The wisdom of the Far Side

I’ve been thinking a bit more about a point I alluded to in an earlier post in regards to how the conscious and unconscious selves interact during any kind of skilled performance. The idea is that for a smooth performance, the conscious brain needs to get out of the way of the unconscious. This could relate to sports, acting, comedy, music etc.

I’m reminded of a classic Far Side cartoon related to this. A symphony percussion player is poised to crash a cymbal for the big finish of some classical piece. The guy is thinking, “I won’t screw up. I won’t screw up. I won’t screw up. I won’t screw up.” And the caption for the cartoon is something like, “Jerry screws up.”

What’s happening here is that Jerry’s conscious self is intruding into his unconscious self which will actually control the fine motor actions of crashing a cymbal. It’s a reminder that most of our actions, be they highly skilled feats of physical ability, or just picking up a cup of coffee, involve the very complex coordination of numerous muscles, tendons and bones. Obviously we can’t be conscious of the details of our motor coordination. We can be conscious of the big picture: “I want a sip of coffee,” or “I’m going to leap across the room while simultaneously beheading everyone in it with my ninja sword.” But the actual performance of the action is left to the unconscious.

So what’s the practical take away from this kind of realization? Well, if you’re interested in doing any kind of performing art (and I include sports in this) you need to train your unconscious to perform the skills it needs to, and then get out of its way.

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