The Centipede's Dilemma: Why you forget how to do the most basic tasks

Illustration for article titled The Centipede's Dilemma: Why you forget how to do the most basic tasks

A whimsical rhyme written in the 1800s was named as the most psychological poem in the world. It proposed that, if a centipede had to think about how to move each of its legs, it would be immobilized. It was right. I know, because a similar thing happened to me.


In 1871, a thirty-year-old woman named Katherine Craster wrote a silly little nursery-rhyme that was published in a collection of poetry. It went like this:

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.

Ah ha ha ha! Ah ha ha! Gotta love poems that end with the protagonist dying. It wasn't until a half-century later that George Humphrey, a psychologist, pointed out that this was right on the money. When we train to do certain physical things, we train our mind and body together. Engaging the brain differently while doing the activity is just as disconcerting as asking a gymnast to do a routine while wearing handcuffs. Suddenly the entire activity is unfamiliar, and you're unable to do it. We see this a lot in sports, when someone chokes in a high-pressure situation because the intensity causes them to think about something they would otherwise do naturally. Once, it even happened to me.

I'm no athlete, and no sporting physical activity has ever felt second-nature to me. But even I had a run-in with this famous dilemma. I use different passwords to different sites, and I never for a moment think of what they are. When I see a screen in front of me, I just automatically type in certain sequences of letters and numbers. Until one day, when I was signing into an account, and thinking, "I better write this password down after I type it, just in case I someday forget it." And I forgot it. The moment I actually considered what keys to press, my mind went blank. I couldn't remember a single character. Since being unable to access a needed account does nothing so well as making you focus all your mental energy on it, the situation didn't improve. I tried to make my hands move over the keyboard the way they always did, but since my mind was involved, it was impossible. Finally, after a couple of days, I sat down at someone else's computer with the site up on it. Without thinking I entered my name and password. As soon as I could get my mind to sync up with my body in the way I'd unconsciously practiced up until then, the routine was as fast and expert as it ever was.

It occurs to me that many people outside athletics must have had the same experience. Surely there are chefs out there who could crack eggs without looking until the moment they thought about it, and knitters who have forgotten a stitch the second they tried to explain it. Have any non-athletes been caught up in moments like this? Let us know!

Photo by Michael Maggs, via Wikimedia Commons.


and now we rise

I'm terrible at typing when someone else is watching me. It's so annoying, when I'm alone it's total muscle memory and I don't have to think about, but the minute someone's looking over my shoulder there are typos everywhere.