beyond the point of just barely learning it. As you execute a skilled behavior again and again, it gradually requires less of your attention.

Finally it becomes automatic. It becomes second nature, as people say, func­tioning almost like a built-in reflex.

Automaticity frees up resources. If your behavior is automatic, your mind can wander to other things, or you can devote your attention to challenges requiring conscious intervention.

Why is automaticity beneficial?

Automaticity also allows cognitive components to become autonomously (independently) active. That, in turn, allows them to insert themselves into creative activity. After all, the word automatic means self-executing.

A musician's ability to improvise, producing beautiful and innovative music spontaneously, comes after long hours of practice. Overlearning make scales and other familiar sequences automatic, so they do not require detailed attention that would impede the creative process.

Jose Delgado, in his studies of brain stimulation in free-roaming monkeys, tried stimulating the motor output areas of the brain. The monkeys wore radio transceivers, so they had freedom of movement. Delgado experimented with stimulating the motor areas of the brain when monkeys were involved in complex activities on a monkey island in a zoo.

Delgado noted that the same motor fragment could be elicited at different times, by stimulating the same area of the motor cortex. However, the motor fragment was included in a wide variety of different actions.

The large-scale activity depended upon context: what the monkey was doing at the time brain stimulation was applied. Motor fragments acted like independent modules, inserted into larger-scale productions as appropriate.

In other words, motor fragments (such as moving an arm) serve as sub-routines. They can be assembled into much larger, more complex, motor productions.

The more automatic a motor sequence becomes, the more likely it is to be included in a new creative act. Why? Because an automatic motor program will spring into activity on its own. It is more likely to nominate itself for inclusion in a creative act, by virtue of its semi-independent nature, which we call automaticity.

We do not usually think of automaticity and creativity being similar, but from a cognitive perspective they are inter­twined. In a sense, creative activity must be automatic. It cannot be pre-specified and controlled in top-down fashion by the executive circuits of the brain, or it would not be creative.

William James made this same point in a discussion of will, in The Briefer Course (1892). Nothing truly creative can be willed beforehand, he argued, if willing something requires that we have it clearly in mind.

No wonder many exceptional perform­ances occur with a minimum of direct conscious control. They are assembled from components in bottom-up fashion.

In what sense is automaticity necessary for creativity? How is a skilled musician or athlete "unconscious" during a good performance?

Many highly skilled performances must be semi-automatic. The movements are too fast to coordinate by consciously executing them one at a time.

Frederic Bartlett made this point in the 1930s. By calculating the time it would take to pass nerve impulses between the brain and the muscles of the hand, Bartlett proved that pianists could not be exerting conscious control over individual finger movements.

During many passages, the notes come too fast for nerve impulses to travel back and forth to the brain. In the experienced pianist (or guitarist, or any other instru­mentalist) finger movements are assembled into organized bundles or routines. When they are activated, they play out by themselves without conscious supervision.

The same thing is true on the athletic field. By the time one is competing as a highly skilled athlete, one cannot be devoting conscious attention to simple movements. To the contrary, an athlete is sometimes described as unconscious when playing exceptionally well.

Neither a pianist nor an athlete is unconscious in the literal sense, of course. The expert's conscious­ness is focused on high-level objectives such as playing a piece of music with feeling, or executing a strategy in a game.

Highly complex and creative motor acts are produced with a minimum of con­scious intervention. This is possible only because, after much practice, sub-routines operate smoothly on their own.

Keyboarding as a Highly Practiced Skill

Gentner and Norman (1984) wanted to study finely coordinated activity without spending lots of time and money on special training sessions. They hit upon the idea of studying keyboarding, then known as typing. They found...

Professional typists often averaged about 8 keystrokes a second, much too fast to control individually (just like Bartlett's point about piano playing, above).

The main variable distinguishing skilled from unskilled typists was ability to move fingers independ­ently. Professionals anticipated keystrokes 2 or 3 strokes ahead of the current keystroke.

In typing "thing," for example, be­ginners moved their whole hand upward when typing the "i," leaving their fingers far from the "n." Experts moved one finger up by the "i" while positioning another near the "n."

