Considering the Role of Cognitive Control in Expert Performance

Recently I have been collaborating with the sport psychologists John Toner and Aidan Moran.

Toner, Montero, and Moran, Considering the Role of Cognitive Control in Expert Performance (December 2014, Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences  DOI:10.1007/s11097-014-9407-6):
Abstract: Dreyfus and Dreyfus’ (1986) influential phenomenological analysis of skill acquisition proposes that expert performance is guided by non-cognitive responses which are fast, effortless and apparently intuitive in nature. Although this model has been criticized (by, for example, Breivik 2007, 2013;  Eriksen 2010; Montero 2010; Montero and Evans 2011) for over-emphasizing the role that intuition plays in facilitating skilled performance, it does recognize that on occasions, such as when performance goes awry, a form of ‘detached deliberative rationality’ may be used by experts to improve their performance. That said, Dreyfus and Dreyfus (1986) see no role for calculative problem solving or deliberation (which involves drawing on rules or mental representations) when performance is going well. In the current paper, we draw on empirical evidence, insights from athletes, and phenomenological description to argue that ‘continuous improvement’ (that is, the phenomenon whereby certain skilled performers appear to be capable of increasing their proficiency even though they are already experts; Toner and Moran 2014) among experts is mediated by cognitive (or executive) control in three distinct sporting situations, namely, in training, during pre-performance routines, and while engaged in on-line skill execution. We conclude by arguing that Sutton et al. (2011) ‘applying intelligence to the reflexes’ (AIR) approach may help to elucidate the process by which expert performers achieve continuous improvement through analytical/mindful behavior during training and competition.

Considering the Role of Cognitive Control in Expert Performance

Talk on the Concept of Expertise

I’m giving a talk in Münster, Germany at an interdisciplinary conference on the Philosophy of Expertise: What is expertise?

Here are my slides; any comments, especially before tomorrow morning, are very welcome.  Although the conference is interdisciplinary, my talk, as the poster illustrates, is primarily armchair philosophy.

poster for expertise

One notable exception…

I have to admit, I sort of liked both of these Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews:

Wayne Christensen writes, “Of all the contributors, only Barbara Montero directly challenges Dreyfus’s empirical claims about expertise…” (→ Wayne Christensen’s review). The paper he’s talking about: A Dancer Reflects

Amy Kind, in her review, writes, “One notable exception is Barbara Montero’s excellent chapter on physicalism…” (→ Amy Kind’s review)  And here’s the paper: Physicalism

book reviews of me



Introduction to Philosophy Fall 2014

What is the meaning of life? What is the relation between the mind and the body? How ought I to live? Does God exist? We shall explore these and other big questions of philosophy via the work of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato and various contemporary philosophers.


Syllabus: Welcome to Introduction to Philosophy

Midterm: Introduction to Philosophy Midterm

Is Monitoring one’s Movements Causally Relevant to Choking Under Pressure?


Is monitoring one’s movements causally relevant to choking under pressure?Forthcoming in Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences

Barbara Gail Montero

I have a painfully vivid memory of performing the Venezuelan choreographer Vincente Nebrada’s ballet Pentimento.  I was a new member of North Carolina Dance Theatre, and although I had already performed the piece on a number of occasions, this was the first time the director was watching from the audience rather than the wings. In the middle of a pas de deux, I choked big time and blanked out on the choreography; try as I may, I could not remember a single step. My partner, who had been with the company for years, knew what was going on and manipulated my limbs until (after what seemed like eons) something clicked and I was able to find the choreography again. . . Various factors likely precipitated this mishap: my relative inexperience probably had something to do with it, and the choreography was such that it was not always closely related to the music, making musical cues few and far between. ..However, it also seems likely that my heightened state of anxiety over being observed for the first time by the company’s director played a role. But how does anxiety cause a choke? How did anxiety cause me to perform far, far worse than I have ever done before? (→ to Is Monitoring one’s Movements Causally Relevant to Choking Under Pressure)

pentimento 012

Russellian Physicalism

Russellian Physicalism, forthcoming  in Russellian Monism, edited by Torin Alter and Yujin Nagasawa:

