“I can do a little mind reading when teaching people to juggle,” Wolf said, “and I can tell you think of that as a role model. Just throw in the corners, she repeated. Don’t think about the general model you’re launching; just throw away. Wolf didn’t want me to think about the grips either; if I kept throwing around the turns, my hands would move to where they needed to be for the catch.
“The key to learning to juggle,” she says, “isn’t thinking.”
The problem with beginners is that they always think of doing the skill on their own. When we try to think of an “over-learned” skill like walking, we risk doing less well, according to the “reinvestment” theory, as suggested by motor learning expert Rich Masters.
People who have had a stroke, for example, often suffer from an “asymmetrical gait” or lameness. They have to learn to walk again, but because they are aware of the way they are walking now, they think about the mechanics of walking, which only makes it more mechanical. To learn to walk well, they will have to learn implicitly. “The trick,” as Masters described it, “is to get people to learn to move without knowing they are learning.
When we become skilled at something, it becomes automatic. We don’t have to think about it much, because our brains, operating on virtual autopilot, are constantly making predictions – and most of their predictions are true.
As Pablo Celnik, the brilliant Argentine-born director of the Johns Hopkins University Human Brain Physiology and Stimulation Laboratory, told me, the brain does this for efficiency reasons, but also because of an inherent time lag. “Your brain is getting feedback on what you’re doing, and it takes time – around 80 to 100 milliseconds,” he told me. “We are living in the past. Everything we see now goes back to about 100 milliseconds for the engine domain. “
These predictions help us get through everyday life. When they fail, we seek explanations. We stumble onto the sidewalk, our brains receive this news 100 milliseconds later, and we look with accusation at the offending crack. Surprise violated our model. But when you try to tickle yourself, nothing happens, because you already know what it’s going to look like. Our cerebellum has “canceled” sensory input, suppressed neurons. There is no surprise; the model is intact.
When you first step on an escalator that has stopped working, you take a few steps with caution. You can even “feel” the movement. This is because your brain has trained, through a lot of repetitions. He’s ready for the escalator; it’s predicted. We know, in our heads, that it’s broken, but we can’t help but think, in our bodies, that it isn’t.
Juggling, I quickly learned, was not really the skill I thought. Like many beginners, my juggling mind was what is called a shower pattern – three objects being passed in a clockwise semicircle. But the shower pattern is much more difficult than the “waterfall,” the most common form of multi-object juggling. In the waterfall, the objects intersect and land in the opposite hand. Outlined, it looks like an eight tilted to the side.
I had also imagined that the jugglers would follow each object in flight, which is precisely what beginners try to do. When my daughter tried, her head was banging wildly as she tried to watch each scarf.
But, as Heather Wolf showed me, juggling is less about throwing individual objects than throwing a pattern, like throwing a small algorithm in the sky. It is no wonder that so many remarkable mathematicians, from Claude Shannon * to Ronald Graham, have been drawn to juggling.
In juggling, unlike in most sports, you don’t really want to keep your eyes on the balls. Jugglers look at the top of where things are thrown – that outer hearth again – and only ever have a peripheral perception of all these objects in flight. This was confirmed by studies in which most of a juggler’s vision was blocked, except for a thin slice near the parabola of the throwing arc, and they juggled very well. Good jugglers can do it blindfolded.