I have recently been reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell (there is quite a good article about it here). It shows the power instinctive perception and the way our adaptive subconscious can understand things quickly and accurately by focussing on reduced amounts of information (something Gladwell calls thin slicing). He uses anecdotes and psychological studies to show how this can be both impressive and dangerous.
As a book it is not a highly structured work with a thesis derived from a clear chain of evidence; rather it organises research findings and personal stories around a central theme. Some of the stories are well known (like the attempt to change the taste of Coke), and the research is not necessarily recent. (Quite by chance, when searching for information on Hans Keller, the musicologist, I found a 1994 article by someone else with the same name, that described some of the research Gladwell used - the work that enabled researchers to accurately predict which couples would stay together, after observing a mere 15 minutes of their conversation). This allows some critics to dismiss the work as being less than the sum of its parts and something that tells us nothing new. However this misses the genius of Gladwell, who is able to find subjects we know subconsciously and illuminate them in such a way that we can both recognise them and see them in new ways. He is an “Of course I knew that; I just never thought about it before” sort of writer; someone who gets you to think about your own behaviour and the way you react with the world. In some strange tangential way that allows me to link it to running.
In Blink he describes three states. In the first the instinctive, quick response is precise and better than a laboured analysis. In the second instinctive perceptions are overlaid with too much data, which confuses rather than clarifies. The last state is where instincts are dangerous and wrong because they are just expressions of blind prejudice.
In running it is the equivalent of knowing how to listen to and trust your body. The first state is the ideal – the moments we train for – when we feel at one with everything and do not have to think because everything is in place and moving perfectly. The second is when we overlay the basic activity with too much analysis – should I be landing under my centre of gravity? Should there be more hill work? Should I have different shoes? What should I be eating? etc etc etc. The third is the lazy acceptance of false ideas of our own capabilities I’m not fast enough, not strong enough, too tired too weak.
So the question is how do you get to the state where you know you can trust yourself? The answer is actually obvious – training, testing and analysis. Blink is not a celebration of instinctive perception. It is a celebration of instinctive perception based on thorough training. The academic who could predict if couples would split could only do so after analysing hours of tape, the professor who learnt to read people’s minds by their tiny involuntary facial expressions could only do so after identifying each muscle movement and reproducing the movement himself. In every example the ability to know things quickly was based on a lot of work.
So with running the way to get to stage one is through stage two. One has to find clear and straightforward answers to the questions and find out what works for us by paying careful attention to our own and other people’s experiences. To do that you have to run, then run some more. Simple really.