Continuous Improvement: Intertwining Mind and Body in Athletic Expertise

John Toner, Barbara Gail Montero, Aidan Moran

Oxford University Press 2022

How do expert athletes defy the power law of practice, according to which
improvement in a skill, although increasing rapidly initially, eventually

On the standard models of skill learning (Anderson’s, 1982, Adaptive Control of Thought Theory and Fitts and Posner’s, 1967, three-stage model, for example), consciously attended to actions and highly proceduralized, or automatic, actions reside at opposite ends of a single continuum: the more conscious attention experts pay to their skill, the less automatic the skill proceeds, and the more automatic a skill is, the less attention experts pay to it. In contrast, our model of expertise places conscious attention and automaticity in an orthogonal relationship, with automaticity on one continuum (ranging from the highly controlled and non-automatic to highly automatic processing) and skill-focused conscious attention along a second, orthogonal continuum (ranging from situations in which experts are not consciously focusing on what they are doing to situations in which they are highly concentrated on their actions).

Continuous Improvement: Intertwining Mind and Body in Athletic Expertise by  John Toner, Barbara Montero, Aidan Moran, Paperback | Barnes & Noble®

Conceiving of automated and consciously attended to processes in this manner helps us to explain a range of evidence suggesting that certain performance states are characterized by automaticity and attention operating in parallel while others are characterized by high levels of automaticity and low levels of conscious attention, and still others by high levels of conscious attention and low levels of automaticity.


Very Short Introduction: Philosophy of Mind

This very short introduction took me a very long time to write. I thank Oxford University Press for their patience and for including the book on their 2022 New Year Reading List:  UK and US.

Thought in Action

My book Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind is now available in paperback from Oxford University Press!

If you’re too busy to read it,  I’ve blogged about it at The Brains Blog

been interviewed about it on 3:AM Magazine

And it’s been reviewed by Josheph Mendola at NDPR, Jason Holt at  Metapsychology, Thomas Leddy at Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Wyne Wu at Australasian Journal of Philosophy, and Anton Killin at the British Journal of Aesthetics


Collaborations with Hannah Hoffman

Hannah and I have recently collaborated on two videos:

What Experience Doesn’t Teach: Pain Amnesia and a New Paradigm for Memory Research

Do we remember what pain feels like? Investigations into
this question have sometimes led to ambiguous or apparently contradictory
results. Building on research on pain memory by Rohini Terry
and colleagues, I argue that this lack of agreement may be due in part
to the difficulty researchers face when trying to convey to their study’s
participants the type of memory they are being tasked with recalling.
To address this difficulty, I introduce the concept of ‘qualitative
memory’, which, arguably, is the sort of memory we have of what red
looks like yet lack with respect to pain. I also briefly address a number
of consequences the acknowledgment of qualitative memory would
potentially have for philosophy, arguing that if we fail to have qualitative
memories of certain sensations, such as pain, the standard philosophical
accounts of experience, rational choice, and the sources of
moral action may all need revision.

File:Webcartoonist's depiction of her own nervous breakdown.jpg

The full paper, along with response essays by Sabrina Conix, Filipe de Brigard, and L. A. Paul, and an introduction by Claudia Passos-Ferreira, was published in Journal of Consciousness Studies Volume 27, Numbers 11-12, 2020, pp. 102-125(24)

Twenty Academic Writing Hacks

Writing is torture, but having written is a joy. Here are some tips for philosophy students and others that may help diminish the torture and expedite the joy. If you try them, let me know how it goes.


Fellows Weekly Update

From Barbara:


I have been reading The Moth in the Iron Lung, a riveting book probing the conditions that fostered the polio epidemic of the first half of the 20th century. I had frequently heard about the ravishes of polio from my father who immigrated to United States from Spain after he was invited to develop rehabilitation treatments for the paralysis accompanying the most severe form of the illness. Viruses, as is becoming apparent to us all, keep their aspirations hidden, and the poliovirus, though it has been endemic since ancient times, is no exception. No one knows, for example, why it favors motor neurons for replication, nor why most people infected with it will be—to use a word one hears frequently these days—asymptomatic.  Having lived through the calamity of polio, as well as the calamity of war—my father was an ambulance driver during the Spanish Civil War, my mother worked on decoding as a lieutenant officer during World War II—I imagine my parents would have been able to offer me a useful perspective on our current tragedy. In the Navy, my mother’s nickname was Termite because she was small and tough. I miss my parents; I am small but not at all tough. I miss my son and husband, who are in England. When will I see them again?

