I don’t like to brag, but I’ve been known to bowl. Not that I’d have much to brag about because I’m really not very good. On any given day at the lanes, I’ll start around 140ish and steadily get worse until my six year old asks if I want to use the kiddie bumpers. Nevertheless, I’ve enjoyed bowling since I was a wee lad, which is what makes the day I lost my bowling walk so peculiar.
What I mean by “bowling walk” is the sequence of steps you take while raising your arm to roll the ball just before approaching the penalty line. The sequence is crucial because it regulates the movements required to release the ball at just the right time. The important thing to know is that after bowling for even a short time, the sequence starts happening without the bowler having to think about it. Sort of like dance steps—you learn them, and then your body takes over.
But on this particular day, I thought about it. I distinctly recall that I was about midway through the sequence when I just stopped walking. I had no idea why, so I walked back to my starting point and began again. And again, midway through, I stopped.
I turned around and looked at a friend sitting at the scorer’s table. “What are you doing?” he asked, probably wondering if I’d had a few too many beers. I shook my head. “I’m not sure, but, um, I think I’ve lost my bowling walk.”
For the next several minutes I tried to figure out what the hell was going on. I went back to my starting point and counted steps to the line, but that didn’t work. So then I tried a “left, right, left, right” approach, which also didn’t work. In fact, everything I consciously tried to remedy the problem was making it worse. My friend even attempted to walk me through it, but the funny thing is that as soon as he tried to dissect his bowling walk, he started screwing up, and we looked like a pair of stumbling idiots.
I liken this event to a few others I’ve experienced, all involving the same principle. One was the day I forgot how to swing a golf club. I mean, I could “swing” the club just fine, but I couldn’t recall the sequence of movements required to execute a proper golf swing. Same problem as the bowling walk lapse, same reason: I started thinking about the movements.
Even more tragic was the day I forgot how to clip my finger nails. From the right hand clipping the left, no problem. But suddenly when I tried clipping the right from the left, it was as if I’d encountered a strange new calculus of physical precision that I’d never experienced before. I thought to myself, “What the f—- is wrong with me?” Thankfully that lapse didn’t last long or I might have checked myself in somewhere “quiet.”
Recent neuroscience research has much to say about why this happens. The trick is understanding what’s going on in the brain during “self-initiated movements”—those we think through—and “automatic movements”—those that happen without thinking, like a bowling walk.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Neurophysiology used fMRI to examine brains of people before and after their self-initiated movements became automatic movements (the researchers gave the participants tasks to learn, designed to emulate what happens when someone stops thinking about a sequence of movements and starts doing them automatically).
What they discovered is that when a task becomes automatic, activity in multiple brain regions decreases, particularly regions constituting the motor network. The reason for this change is that the motor network becomes increasingly more efficient in executing the movements, requiring less activity. In a sense, the sequential steps are made more energy efficient with practice, until the brain doesn’t have to spend much energy processing them at all.
Going back to the bowling walk example: when I stopped and thought about the sequence, I threw a monkey wrench into what had been a well-tuned, energy-efficient motor network. And the more I screwed with it, the more out-of-tune the network became. In the end, I had to totally stop, take a break and clear my head before the walk returned of its own accord.
The takeaway from all of this is that it’s not always such a great idea to think too much. Automatic pilot isn’t necessarily a bad thing—it’s part of how our brain conserves resources. So go with that and roll, swing, dance, clip or whatever it is you like to do. Just do it. Your brain has the details under control.