According to David Chalmers, the conceivability of worlds that duplicate our physics yet lack consciousness refutes physicalism. Or rather, it almost refutes it. This qualification arises because “Russellian monism,” characterized roughly as the view that consciousness is determined by the intrinsic properties of fundamental physical entities, escapes this sort of antiphysicalist conceivability argument. One might think this is good news for the physicalist, but not so Chalmers. Although he takes Russellian monism to be a highly appealing view, he claims that many physicalists will reject it as it “shares the spirit of antimaterialism.”  I think that the loophole in the conceivability argument is more significant than Chalmers has made it out to be, for, as I shall argue, Chalmers fails to take into account a version of Russellian monism, what I refer to as “Russellian physicalism,” that escapes the conceivability argument yet is fully physicalistic.  (→ to Russellian Physicalism)


Sex, Drugs, Rock and Roll, and the Meaning of Life

From Chapter 12 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

…There are a few lingering concerns I would like now to address. For example, I claim to take the words of experts seriously, but experts at times say things that suggest [that they do not engage their minds while performing]… Dave Hill, we ought not to forget, quipped that a golf swing is like sex because you can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while doing it. How do I explain this? I should point out that not all of the loose ends I shall take up fall under the heading of “sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the meaning of life.” Though some do; be patient…

Chapter 12

Intuition, Rationality and Chess Expertise

From Chapter 11 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

Hubert Dreyfus argues that although analysis and deliberation play a role in chess in sub-optimal situations, the best moves made by chess players at the international master level or grandmaster level involve neither analysis nor deliberation nor even conceptualizing the board. Rather, Dreyfus tells us that “after much experience, the chess master is directly drawn by the forces on the board to make a masterful move.” High-level chess, on Dreyfus’s view,is bred neither in the heart nor in the head, but out there on the sixty-four squares. Is this right?


The Aesthetic Experience of Expert Movement

From Chapter 10 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

The idea for writing a book on the role of thought, effort and self-focus in expert action was prompted by an objection the philosopher and avid golfer Bob Child made after a talk I had given on the idea of proprioceiving aesthetic properties. I was arguing that proprioception—the sense by which we acquire information about the positions and movements of our own bodies, via receptors in the joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and skin—is an aesthetic sense, that is, a sense by means of which we experience  beauty, grace, and other aesthetic properties. Child wanted to know how a dancer on stage could have the aesthetic experience of her own movement, since  focusing on highly-skilled movements trammels their performance. If experts are to perform at their best, he averred, they can’t focus on what they are doing, and thus they cannot have the sorts of aesthetic experiences I attribute to them. This chapter, at long last, is my response.


The Pleasure of Movement and the Awareness of the Self

From Chapter 9 of my forthcoming book, The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:


In a paper entitled “The Way of the Wanton” (2008),  David Velleman suggests that we achieve excellence only after we have moved beyond reflective agency. What he means by this is that although reflective agency—that is, thinking about and deliberating over our occurrent actions—is a stepping-stone to developing expertise, we perform at our best when we attain what he refers to as “self-forgetful spontaneity,” or “flow.” Expressing a version of the view I have been referring to as the just-do-it principle, he tells us that in highly-skilled actions, “the capacity to monitor…performance, to consider how it falls short of an ideal, and to correct it accordingly…is no longer exercised” (p. 188). Rather, after the requisite training, according to Velleman, “evaluative judgment is suspended” and experts act “without deliberate intention or effort” (p. 185). In previous chapters, I have argued for the importance of monitoring, evaluation and effort in expert action. In this chapter, I want to explore the role of self-awareness and discuss whether the pleasure of movement due in part to losing the self.



