It is a common belief that consciously thinking about what we are doing interferes with our performance. The origins of this idea go far back. Consider, for instance, the centipede’s dilemma:

A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
      Not knowing how to run. 

The centipede performs a very complex task with ease, unless she thinks about the task. The story was thought to illustrate something fundamental about human nature. English psychologist George Humphrey wrote “[the poem] contains a profound truth which is illustrated daily in the lives of all of us.” Humphrey and others thought that not having to think about everything that we do provides a great advantage. According to the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead believed that thinking must be reserved only for decisive moments.

Though common, this idea is misleading. It is never optimal to run on autopilot. Even the motor tasks that we have learned to do fluently without much cognitive control are better performed while engaged. The key is to realize that we can apply cognitive control at a higher level. Moreover, gaining fluency at a motor task often comes at a cost. The cost is rigidity and deliberately breaking the flow in response to changing contexts often pays off. Musicians, athletes, public speakers, architects, designers, and others whose jobs require complex sequential actions can increase their performance if they understand that they are not trapped in the centipede’s dilemma.  

In a fascinating paper, Brain researchers Eitan Globerson and Israel Nelken started with the observation that piano playing involves a very complex sequential motor task. The task is often executed in speeds that do not allow cognitive control of individual muscle movements. Through practice, pianists learn to execute fast and complex motor tasks with little cognitive control. Once this is achieved, it is possible to play in a disengaged way with little cognitive involvement. However, Globerson and Nelken suggest another way. Instead of focusing on individual finger movements or not focusing on anything, pianists may focus on higher-level mental events, such as the character of a longer musical phrase. This allows constant engagement with the music making and deliberate control without disrupting the mechanics of playing. Globerson and Nelken argue that this may dramatically improve performance.

If we follow their argument, it is easy to come up with our own examples about how to use higher-level cognitive control. While playing, a pianist may actively focus on the relationships between different musical ideas. A public speaker may develop a “mental script” that includes bigger-picture ideas, the connections between those ideas, where the climax of the speech should be, and what general effects should the speech make on the audience. During the speech, the public speaker may be constantly engaged with this mental script instead of trying to select words individually or mechanically replicating a previous performance. While shooting, a basketball player may focus on the arc that the ball should follow instead of focusing on arm movements or focusing on nothing. You can create your own examples of higher-level cognitive control for dancing, driving a car, designing a house, or doing the work of a carpenter.

Experts have long been aware of the power of focusing on higher-level mental processes. In 1924, Russian pianist and piano teacher Josef Lhevinne wrote the book Basic Principles in Pianoforte Playing, which later became a classic. In his discussion of memory, he wrote, “the thing to remember is the thought, not the symbols. When you remember a poem you do not remember the alphabetical symbols, but the poet’s beautiful vision, his thought pictures. … Get the thought, the composer’s idea; that is the thing that sticks.”

Higher-level cognitive control is capable of changing the motor action in a beneficial way. When a pianist decides to play a passage in an expressive fashion, for instance, this high-level command changes the character of playing through initiating a sequence of associated motor movements. There is experimental evidence that suggests that performance in highly automatized tasks can be improved by increasing the level of engagement. Musicians in symphony orchestras are typically asked to play the same pieces many times over the course of their careers. The playing of these pieces becomes mostly automatic; and the job satisfaction of orchestra players is typically dismal. Psychologists Ellen Langer, Timothy Russell, and Noah Eisenkraft recently asked a symphony orchestra to record, under different experimental conditions, the finale from Brahms’s Symphony No. 1. A local community chorus listened to and rated the recordings. The musicians were either asked to replicate a previous fine performance or to offer “subtle new nuances” to their performance. Musicians enjoyed the latter performance more; and the majority of the listeners preferred the recording of the latter performance.

There is always an unconscious component of the link between our intentions and the motor actions those intentions create. Even if I deliberately stretch my arm to grab a coffee mug, I do not have conscious control over the way the individual muscles in my arm operate to give rise to the specific stretching movement. Deliberate cognitive control is always less complex than the actual motor action. However, we often learn to apply cognitive control in an even more summary-like way. That is, we can learn to apply cognitive control in a single step over longer and more complex sequences of motor actions. Through practice, sequences of motor actions merge into a single unit that can be initiated by a single deliberate command. This is often called chunking. When children first learn how to brush their teeth or lace their shoes, they deliberately control individual movements that make up the task. After some practice, the individual movements are chunked and the whole sequence can be initiated by a single mental command. Many other daily activities such as riding a bike or writing one’s signature involve chunking. It is possible to merge chunked sequences into even longer sequences and reduce cognitive involvement even more.

Once initiated, a chunked motor sequence is executed automatically. As a consequence, we lose control over individual movements. This type of rigidity is often undesirable because we live in a constantly changing environment. In her book The Power of Mindful Learning Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer talks about how automaticity may get in the way of adapting to new circumstances. Overlearned driving skills may put one in danger while driving in a different country or in different weather conditions. Holding a baseball bat in the same overlearned way after getting older or stronger will hinder performance.

We can disrupt automaticity and appropriately respond to the situation at hand by orienting ourselves in the present and being sensitive to different contexts. We can think at a level higher than the mechanics of the motor action. We can be engaged with the task by making use of these two approaches simultaneously. In any case, thinking should never be reserved.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to Gareth is also the series editor of Best American Infographics, and can be reached at garethideas AT or Twitter @garethideas.