Polio also has a story to tell in the ballet world. Agon, one of the greatest ballets of the 20th century, is said to have been inspired by the daily physical therapy sessions Balanchine administered to his wife Tanaquil Le Clerq. At the age of twenty-seven, Le Clerq contracted polio while on tour with the company in Europe. She never walked again. I have no doubt that great art will arise from the ruins of the coronavirus pandemic. But how much better the world would have been if it were to have never happened, and how much better it would have been if Tanny had been spared.

I’ve been in awe of journalists and their ability to find the words to help us through this crisis. Because my cancellation of the print version of the New Yorker didn’t go through, each week I have the guilty pleasure of flipping those glossy pages (after, of course, putting them in quarantine for three days). The writing has been superb; even the “Goings on About Town” section has found a way to retain its appeal: the dancing in a Vimeo showing of “Let ‘im Move You: This is a Formation,” is “as much party as performance,” and videos of NYTB/Chamberworks’ “rigorous and taught” Tutor ballets illustrate the company’s “bracing sincerity.”  Perhaps hard deadlines help journalists get their copy out; perhaps they are paid per assignment; perhaps they are better at dealing with crises than I am.

Nonetheless, I continue to work on the projects I described in my CBA proposal, projects that revolve around the role of conscious experience in expert performance—and a few hardish deadlines have certainly helped, as did the not only hardish but downright harsh urgings of a co-author. In a recent grant proposal, I even put in a word about how conscious attention to action is of paramount importance during this pandemic since we must now avoid both habitually touching our faces and habitually standing within speaking range of anyone we’re speaking with.

What I have let fall by the wayside is the project that had its birth at the center. I began my fellowship as a writer, but the studio space was so inviting and the encouragement I received from all of you so helpful that I had decided to create a workshop/dance performance on the topic of what philosophers refer to as “joint intentionality.” Joint intentionality is just a fancy way of talking about the ways in which we do things together, and philosophers are interested in understanding what goes on inside your mind when you act jointly. I was working with a trio of musicians, another dancer, and another philosopher. The session was to start by my asking you all to move the chairs and tables out of the way to clear the space for the exercises, and, then, only after you had finished doing this, reveal that this was the first exercise! From there, we would have moved on to a series of tasks during which we would gradually transform the activity of intentionally lifting a chair with a partner into dancing the tango with a partner. I had provisionally entitled the work-in-progress showing that was to follow, “We Intend,” and when I rehearsed with Greg, he kept asking, “but what is it that we intend?” I enjoyed the process.

Though my husband and son are in England, I am home with my thirteen-year old daughter, and we have been baking up a storm

Expertise Induced Amnesia

It is widely thought that post-performance memory gaps occur in highly skilled individuals because experts generally perform their skills without conscious attention. In a 2019 paper in the journal Mind and Language, Simon Høffding and I present an alternative explanation for such memory gaps. We hypothesize that “expertise induced amnesia” may occur when performers focus so intently on their unfolding actions that their ongoing attention interferes with long-term memory formation of what was previously attended to, or when performers are highly focused on aspects of their bodily skills that are not readily put into words. In neither case, we argue, does performance proceed automatically yet both situations, we suggest, may lead to an inability to recollect performance.

Here’s a close to final draft of our paper:

Not Being There: An Analysis of Expertise-Induced Amnesia


Curved Spacetimes: Where Friedrich Nietzsche Meets Virginia Woolf

“What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’”—Nietzsche’s possibility of time’s arrow looping back on itself structures Logos Dance Collective’s production Curved Spacetimes: Where Friedrich Nietzsche Meets Virginia Woolf, in which movement, music and the spoken word guide audience members through the eternal return, wherein they encounter Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, who embraces the demon’s proposal in her love of “life; London; this moment in June,” seeming to offer a Nietzschean “yes to life” and to “see beauty in that which is necessary.” While dancers’ bodies tell spacetime how to curve and curved spacetime tells dancers’ bodies how to move, the multidisciplinary performance toys with our experience of the past as it is realized in memory, the present as we hold it in attention, and the future as it is captured by anticipation; it explores the possibility of time reversal and the way in which time seems to speed up as we age; and it offers a glimpse of what it means to embrace fate.

