Imagine two different rowers:
1) The first one is new to rowing and keeps making mistakes and cannot repeat the same stroke over and over.
2) The second one rows natural, flows and is relax. Every stroke looks the same. You ask this rower how she does it and her answer is: “I’m not sure how I do it”
These two rowers are using two entirely different systems of the brain to row.
Russell Poldrack, a neuroscientist at UCLA, has conducted a number of brain-imaging experiments to trace the transition from explicit to implicit monitoring that occurs over many hours of practice. He has discovered that the prefrontal cortex is activated when a novice is learning a skill, but that control of the stroke switches over time to areas such as the basal glandia, which is partly responsible for touch and feel.
This migration from the explicit to the implicit system of the brain has two crucial advantages:
1) It enables the expert rowers to integrate the various parts of a complex skill like rowing into a fluent whole, something that would be impossible at a conscious level because there are too many interconnecting variables for the conscious mind to handle.
2) It frees up attention to focus on higher-level aspects of the skill such as matching the other crewmates or the changing weather. If your rowing movement is natural and flows you can put all your attention to those changing parts you have no control.
This transition between brain systems can be easily understood with this example.
When you start rowing you need to learn to grip the oar and sequence the stroke and handle the drive and recovery with boat and blade skill. These parts are learned slowly by rowing on a balance boat using pauses and taking lots of slow strokes. You also keep repeating parts of the stroke over and over until you get them right to then start linking them all together to get your rowing stroke as a unit on a dynamic, fluent and easy looking way. Only after many hours of good practice you can perform effortlessly all these various skills so you can go all out down the course with a perfect rowing without even being aware of how you got to the finish line. Your skills have moved from the explicit to the implicit , from the conscious to the unconscious, and your ability has graduated from novice rower to proficient rower.
Now imagine if a top rower were to suddenly find himself using the “wrong” brain system. It wouldn’t matter if she were the greatest rower of all time because she would now be at the explicit rather than the implicit system and will be a lead to dip in performance that could end up on chocking. Choking occurs under conditions of severe pressure. Choking is surreal to observe because it often involves a world-class performer, someone who has spent a lifetime developing his rowing skills and touch, suddenly looking like a novice rower. Her highly refined technique is replaced by confusion. Her complex motor skills, built up over thousands of hours of practice, seem to have vanished.
Choking is not limited to top athletes. Musicians, polititians, actors, artists, surgeons and any other performer have been affected by some kind of choking, suddenly and inexplicably unable to execute the skills they have spent a lifetime perfecting.
Thank you to Bounce from Matthew Syed