Have you ever walked away from your front door, then suddenly stood still and thought, "Did I lock the door?"
And of course you locked the door!
You did it automatically.
Once you have mastered and regularly practised something, for example knitting or bike-riding or starting the car, your body does it without needing instruction from your brain.
Not only do you not need to think about it, you MUSTN'T try to think about it.
If you try to think about HOW you do it, you actually CAN'T, you get in a muddle....
"The Centipede's Dilemma" is a short poem which has given its name to an effect in psychology: the centipede effect (or centipede syndrome).
This is when a normally automatic or unconscious activity is disrupted by consciousness of it or reflection on it.
For example, a golfer thinking too closely about his swing or someone thinking too much about how he knots his tie may find his performance of the task impaired.
The effect is also known as hyper-reflection or Humphrey's law after the English psychologist George Humphrey (1889-1966) who propounded it in 1923.
He wrote of the poem,
"This is a most psychological rhyme.
It contains a profound truth which is illustrated daily in the lives of all of us.
Exactly the same thing happens if we pay conscious attention to any well-formed habit, such as walking."
Here is the poem:
THE CENTIPEDE'S DILEMMA
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
The poem is usually attributed to Katherine Craster (1841-74) in Pinafore Peoms, 1871.
By 1881, it had begun appearing in journals such as The Spectator and The Living Age.
The poem later appeared in an article by the British zoologist E. Ray Lankester in the May 23, 1889 issue of the scientific journal Nature which discussed the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge in capturing the motion of animals:
"For my own part," wrote Lankester, "I should greatly like to apply Mr. Muybridge's cameras, or a similar set of batteries, to the investigation of a phenomenon more puzzling even than that of "the galloping horse."
I allude to the problem of "the running centipede."
Lankester finished the article on a fanciful note by giving examples of the "disastrous results in the way of perplexity" that could result from such an investigation, quoting the poem and mentioning that the author was unknown to him or to the friend who sent it to him.
Modern versions of the poem often recast it in verse as a fable of a spider (or other protagonist) who found a clever way to avoid being eaten:
"How do you keep all those legs coordinated?" the spider asked.
The centipede replied, "I don't know. I'd never thought about it before."
At this point, the spider ran off, and the centipede tried to give chase, but was unable to because he couldn't make his legs walk properly, and he could never move again.
Another rhyme goes:
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."
The psychologist George Humphrey referred to the tale in his 1923 book The Story of Man's Mind:
"No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work," he wrote.
"If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled."
Thus, the eponymous "Humphrey's law" states that once performance of a task has become automatized, conscious thought about the task, while performing it, impairs performance.
Whereas habit little by little diminishes and then eliminates the attention required for routine tasks, this automaticity is disrupted by attention to a normally unconscious competence.
The philosopher Karl Popper referred to the centipede effect in his book Knowledge and the Body-Mind Problem:
"If we have learnt certain movements so that they have sunk below the level of conscious control, then if we try to follow them consciously we very often interfere with them so badly that we stop them."
He gives the example of the violinist Adolf Busch, who was asked by fellow-violinist Bronisław Huberman how he played a certain passage of Beethoven's violin concerto.
Busch told Huberman that it was quite simple — and then found that he could no longer play the passage!
About five years ago, I was in hospital after an operation for a new hip.
I had an epidural in place, and was numb from the waist down.
It was the day after the operation.
The surgeon asked me to wiggle my toes.
As far as I knew, I didnt have any toes: there was no conscious connection between my brain and my feet.
Even as I protested that it was impossible, my toes wiggled!
My body remembered the manouvre perfectly!
How did that happen?
I was astonished......
So: dont think about it too much, just DO IT!
Its all in there somewhere.