The Centipede’s dilemma

Some of our students think too much about how they do things. This reminds me an old story:

A spider met a centipede while hurrying down the street,
“How do you move at such a speed, with all so many feet?”
“I do not have to contemplate to keep them all in line,
But if I start to concentrate they’re tangled all the time!”

When is it OK to think about how we do things, and when it si better just do them?

Not every day there is a Nobel prize winner for an answer to a relatively simple question. Daniel Kahneman outlines dichotomy between two modes of thought: “System 1” is fast, instinctive and emotional; “System 2” is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. In our terminology, visual processing is “System 1”, and analysis of our activity is “System 2”. Therefore, if we try to analyze what we do and how we do it, we will probably slow down and lose comprehension. I repeat again this non-trivial issue: if we think about reading while reading, we will not read well at all. We are learning to read faster and better and Anna is not nearby, what should we do?

First of all, do not panic. Emotions that are not related to what we read do not help us read and interleave with the materials we read. So when we read we should better be focused on reading.

Now, suppose we cannot finish a paragraph and stop in the middle. This will definitely switch our processing from “System 1” to “System 2”. We can ask ourselves: what happened? And we will remember well enough to understand why we stopped. Alternatively, suppose we try to review markers and understand that our review makes no sense. We will switch from “System 1” to “System 2” and start thinking about the process. Probably we will reread and think about the process some more. This is perfectly OK! When we turn a page, or finish a section/chapter we have some extra time. We can think if we want to speed up or slow down deliberately. This is about all the thinking about the process we can do while reading. Immediately after prereading or during Pomodoro breaks, we can think about our process as much as you want, just do not let it interfere during reading.

What kinds of thoughts usually interfere?
First of all, people hunt subvocalization. Some residual subvocalization of ~1-2 words per marker is healthy and probably helpful. Do not obsess about it. If you read 1000wpm, you are not subvocalizing.
Secondly, people worry they missed something. If you miss something you can see it when reviewing markers. You can reread the paragraph as many times as ou want. Do not let it stop your reading.
Finally, people are not sure about their progress. Is this reading speed fast or slow, what is my wpm, what is my retention, how good are my saccades etc. Well, there is no reason to think about it. When you finish reading you can check, and there is no competition with anyone.

Leave thinking about the process to the pause between prereading and reading. When reading, do not get distracted. I will quote George Humphrey: “No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work. If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled”.

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2 Replies to “The Centipede’s dilemma”

  1. That’s exactly why my only resolve for this new year was to consume less information and practice more. That’s interesting for me because when I looked for speed reading I wanted to consume more and faster. Now I think about reading only essential information at blink speed and having more time for deliberate practice.

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