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This is interesting. I do wonder mind. My personal suspicion is that this is to do with the time delay of consciousness. Nobody could drive a car or play football of fly an F-16 (either a real one or a game one) if they had to think about it. It apparently takes 1/2s to consciously register something. But if it is vital you probably did something about it already and only knew about it afterwards.

I’ve had this. I call it the quickening. I used to be able to look at equations and integrate them without thinking. It’s not intuition, it’s experience. It’s like taking a free-kick. Does Beckham work the maths? No he boots it. I can’t do that and probably neither can you. It’s “folk physics”. That’s an area that interests me a lot. There are Masai warriors who don’t have my background in formal mechanics but who would you put the house-keeping on if it was a “chucking spears at impalas contest”. Or more prosaically (unless you are a Masai) how often have you forgotten a phone number and only been able to dial it by not thinking and using “muscle memory”. Or how can I type? An office mate (thanks A!) of mine once re-arranged my keyboard. Jemmied the keys up with a screwdriver and put ‘em back different. So I turn-up, log-in and check my email and it is only when I actually look at the keyboard I get confused and it is really disconcerting. And get out my screwdriver.

Or what about walking? The Japanese have spent untold billions on making robots that walk. The amount of CPU power needed is phenomenal. Do you think about walking? You just do it.

Or maybe this explains autistic savants. You know those folks who if you spill a pack of spag and they just knew how many strands were on the floor. Just by looking.

H/T John Galt


  1. Mr Ed says:

    How does a Merlin catch a dragonfly? It happens so fast, we cannot imagine the reflexes involved, the bird just does it, it is made to do that. Driving a Formula 1 car at speed on a circuit strikes me as implausibly difficult, but some people have the reflexes and experience to do it, the senses integrate information without conscious direction. I suspect that if you think about how you do some things, you run the risk of over-riding that part of the brain that does it.

    We run, we throw, catch and the motor circuits take over. Some racing drivers report a sensation of everything slowing down at speed, like Gil de Ferran doing a pole lap of the California Speedway at just over 240 mph average on an oval, yards from a concrete wall.

    Did not Burke say that ‘prejudice is latent wisdom’?

    I know one person who has to think about standing still.

  2. Robert the Biker says:

    Riding a motorcycle fast is the same, if you had to think about it, you’d make it to the nearest tree! Probably the best common example is catching a ball, the calculations required are probably beyond most computers, but people do it all the time.

  3. NickM says:

    How does Nick take a MiG-15 over the Yalu?

    First time I pull a scissors and as I am riding down on the nylon (as was my #2) it went very Pete Tong. So before the merge we’d lost two Sabres and we still had 8 MiG-15s. Ouch1

  4. Thornavis says:

    Robert the Biker
    It’s a funny thing that, catching balls. Back in my cricket playing days I was, to be honest, bloody useless at nearly everything, except catching but only in the outfield. I could work out the trajectory of a skied ball and pocket it without trouble but close to the bat my reactions weren’t anywhere near fast enough, as for batting, forget it, trying to get the bat and the ball into contact was a skill I never came close to mastering.
    Mr Ed
    I read somewhere years ago that a dragonfly eye could process information x15 faster than a human eye, I don’t know how anyone knows that but it seems right and I should think that it must effectively slow the world down. I remember watching one dodging a sparrow’s attempts at catching it on the wing, the sparrow was doing pretty well, tight turns and nearly stopping in the air but it wasn’t good enough, the dragonfly was just jinking out of the way and apparently able to anticipate every move its enemy made, the compound eye must help too. I should imagine that a Hobby – do Merlins hunt dragonflies ? – catches them through sheer speed, they can catch swifts on the wing so a closing attack at over seventy miles an hour is probably enough to outfox even something as agile as a dragonfly.