Effortlessness with Effort

From  Chapter 8 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:


What  is it for an action to be effortless?  What are we appreciating when we admire Castiglione’s effortless courtier, a dancer’s effortless leaps, or a seagull’s effortless soar?  For Castiglione as well as for the ancient Chinese thinkers, effortlessness was primarily a social value.  According to Castiglione, effortlessness, or at least the façade of effortlessness enabled individuals to gain recognition, approval and promotion to higher political positions in the Royal Court, and according to the Daoist tradition it engendered, de, a type of charisma that allows rulers to persuade neither by force nor decree but merely in virtue of their magnetism.  Though no less relevant to politics now than it was in the past, my focus is more on aesthetic rather than social value, and specifically with the aesthetic value of effortlessness in works of art. Raimondi_Lucretia's_suicide

You can’t Try too Hard

From  Chapter 7 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:  

We’ve all experienced times where our seemingly best efforts lead to suboptimal or even disastrous results. You are cooking dinner for your in-laws for the first time and the pie crust falls apart, the sauce doesn’t thicken, and the kale comes out of the oven burnt. Or consider the business executive on his way to clinch that all-important deal. Why, on this morning alone, does he appear with a shred of toilet paper on his chin sopping up the blood? Could it be that trying is interfering with doing? Somerset Maugham said that “in each shave, lies a philosophy.” What can philosophy tell us about the relationship between making and effort to do something and doing it?   

You can't try too hard

As easy as pi: 100 digits

Does Thinking Interfere with Doing? Yale Symposium on Skills and Practices, April 2014

Thirteen-time PGA winner Dave Hill claimed, “Golf is like sex. You can’t be thinking about the mechanics of the act while you are performing.”

But why not?

Yale Symposium on Skills and Practices

Slides from my talk

Continuous Improvement

From  Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:  

To become the Cuban ballet dancer Alicia Alonso, who, though partially blind,was able to rise to the top of her profession, one has to be driven to achieve great heights and, at least for many who excel in their fields, this drive is ongoing. Indeed, it may very well be that it is this desire for continuous improvement–what in Japanese is called “kaizen”–more so than talent, that turns a novice into an expert (Ericsson and Smith, 1991). Certainly nature plays a role, but for those who truly excel, nature is almost invariably coupled with a vast amount of hard work.  What does this ongoing desire to improve suggest about the role of the mind in expert in action?  

full Kaisen image

Thinking Fast

crop our_time_is_running_out_by_stella_luna12-d6qeip5 (2)Here is an early draft of chapter 5 of  my forthcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action:

It is nearing 7 AM when a call comes through to the trauma center of a large hospital in the New York City metropolitan area, alerting the staff that a pregnant woman with multiple abdominal gunshot wounds is due to arrive in about three minutes.  The head nurse on duty—let me call her Denise—jumps into action, putting out a call for intubation, x-rays, anesthesia, surgery, and, due to the special circumstances, sonography and labor and delivery.  The emergency medical service team slides the gurney into the hospital and the trauma center staff goes to work, with Denise coordinating and overseeing the action.

Is there time to think in an emergency?  


Does Thinking Interfere with Doing?

Here is a draft of the start of  of chapter 4 of  my forthcoming book,  Thought in Action: Expertise and the Conscious Mind

CHAPTER 4: Does Thinking Interfere with Doing?     OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sometimes, when it really matters, everything falls apart. A vivid example of this occurred during the 2011 Republican primary presidential debate when Texas governor Rick Perry, in explaining how, if he were elected, he would eliminate three government agencies, couldn’t call to mind the phrase “the department of energy”: “The third agency of government I would do away with,” the Governor proclaimed, “the education, the uh, the commerce and let’s see, I can’t—the third one.  I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”  He curtailed his presidential campaign shortly after this.

