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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. Seemingly, anything an organism can accomplish with a complex motor movement, it eventually (with practice) tries to accomplish with less motor movement.

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

Simplification of movement by experimental animals is well known in the operant conditioning laboratory. Unless required to maintain good form, laboratory rats and pigeons let their responses deteriorate. Gradually the movements are rounded off, made shorter, and components are left out. One could say the animals act "lazy," but from another perspective they are simply trying to be efficient.

Automaticity is the ability to do something without thinking about it. It occurs in virtually all overlearned behavior. Overlearned behavior is behavior that has been 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-"second nature"-functioning almost as if it were 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 some other useful task.

Why is automaticity beneficial?

Automaticity also makes cognitive components autonomously (independently) active, whereupon they can insert themselves into creative activity. After all, the word automatic means self-executing. It is no coincidence that the ability to improvise skillfully on a musical instrument comes only after long hours of practice...hours that have made the small finger movements automatic, almost instinctive.

Jose Delgado, in his studies of brain stimulation in free-roving monkeys, tried stimulating the motor output areas of the brain. The monkeys wore radio transceivers attached to electrodes going into their skulls, so they were allowed freedom of movement, and Delgado could stimulate the brain when they were involved in complex activities on a monkey island in a zoo. Delgado noted that the "same" motor fragment, elicited in a monkey at different times by direct brain stimulation, could be included in many different categories or actions. The larger-scale activity depended upon what the monkey was doing when brain stimulation was applied. Motor sub-routines were like independent modules for creative activity.

In other words, motor fragments (such as moving an arm) serve as sub-routines. They can be assembled into much larger, more complex, more creative or spontaneously composed motor complexes. 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 have been calling automaticity.

In what sense is automaticity necessary for creativity?

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 his discussion of will, in The Briefer Course (1892) Nothing truly creative can be willed, he argued, if "willing" something requires that we have it clearly in mind beforehand. 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 can a skilled musician or athlete be "unconscious" during a good performance?

Many highly skilled performances must be semi-automatic because the movements are too fast to coordinate by consciously executing them one at a time. In the1930s, Bartlett pointed out that pianists, for example, cannot exert conscious control over the movements of individual fingers while playing a complex piece. The notes come too fast.

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. Rather, 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 in details of motor coordination. This is possible only because, after lots of practice, the motor routines operate smoothly on their own.


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