Tag Archives: expertise

Reflective and Prereflective Bodily Awareness in Skilled Action

Reflective and Prereflective Bodily Awareness in Skilled Action

John Toner, Barbara Gail Montero, and Aidan Moran

Published in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research and Practice, Online First May 16, 2016.

Abstract. A number of influential theories of skill acquisition posit that the performing body is an absent presence during “habitualized” action. The current article counters this claim by drawing on a wide range of empirical and phenomenological evidence to argue that the body is never forgotten during skilled movement. We draw on Colombetti’s (2011) taxonomy of the bodily self to show how skilled performers may experience either a reflective or prereflective mode of bodily awareness depending on the foci of attention adopted during online skill execution. We argue that it is the dynamic interplay of these latter forms of bodily awareness that facilitates optimal performance and allows skilled performers to confront the challenges (e.g., injury, performance slumps) that are a ubiquitous feature of competitive environments.






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



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?


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

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?

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)

The Myth of ‘Just do it’: Thought and Effort in Expert Action

Selections from my upcoming book, The ‘Myth of just do it’: Though and Effort in Expert Action (preface, introduction, Ch. 1)

From the introduction:

Science, Richard Feynman once said, is the belief in the ignorance of experts. If so—though I wouldn’t put it in quite those words—then perhaps my project should be dubbed scientific, for it is my belief that a wide range of experts who have written about expertise have been mistaken. In particular, I believe that various psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists, and other experts on high-level performance have erroneously concluded that expert action proceeds best when the mind is relatively less active, when action occurs automatically, and when bodily movements are effortless. These expertise-experts, I believe, are wrong…

(→ to the book )

Just do it? Radio Interviews

I’ve recently been interviewed by Joe Gelonesi for the Philosopher’s Zone program, “Just do it?” and by David Brendel for the VoiceAmerica program, “How to hit and think at the same time.”

Just as when I was a ballet dancer and I couldn’t bear to watch myself on video, I can’t bring myself to listen to these.  (I’m willing to suffer for my craft, but I do draw a line.) Nonetheless, because this is how one measures out one’s life these days, I post them below.



A Dancer Reflects: Deliberation in Action

Here is a draft of A Dancer Reflects Deliberation in Action which was published in Mind, Reason, and Being-in-the-World: The McDowell-Dreyfus Debate, 2013, Routledge, 303-319.

Abstract: The idea that performing a ballet typically involves tremendous effort is contrary to the widely touted view that great performances, in ballet and elsewhere, are natural and effortless. Although practice may be hard work, it is thought that when performing, an expert just lets the movement happen.  Indeed, thinking about what you are doing during a performance is, if anything, thought to interfere with expert skill. Here, I argue against such views.


The Myth of ‘Just Do It’

Although the book, alas, is not yet done, I have managed to write this article for the New York Times:

OPINION   | June 09, 2013 The Myth of ‘Just Do It’ By BARBARA GAIL MONTERO

The idea that thinking interferes with doing is often taken for granted. But the realities at the highest levels of athletic and artistic performance are more complex.

→ go to The Myth of ‘Just Do It’


For discussion, see Martin Bingisser’s blog post, The Effortless Throw, in which he states, “few philosophical ideas…relate more directly to hammer throwing.”

CBS’s  interviewed me shortly after the New York Times article appeared:  http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/pure-genius/q-a-barbara-montero-philosopher-on-the-myth-of-8216just-do-it/10230?tag=mantle_skin;content

Effortless Bodily Movement

Barbara Gail Montero, Effortless Bodily Movement

(2011) Philosophical Topics, 39:1, pp. 67-79

Abstract. According to the Renaissance theorist Baldassare Castiglione, perhaps the most important quality to cultivate in oneself is effortlessness, what he refers to as “sprezzatura.”  In his Book of the Courtier, he writes,

 I have discovered a universal rule which seems to apply more than any other in all  human  actions or  words: namely, to steer away from affectation at all costs, as if it were a rough and dangerous reef, and ….to practice in all things a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) which conceals all artistry and makes  whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.