Though other explanations are possible, it seems that Perry’s monumental choke was in part due to his heightened state of anxiety over how well he was going to be perceived; his worry apparently interfered with his ability to bring to mind a phrase which in some sense he knew very well—after all, he had been railing against the department of energy nearly every day during the months leading up to the debate. But how does anxiety cause a choke? The psychologist Sian Beilock claims that “highly practiced skills become automatic, so performance may actually be damaged by introspection, which is characteristic of an earlier, consciously-mediated stage.” Anxiety, on her view, prompts choking because it causes experts to think about what they are doing. Beilock’s advice: “Distract yourself…don’t give yourself too much time to think, focus on the outcome, not the mechanics… [and] just do it.” But is this view about the relationship between anxiety and skill correct?  Do high pressure situations induce experts to focus on what they are doing? And is there a causal connection between thinking and poor performance at the expert level? In other words, does thinking interfere with doing?

What Combination Problem?

What Combination Problem? Forthcoming in an Oxford University Press anthology on Panpsychism

It would seem that one reason to be a panpsychist—that is, one reason to think that conscious experience more or less pervades the universe—is that panpsychism obviates the need to bridge what some see as the yawing gap between the conscious and the nonconscious: no need to derive mind from brute matter, no need to explain how nonconscious particles give rise to conscious beings, no need to account for the experience of ecstasy in terms of the unfeeling, dreary activations of the orbitofrontal and anterior cingulated cortex. The mind, for the panpsychist, is part of the fundamental fabric of the universe. But how do microminds combine to form human minds?  (→ to What Combination Problem)

What is an Expert?

Selections from my upcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’:


From Chapter 3:

A 1991 study by the psychologists Timothy Wilson and Jonathan Schooler is frequently cited in support of what I’m calling the just-do-it principle, the principle, roughly put, that experts, when performing at their best, act intuitively, effortlessly and automatically, that they don’t think about what they are doing as they are doing it, but just do it. The study divided subjects, who were college students, into two groups.  In both groups, participants were asked to rank five brands of jam from best to worst, and in one of these groups, participants were additionally asked to explain their reasons for their rankings. The group whose sole task was to rank the jams ended up with fairly consistent judgments both among themselves and in comparison with expert food tasters as communicated in Consumer Reports. The rankings of the other group, however, went haywire, with subjects’ preferences neither in line with one another nor with the preferences of the experts. Why should this be? The researchers posit that when subjects explained their choices, they thought more about them. Thus, thinking, it is suggested, is detrimental to doing; or, as the journalist Malcolm Gladwell sums up this research, “[b]y making people think about jam, Wilson and Schooler turned them into jam idiots.”

The take-home message from Wilson and Schooler’s experiment, however, ought to be quite the opposite. Yes, it may very well be that when college students think about their jam choices, their ability to accurately identify the best jams declines.  However, the expert food-tasters, who were a panel of trained individuals, were able to both justify their choices and, arguably, make the best choices.  Indeed, the consumers’ report that that Wilson and Schooler rely on is filled with such justifications. Thus, the experiment does not support the idea that thinking is detrimental to occurrent expert performance. Indeed, assuming that the food experts made the best choices, we should conclude from the experiment that poor choices come not from thinking, but from not being trained how to think.

But what does it mean to be an expert?  (→ to Chapter 3 )

Just do What?

Selections from my upcoming book,  The Myth of ‘Just do it’:


From Chapter 2:

Presumably when Nike used the phrase “just do it” in their advertising campaign, it was intended to mean something like, “Stop procrastinating, get off your posterior, and get the job done.” Interpreted as such, I’m in favor of “just do it.” However, the sense of “just do it” I question is the idea that expert action, at its best, proceeds without a significant amount of thought, attention or effort, or as Jazz musicians sometimes say, “when you’re thinking, you’re stinking.” As we saw in the last chapter, this view is embraced in various forms by philosophers, psychologists, journalists and others. And it is this view that I think is a myth.  (→ to Chapter 2)