For Every Action
There is a not necessarily equal and typically 10% faster reaction. At least neurophysiologically speaking.
The February 3, 2010 issue of the Proceedings of the Royal Society B includes an interesting article. In The quick and the dead: when reaction beats intention; Andrew Welchman, James Stanley, Malte R. Schomers, R. Chris Miall and Heinrich H. Bülthoff (Welchman et al.) write about the different neurophysiological pathways followed by intentional acts and reactions.
The mythology of the American West is shaped by liquor and Hollywood (Brown 1995). Inspired at least by the latter, the Nobel laureate Niels Bohr considered why, during a gunfight, the man who drew first was the one to get shot. He suggested that the intentional act of drawing and shooting is slower to execute than the reactive action in response (Cline 1987), an idea grounded in the everyday trade-off between stimulus-driven behaviour and intentional, planned actions.
Welchman et al. didn’t actually study gunslingers, they studied identical movement sequences in conditions where participants either chose to initiate the movements themselves or reacted to an opponent. Their work demonstrated that reactive movements were, on average, 10% faster than intentional movements.
They propose that this occurs because intentional and reactive sequences follow different processing routes in the cortex. After all, a system capable of producing quicker movements in response to threats in the environment makes perfect evolutionary sense.
This is nifty stuff – but what’s it got to do with dog training?
Well… no matter what the nice sales brochure tells you, a four-week course will not magically turn you into a real dog trainer (especially when that course also covers sales, business operation and franchise rules).
Dog training isn’t a rote task (like being a census taker) that you can pick up in a few days – it’s an art. And like classical guitar or dressage, it takes years to master it.
As Welchman et al. conveniently point out, an inexperienced handler has to rely on those relatively slow intentional movements when he works with a dog. While this may only be 10% slower than the reactive movements an experienced trainer relies on – that 10 % can mean the difference between a bite and a crisis averted.
With experience, arts like dog training or sumo wrestling get mapped into the fast, implicit pathways in the brain and they go from being skills we work very hard to acquire to becoming an integral part of who we are. The work is transformed into an autotelic experience.
There are three stages in this process – learning, practicing and mastering.
In the learning stage we need to explicitly parse out actions in our mind as we perform them and our work is almost entirely intentional. In this phase our skills tend to be slow, unnatural and awkward. We know where we want to be, we just don’t know how to get there.
In the practicing phase our actions come naturally, but we aren’t explicitly aware of what we’re doing. This is the “I know when I have it right but I can’t explain why” phase. Running on fast, implicit pathways our skills are quick and natural – but the parts of our brains that allow us to explain what we’re doing can’t keep up with them yet. As William James put it; “We are aware then of nothing between the conception and the execution … We think the act, and it is done; and that is all that introspection tells us of the matter.”
As we master a skill, we hone our actions and our mental processes. Eventually, we reach a stage where the work and our awareness of it meld. Our intentional and reactive processes work together to put is in a state of flow. And the real beauty of this stage is that the chase never ends. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes; “You can approach it. You can home in on it. You can get really, really, really close to it. But like Cezanne, you can never touch it. Mastery is impossible to realize fully.”
I feel sorry for dog trainers who graduate from corporate training programs thinking they’ve been given all the tools they need to pursue a successful career. Being a dog trainer is the kind of career that should take over your mind, your heart – your very being. Like being a writer, it’s not a job where you’re likely to make a lot of money or get a lot of recognition. You need to do it because you love it. And you need to be willing to spend a decade or more working just to begin to master it. You should to it because being and working with dogs is something that’s so deeply and strongly and intensely etched into your soul that you cannot imagine doing anything else.
And worst of all, like Cezanne, you need to realize that being as good at it as you really want and need to be is an illusive target that you’ll never truly achieve.