But just 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, a basketball player’s effortless shot, or even a seagull’s effortless soar?  For Castiglione, effortlessness was socially valuable; the façade of effortlessness enabled individuals to gain recognition, approval and promotion to higher positions in the Royal court.  Though perhaps no less relevant to politics now than it was in Castiglione’s day, my concern is more with aesthetic rather than social value, and it is with movements rather than manners.  Accordingly, the question I am to address is this: What does it means for bodily movements to be effortless and what makes such movements aesthetically valuable?

Practice Makes Perfect: The Effect of Dance Training on the Aesthetic Judge

Barbara Montero (2011). Practice Makes Perfect: The Effect of Dance Training on the Aesthetic Judge. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences:-.

Abstract. According to Hume, experience in observing art is one of the prerequisites for being an ideal art critic. But although Hume extols the value of observing art for the art critic, he says little about the value, for the art critic, of executing art. That is, he does not discuss whether ideal aesthetic judges should have practiced creating the form of art they are judging. In this paper, I address this issue. Contrary to some contemporary philosophers who claim that experience in creating art is irrelevant to one’s ability to judge that art form, as well as to some dance critics who see dance training as possibly even detrimental to one’s aesthetic judgment, I suggest that having practiced dancing makes one a better observer of certain aesthetic qualities of dance. Dance training, I argue, can facilitate a kinesthetic experience upon watching dance without which some aesthetic aspects of a dance performance—such as grace, power, and precision, as perceived kinesthetically—may go unnoticed. Content Type Journal Article Pages 1-10 DOI 10.1007/s11097-011-9236-9 Authors Barbara Montero, Philosophy Program, The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 365 5th Avenue, New York, NY 10016, USA Journal Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences Online ISSN 1572-8676 Print ISSN 1568-7759.

Intuitions Without Concepts Lose the Game: Mindedness in the Art of Chess

Barbara Montero & C. Evans (2011). Intuitions Without Concepts Lose the Game: Mindedness in the Art of Chess. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences10 (2):175-194.

Abstract. To gain insight into human nature philosophers often discuss the inferior performance that results from deficits such as blindsight or amnesia. Less often do they look at superior abilities. A notable exception is Herbert Dreyfus who has developed a theory of expertise according to which expert action generally proceeds automatically and unreflectively. We address one of Dreyfus’s primary examples of expertise: chess. At first glance, chess would seem an obvious counterexample to Dreyfus’s view since, clearly, chess experts are engaged in deep strategic thought. However, Dreyfus’s argument is subtle. He accepts that analysis and deliberation play a role in chess, yet he thinks that all such thought is predicated on intuitive, arational expert perception, and action. We argue that even the so-called intuitive aspect of chess is rational through and through.

Does Bodily Awareness Interfere with Highly Skilled Movement?

Barbara Montero (2010). Does Bodily Awareness Interfere with Highly Skilled Movement? Inquiry53 (2):105 – 122.

Draft of Does bodily awareness interfere with highly skilled movement

Abstract. It is widely thought that focusing on highly skilled movements while performing them hinders their execution. Once you have developed the ability to tee off in golf, play an arpeggio on the piano, or perform a pirouette in ballet, attention to what your body is doing is thought to lead to inaccuracies, blunders, and sometimes even utter paralysis. Here I re-examine this view and argue that it lacks support when taken as a general thesis. Although bodily awareness may often interfere (…) with well-developed rote skills, like climbing stairs, I suggest that it is typically not detrimental to the skills of expert athletes, performing artists, and other individuals who endeavor to achieve excellence. Along the way, I present a critical analysis of some philosophical theories and behavioral studies on the relationship between attention and bodily movement, an explanation of why attention may be beneficial at the highest level of performance and an error theory that explains why many have thought the contrary. Though tentative, I present my view as a challenge to the widespread starting assumption in research on highly skilled movement that at the pinnacle of skill attention to one’s movement is detrimental.