March 17th @ the Tank Theater



Schedule of Events
6 PM
: Pre-performance catered reception—pass the Woolf/Nietzsche pre-test for a free drink!
7 PM: Performance
8 PM: Panel discussion on the physics, aesthetics, and metaphysics of time

Logic and Scientific Method PHL 221, Spring 2019

Suppose there is a barista who makes coffee for all and only those Staten Island residents who don’t make coffee for themselves. She is a resident of Staten Island. Does she make her own coffee? If she does, then she can’t. But if she doesn’t, then she must. How is this possible? In this course, in addition to occasionally being confronted with logical puzzles such this one, you will learn how to identify the structure of arguments and how to employ truth tables and other formal methods to test the validity of arguments; you will learn about computer logic, the logic of sets, and the logic of paradox. Logic is abstract but practical: it can improve your reading and writing, and it can help you to argue more persuasively. Moreover, it can be fun. We will work hard, but the result, I hope, will be worth it.        Filtre-pour-une-tasse-cafe

Should Physicalists Fear Abstracta? Journal of Consciousness Studies, Volume 24, Numbers 9-10, 2017, pp. 40-49(10)

Everyone has their daemons. For some, it’s addictions. For others, it’s the failure to live up to parental expectations. For me, it’s my thighs: why are they so big? But perhaps I digress. Already. Physicalists have their daemons too; for them, it’s abstract entities, in particular, the abstract, mathematical relations that, as some have argued, are an inextricable part of the physical base, that is to say, an inextricable part of the fundamental properties and entities upon which the rest of the world is built. Physicalists may have other daemons too; if they’re like the rest of us, they’ve got to. But at least this much is clear: physicalism is true only if the things we know and love—our tables, our chairs, our minds, our bodies, and most ardently our phones—are somehow all ultimately built out of or dependent on entirely concrete aspects of the world. The intrusion of abstracta ravages everything.

Or at least, this is the view espoused by Susan Schneider in her paper, “The Problem of the Physical Base,” in which she argues that physicalism must be false if abstracta are part of the dependence base of chairs, tables, phones and so forth. Here, in my own divagating way, I beg to differ: one can be a veritable physicalist, I shall argue, and countenance abstracta too. Or at least I’d like to set out some reasons to think that abstracta in general, as well as the abstracta woven into the dependence base (base-abstracta), are something physicalists can accept with consistency.



Through movement, music and the spoken word, Curved Spacetimes: Where Friedrich Nietzsche Meets Virginia Woolf aims to make public the private experience of the flow of time and to make visible the invisible nature of time itself. Let Zarathustra and Mrs. Dalloway guide you through the eternal return while you contemplate whether to live your life all over again. Come experience past, present, future, time reversal and general relativity in action, as dancers’ bodies tell spacetime how to curve and curved spacetime tells dancers’ bodies how to move.

A Logos Dance Collective production

September 21-22, 8PM at the Green Space Theater
Choreography: Theresa Duhon, Patra Jongjitirat, Gregory Kollarus, Barbara Montero
Music: Selections from Bach’s Cello Suites, performed live by Ivan Luza
Text: Excerpts from Thus Spoke Zarathustra, The Gay Science, Mrs. Dalloway and The Diary of Virginia Woolf, compiled and adapted by Patra Jongjitirat and Barbara Montero
Spoken Word: Nick Pappas as Nietzsche and Maxine Flasher-Duzgunes as Virginia Woolf

TICKETS: Advance $15, at the door $20

 Photo by Allison Armfield


Step on a tack with bare feet and it will hurt. Why? Pain receptors at the site of the injury will send electrical signals via nerve fibres to your spinal cord and ultimately to your brain where they will pass into areas responsible for physical sensation, thought and emotion. The end result is that unpleasant feeling we call “pain.” But is the neurophysiology of pain, all there is to pain?  Granny Smith apples look green to me. And if you have normal colour vision, they look green to you too. Or at least, both you and I will describe Granny Smith apples as green. But how do I know that when you look at a Granny Smith, you experience the same colour as I do? Computers are becoming increasingly better at performing cognitive tasks once thought of as distinctively human. Not only do computers excel at chess, they can recognize faces, engage in conversations, and much more. Do computers, then, think? And even if they do, could there ever be computer consciousness? These are some of the philosophical puzzles that we’ll be tackling this semester in PHL 220.