Full automaticity came after thousands of hours of practice. Some typists who had full time jobs typing from manuscripts into word processors were conscious only of reading the text. The typing itself happened automatically.

Norman and Gentner found something similar in typists who typed from dictation (translating voice into typed text). Sometimes they unconsciously moved their fingers as if typing dialogue while watching movies at home.

Norman and Gentner concluded that students learn typing best by practicing with normal prose, not by using exercises designed to practice certain movements. Students should not be taught to type in a rhythm; most experts do not maintain a rhythm at all.

What distinguished skilled from unskilled typists, in the Gentner and Norman (1984) study? What happened after thousands of hours of practice typing manuscripts?

Normal and Gentner also tested the standard QWERTY keyboard against the famous Dvorak keyboard which was designed to promote speed. Of course, the Dvorak keyboard must be learned from scratch, which takes a long time.

Even after people practiced for a long time with a Dvorak keyboard, the QWERTY keyboard was only 5-10% slower. An alphabetical keyboard did not help beginners.

Motor Errors: Actions Not As Planned

In all areas of cognitive activity, from memory to perception to language, errors can occur. Often they reveal the processes underlying ordinary, success­ful cognitive productions. The same is true in the realm of motor behavior. Reason (1979) wrote:

In the same way that an adequate theory of language production must draw upon and account for slips of the tongue, so also must a theory of motor skills consider the apparently non-random lapses of attention and memory that appear so frequently among our daily actions. (p.68)

What are "actions not as planned"? How did Reason gather data about them?

Reason called absent-minded motor errors Actions Not As Planned (ANAPs). He found that an ANAP commonly involved a goal-directed behavior with an improper element inserted into it or an action misdirected to the wrong goal.

Reason had 35 volunteers keep a diary of ANAPs over a 2-week period. He discovered several categories of errors.

1. The motor program runs normally, but the wrong variables are put into it. One object or stimulus is substituted for another. For example:

"I put shaving cream on my toothbrush."

"I unwrapped a sweet, put the paper in my mouth and threw the sweet into the waste basket."

2. A person absent-mindedly switches from one program to another that shares the same starting pattern.

"I went up to my bedroom to change into something comfortable for the evening....The next thing I knew I was getting into my pajama trousers."

"I intended to drive to Place X, but then I 'woke up' to find that I was on the road to Place Y."

3. A person inserts, deletes, or changes the order of steps in a motor program.

"I came out of the sitting room in the daytime and flicked on the light as I left the room"

4. Elements of a plan, or whole plans, are forgotten.

"I intended to post a letter...but when I got home I found I still had the letter in my pocket."

"I went upstairs to the bedroom, but when I got there I couldn't remember what I came for."

What major categories of ANAPs did Reason uncover?

Reason points out that all these actions are "highly practiced and 'routinized' activities." Without conscious double-checking, we do not catch all the obvious errors.

One of Reason's examples, going to a location and not remembering why you went there, is common to almost every human being. The sequence of events goes like this:

  1. We realize we need something like a pencil from another room. So...
  2. We program a movement to go to that room and get the object.
  3. We let the mind drift while perform­ing the overlearned behavior of going to a familiar place.
  4. We wake up at the end of the motor routine. It did its job and we were successfully transported to the room where we wanted to go.

The motor program performed success­fully on its own. This allowed us to think about something else. An act of memory retrieval is needed to remember why we went there.

The likelihood of errors during well-rehearsed, automatic actions is the reason for checklists when preparing for routine but important activities. Check­lists are used when preparing an airplane for take-off or preparing an operating room for surgery.

We must engage in conscious and systematic double-checking, especially if we have done something a hundred times before. Otherwise it would be too easy to get absent-minded and make a stupid mistake.

In common household activities, ANAPs are less serious. An occasional error like putting shaving cream on a toothbrush is harmless although it may leave a bad taste in one's mouth. Reason concluded that ANAPs were "the price of automati­zation."

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Reference:

Reason, J. T. (1979) Actions not as planned. In G. Underwood & R. Stevens (Eds.), Aspects of Consciousness. Academic Press. pp.1-67.


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