My Favorite Things: How We Learn Complex Skills

Posted inCreative Voices

When did you learn to play baseball?

Now, there are a lot of assumptions in that question.

Maybe you’re from London and playing baseball was never much of a thing.

Maybe you’ve never been interested in “ball sports.”

Maybe you’re not much of an athlete at all.

But, many of us grew up in spacetime contexts where playing baseball was almost a requirement for normal socialization. Like me, in The Bronx, in the late 50s and early 60s. Sure, boys more than girls, but most girls had at least rudimentary baseball skills even back then.

Assuming you did learn to play baseball, the question is: how do we acquire these skills?

I thought of this while watching a game the other day and seeing an outfielder make what I often call a “major league catch.” Those are catches that major league ballplayers routinely make that the rest of us would not; could not.

Maybe one of the best examples of a (not-so-routine) major league catch is this Willie Mays, “back-turned-to-home-plate-not-even-looking-over-his-shoulder” beauty in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series.


Back to the question.

When did you learn to play baseball? For many of us the answer is hazily outlined in early childhood memories…so hazy that it might be impossible to pinpoint exactly when the act of catching-a-ball-with-our-hands-and-throwing-it-to-someone-who-then-hits-it-with-a-stick first occurred. At some point, the neurophysiological pathways between our visual system, our brain, and our motor system linked up, resulting in a first attempt at plucking a ball out of the air before it hit us in the face!

Instinct at work!

Yes, our old friend The Elephant is the foundation for our nascent baseball skills. That’s because The Elephant is that part of our overall embodied cognitive repertoire that’s responsible for processing the vast array of data coming in through our sensory equipment. That’s roughly 11 million bits/second of data streaming into our brains.

The Elephant’s primary job is to keep us safe, so any stimulus that threatens us in any way is first processed by that system. Reflexes are our evolutionary mechanisms for responding to those threats. That’s why our hands instantly reach up to protect our faces when a ball is heading towards us. Grasping is another of those built-in responses to objects-moving-in-the-world, so catching a ball is another of The Elephant’s capabilities.

Of course, learning to play baseball is a complex social skillset. As children, we play with others and watch what they do very closely. When we succeed in catching, throwing, or hitting a ball, we receive moments of positive reinforcement. From very early on, catching a ball that’s thrown to us is often greeted with exuberant social feedback: “Ooo, good catch!” That reinforcement, added to the experience of succeeding at catching, throwing, and hitting, is the foundation of learning the baseball skillset.

Parents are likely to respond to a catch according to a set of social expectations that depends on an array of factors: parental attitudes towards sports, social factors (sports were a big deal in The Bronx), gender expectations, and performance quality are some examples. Children of sports enthusiasts, who happen to be “naturally” good at catching a ball in an environment where that matters, regardless of gender, are likely to receive enthusiastic reactions from their parents. Kids of disinterested sports parents, who are less skilled at catching, in neighborhoods where that’s not so important, are likely to receive less positive reinforcement from them.

So, The Elephant begins learning to play baseball by using those aspects of its cognitive and motor toolkit that operate automatically, intuitively, effortlessly, unconsciously. But, The Elephant is not built to master the complex operations that led to Willie Mays gliding to the perfect spot in center field to catch that fly ball alone.

No, The Rider must be engaged in the complex analytical work that baseball demands. Baseball is a deeply situational complicated sport, and The Rider must master the rules…no matter if the game is being played on a playground or in Yankee Stadium. Positions. Batting orders. Innings. Balls. Strikes. Outs. Hits. Errors. The Rider has to learn, understand, and practice the game.

As we practice, we gradually increase our abilities to perform baseball skillsets. Psychologist/brothers Stuart and Hubert Dreyfus divided the process of learning any complex skill into five stages: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient, and Expert. As we progress through the stages, we become less dependent on the formal rules and guidelines that govern the game (“what happens when there are three outs?”) and begin to integrate our own lived-experiences into our behavior (“left-handed batters usually hit the ball to the right side of the field”). We begin to “automatically” (unconsciously) adapt to the game’s immediate circumstances.

Less Rider. More Elephant.

When we speak about an athlete’s (or a musician’s, or a chef’s, or a driver’s) “muscle memory,” we’re describing the process of “turning over” to The Elephant more and more of the skills needed to succeed at the task. As we become more expert we “think” less about the skill and allow our experienced intuition to take over.

That doesn’t mean The Rider is not attentive to the details of the situation. On the contrary. It means that The Rider’s now-more-expert attention is freed up to focus on details that are often invisible to those who are not as skilled. This leads The Rider to explore innovative solutions to situations that The Elephant could never have imagined. Like Willie Mays turning his back on a fly ball and running to the spot in center field where the ball is most likely to land!

When we’ve “learned” to perform a new skill well, we’ve taught our Elephants to automatically, efficiently manage the vast majority of the domain’s demands. Our Riders have developed a deeper understanding of the domain’s situations and are alert to new ways of performing its demands.

What’s the last complex skill domain you mastered? How much do you now unconsciously rely on your Elephant’s capabilities? How much do you still call on your Rider to review the domain’s rules and principles either for reassurance or in search of new solutions?

A well-practiced Elephant-Rider team working together is the secret to becoming an expert in baseball or in practically any other complex skill.

Tom Guarriello is a psychologist, consultant, and founding faculty member of the Masters in Branding program at New York’s School of Visual Arts. He’s spent over a decade teaching psychology-based courses like The Meaning of Branded Objects, as well as leading Honors and Thesis projects. He’s spearheaded two podcasts, BrandBox and RoboPsych, the accompanying podcast for his eponymous website on the psychology of human-robot interaction. This essay was originally posted on Guarriello’s Substack, My Favorite Things.

Photo by Eduardo Balderas on Unsplash.