The Myth of Sudden Insight

The Myth of Sudden Insight  –a talk I gave as part of the 2017-2018 Columbia Undergraduate Scholars Program Distinguished Speaker Series.

Leaps of insight—wherein a significant idea or answer to a problem appears to materialize in a flash—are often prized more than the plodding effort that is part and parcel of bringing such ideas to fruition. But why is this? That we sometimes experience “aha!” moments is undeniable. However, in this talk I question the claim that these apparent epiphanies bound over intermediate here steps of reasoning as well as the sentiment that they are more important than the comparatively slow, arduous, conscious thought processes that invariably accompany them.


Commencement Address for the CSI Class of 2017

Thank you Provost Reichard and President Fritz and congratulations to the class of 2017!

There’s a classic film from the 60’s called The Graduate, and in it, the central character is given a one-word piece of advice: Plastics. I’m not going to tell you about plastics. Instead, I’m going to tell you about something much more important, and that is neural plasticity, which is your brain’s ability to adapt to and grow stronger in response to challenges. Until recently, neuroscientists generally thought that after childhood, you never grow new brain cells; although the hardware may be reprogrammed, you don’t get any new parts. We now know this is wrong. Even as an adult, your brain, like your muscles, can get stronger.

How do we know this? London Taxi cab drivers go through the most onerous training of any cabbies in the world. When they are done, they don’t need a GPS as they have committed the complexity of London’s highways, byways, landmarks and optimal routes to memory. FMRIs show that this training enlarges the spatial-memory areas in their brains. Increasing your brain power doesn’t have to stop at graduation. It’s more than simply living up to your potential; you can, in a very good sense of the word, increase your potential.

But it takes work. It’s tempting to look at successful individuals and think, well, sure, it was easy for them. But as Anders Ericssen points out in his book PEAK, extensive research into the lives of great athletes, scholars, artists, politicians and others, uncovers not one case of easy achievement. In the golfer Sam Snead’s words: “People always said I had a natural swing. But when I was young, I’d play and practice all day, then practice more at night by my car’s headlights. My hands bled. Nobody worked harder at golf than I did.”

And it’s never too late to start. One student this semester Daniel Wisnieski —Daniel, I hope you don’t mind me sharing your story—told me it took him seven years to finish his degree. He said that at the start, his head was in the wrong place; I won’t tell you where he said it was, but it definitely wasn’t where it should’ve been. However, by the time he was taking my class this past semester, his head was firmly planted in his books and his final paper on the nature of science attested to this. I asked him what he was planning to do after finally wrapping up his degree. He wasn’t quite sure, but. . .but he thought he’d like to go back to school.

Whether you’ve been on the fast track or, like Daniel, it’s taken you a while, it doesn’t matter: you live your life from this point on. So, graduating class of 2017, remember: Confetti_(5879576562)Neural plasticity and GO GET ‘EM.

Against Flow

Do you achieve a state of flow when performing at your best?

For my views on the matter, see my article in AEON: Against flow


Allegory of the Cave: Echolocation and Flutter

After a sold out two night run of The Missing Shade of You: A Dance Dialog between L.A. Paul & Marcel Proust at the Tank, Greg and I are continuing to perform Allegory of the Cave:

towards terminal buzz (4)

Echolocation and Flutter.  We were at Triskelion Arts in March and on Sunday April 30th, we will be performing with live accompaniment as part of the Brooklyn Bridge Dance Festival:

Dance Photography

What Experience Doesn’t Teach

It is often said, “experience is the best teacher.”  But is it?

Slides for my talk at the 2017 Pacific APA pre-conference on Transformative Experience:

What Experience Does not Teach

Philosophy of Science

Steven Baumann and I are co-teaching the Philosophy of Science in the nursing doctoral program at the Graduate Center (NUR 700). In it, we investigate questions such as: What is Science?  How can we tell the difference between science and pseudo-science?  What is distinctive about scientific reasoning and explanation? How are we to understand scientific revolutions? What role does gender play in science?


Aesthetics and the 4E mind Conference July 2016

Slides from my talk, Embodying Aesthetics through Proprioception