This is the third installment of my featured author series on the Cocoon. I have argued in part 1 that skilled performance (I focused on skilled epistemic practices such as birding and reading x-ray scans, but the point can be generalized) has a unique phenomenology. I will now examine how my cognitive account of skilled performance can shed light on this.
I remember when I bought my lute (quite a while ago now!), the lutemaker said that initially, there'd be a large distance between me and the instrument, but eventually, we would grow closer and it would feel like second nature to play it (he gestured it by holding the lute far away from his body, then slowly holding it closer and closer). He was right. A lute is not ergonomically designed: its awkward sleek pear shape drops from one's lap, the neck seems to broad to play comfortably, the strings' tension seems too loose (especially when you are a guitarist), but gradually I overcame all these obstacles and I am now an decent enough (albeit not an expert) player.
When I pick up the instrument to play now, it doesn't seem to require any conscious effort, and often, there is a positive sense of focused enjoyment in the absence of conscious effort (a state termed "flow", although Dicey Jennings prefers "conscious entrainment" because it is not always a positive affect). How did I get to that point?
The reason is that I have engaged in many hours of deliberate practice - the kind of practice that is focused on improving weaknesses and stretching my abilities further. Initially, skilled tasks recruit brain areas involved in attentional control, which explains the high cognitive effort when we first embark on a skilled practice (this is why this network is sometimes known as the "novice network", involving areas involved in self-monitoring and working memory, such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate gyrus).
However, thanks to practice the brain delegates these tasks to specialized and modular areas. In the previous post, we saw how the fusiform face area, which has an evolutionary function of discriminating between faces, can come to be involved in any kind of visual expertise between stimuli of the same category with small differences, such as cars, birds, or dogs. As the relevant networks get trained in the task at hand (e.g., recognizing cars), the process becomes more fluent, through a process of long-term synaptic potentiation. Activity in the novice network decreases.
Still expert performance is not a purely automatized process (unlike what some earlier cognitive scientists thought). For one thing, skilled performance of sports, x-ray readings, chess require a lot of complex, on the spot decision making which do not lend themselves to being on autopilot. In fact, experts who exclusively rely on the fluent, autopilot-like performance will, over time, decline in proficiency.
As a skilled performer, you continue to train the relevant neural networks to remain responsive to the task at hand. Deliberate practice often results in noticeable structures in how the brain processes information, or even in distributions of grey and white matter in certain cortical areas. For instance, musicians have differences in gray matter in areas such as motor and auditory cortex compared to non-musicians. Expert soccer and badminton players (e.g., here) show enhanced activity in cortical areas involved in observing and understanding others' actions.
There are other kinds of activities that feel "natural" and spontaneous. Some of these are what Bob McCauley calls "maturationally natural" cognition (a term he uses to avoid the vexed issues about innateness. They include things like walking and speaking our first language. They feel natural because of the evolved propensities we have for developing them, and our everyday, social and natural environment (which requires daily maintenance of speaking and walking). They do not require deliberate practice.
Then there are the ordinary, automatic habits, such as switching on a light when you go to bed or putting the bread in the toaster in the morning. These feel spontaneous too. When my toaster is broken, I would forget it and put sliced bread in it anyway, only afterward realizing (remembering) the thing does not work. My insensitivity to contextual factors here is explained by the fact that my practice of making toast is not deliberate, but just a long-term habituation. The key difference is that ordinary habits don't rely on deliberate practice - which incorporates a range of distinct situations - whereas skilled performance does.
Recognizing the importance of deliberate practice (which, recall my earlier post does not explain everything about skilled practice but still explains quite a large amount of the total variability) can explain why skilled practices feel natural: it trains our brain to sensitively respond to the task demands, but in a way that does not engage the areas in general attentional control and working memory. Rather, the areas are specialized areas in perceptual and more high-level processing, and motor control. We do require focus to perform these tasks well, but the focus is not that of the general "novice network". I believe these observations from neuroscience go some way toward explaining why skilled performance feels natural, and yet is sensitive to contextual factors in a way that mere habit-formation is not.