  5. RAB says:

    I had a funny feeling you were going to post this Nick. ;-)

    Thornavis, my hand to eye coordination is pretty damn good even now at 60, but as a youth I could catch almost anything with either hand, so I was pretty useful in the Slips, but funny enough it was those long skied shots that you had plenty of time to get in position for that were more of a problem. The more time you had to think, the worse it got. As for batting… easy peasy. I was our school’s opening bat, slogged ‘em all round the ground for hours.

    I now happily spend most of my waking time in a semi conscious stupor :-)

  6. NickM says:

    And the really funny thing is… I only H/Ted JG because he’d tipped me. I had found it totally accidentally myself before reading JG’s comment but didn’t want to admit to reading the Daily Fail. That’s a pretty good approximation to a semi-conscious stupor.

  7. John Galt says:


    Funny, I did look for another source other than pasting a Mainly Fail link, but the only alternate showing on my Google News search for “intuition” was The Indian Express – a great paper I am sure, but hardly a journal of record with international reputation.

    Ah well, funny old world.

  8. Stonyground says:

    This disconnect between action and conscious thought processes happens when you learn to play a musical instrument. Constant practice at the piano meant that my hands could play quite complicated pieces without my brain seemingly having a clue what was going on. My piano teacher pointed out that you must follow the music on the page because, what she referred to as, finger memory tended to let you down without warning. I started learning piano in my late thirties and I never did learn to sight read anything other than the simplest arrangements. I did learn to play quite complex classical pieces just by constant practice so that I could play them from memory, but, as my teacher said, finger memory.

  9. Tim Newman says:

    What Stonyground said…when playing the piano, finger memory can override whatever the brain is telling you. But saying that, one thing I find really strange. I haven’t played the piano in a few years, and the other day I sat down to try. Unsurprisingly, I got nowhere, couldn’t get beyond the first couple of bars. Then I pulled the music out, which I honestly cannot read by sight, and found I could play much more than without the music. It was really strange, it was as if the notes were reminding the fingers of what to play…because I really was not consciously processing the notes in the way I do when I read guitar tablature. It was just a case of see and do, without any thinking…but it only works on pieces I have already learned and forgotten.

    And also…when I lived in the Middle East, I noticed that Arabs – whether driving or pedestrians – were incapable of judging speed and distance. For sure, some of the arrogant twats would step out or pull out and not care that you had to jam on your brakes, but I think quite a few of them really had no idea how to judge how fast a car was coming and whether they had enough time to cross the road. They seemed pretty surprised when you bore down on them, horn blaring. I put this down to the fact that they do no sports when they’re kids. Even the most cack-handed kid (i.e. me) learns how to judge speed and distance when kicking a ball about, but I suspect without ever having done these sort of exercises, it is possible to progress to adulthood without them.

  10. NickM says:

    The worst driving I have ever seen is on Malta. They are mental. Valetta is a grid city so there’s lots of cross-roads. One deranged nutcase I saw crossed about 7 without a care in the world honking his horn all the way. And the buses. Great old 1950s things decorated by the drivers/mechanics. Written on the back of one, “If you want to know if the afterlife exists, try over-taking me”. The all have shrines on the dashboard. So do Indians and their roads are a hecatomb.

    I can’t remember the name of the SF short story I read as a kid but it involves a guy piloting through the asteroid belt and he puts his ability down to having played Rugby at school. Similarly, ever noticed when you see lists of flying aces from say WWII you see lots of country lads. That’s down to shooting birds as kids. You learn deflectiion shooting.

  11. bloke in spain says:

    B) He’s bulked up for a long siege. Very long siege.

  12. Mr Ed says:

    Tio en España, your intuition is spot on. I pity the foe who got between the General and the buffet!

  13. David B. Wildgoose says:

    Ha! NickM, I remember that short story about the rugby player whose intuition meant that he was avoiding the asteroids[*], and reacting before the computer told him what to do! (Now was it Arthur C. Clarke or Brian Aldiss? Somebody English anyway).

    [*]Although I’m pretty sure the Asteroid Belt is mainly empty space with very large gaps between individual asteroids, i.e. it ought not have been a problem.

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