Beware of centipede syndrome

  • DC Sharma
  • |
  • Updated: Mar 10, 2014 09:29 IST

Working at my computer I normally press the right keys without even looking at them. I do so subconsciously. But the moment I grow conscious of which key to press first, I fumble, even press the wrong key.

When hurriedly leaving for office, I forget to make the right knot of my necktie the moment as I grow conscious of my action, though I have been doing the same on a daily basis!

You just grow conscious of how you put your signatures, and you would see how differently you do it.

I learnt about it when I was a teenager. One night before an exam day, the lurking fear didn't allow me to have a wink of sleep.

As I started concentrating on my breathing, I felt it difficult even to breathe. That upset breathing kept me awake throughout the night.

My professor of Psychology told, "Son, it's Humphrey's law in action. Known as centipede's dilemma, commonly called centipede's effect or centipede's syndrome, it occurs when a normally automatic or unconscious activity is disrupted by a conscious thought of it."

Players and sportsmen thinking too closely about their actions find their performance impaired. That's why Whitehead believed thinking must be reserved only for decisive moments. While walking never think which leg to move how, and which hand to wave which way!

Named after psychologist George Humphrey as hyper reflection law, and propounded in 1923, it contains a profound truth.

Humphrey discovered this when unconsciously influenced by the nursery rhyme of poetess Katherine Craster who had written after seeing a centipede's conscious action:

"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."

I had learnt for a price how to play safe from such a dilemma. One need to create one's higher level cognitive control for using life skills as do dancers, car drivers, house designers or carpenters and masons.

To excel well the basketball players should focus on the arc that the ball should follow rather than to focus on their arm moments or focusing upon nothing.

The former is an unconscious activity while the later is a conscious action on their part.

Brain researchers Eitan Glorerson and Israel Nelken started with the observation that piano playing involves a very complex sequential motor task executed in speeds that don't allow cognitive control of individual muscle movements. 

This made me realise how even before the Aesop's fable, the fox and the cat have a lot to teach. The fox boasts of hundreds of ways of escaping while the cat has only one. While the hounds approach, the cat just jumps over a tree. The fox in his confusion was caught up by the hounds.

Like the fox, even Shakespeare's Hamlet, and TS Eliot's silly protagonist lover Prufrock would fail and fumble. They fall a prey to centipede's dilemma.

They fail to realise that it is better to have one safe way than to a hundred on which they can't reckon.


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