Cognitive Friction

Try an experiment. The next time you put on a belt, put it on backwards. Not so the buckle is at the back, mind you, but so that it goes around your body in the opposite direction it does normally. What happens? Unless you are extraordinarily dexterous, you may find this somewhat challenging. Years of repetition have subsumed the finer points of this motion into automation, freeing your mind to contemplate loftier subjects than making sure your belt goes through the right loops. Changing one element – namely, the direction of the belt – throws this automation out the window. For the first time in a long time, you may have to consciously think about putting on your belt.

Having to think about something we don't normally think about may not necessarily be a bad thing. Although we all accumulate a wealth of knowledge through years of experience, we may not believe that we consciously 'think' about any of it at all. As philosopher Gilbert Ryle wrote, overtly intelligent actions 'are not clues to the workings of minds; they are those workings' (1949: 57). Sometimes, however, we forget how overtly intelligent our actions are. The more we become adept at tasks (or series of tasks), the more we focus on the purpose of that task (see Elsner and Hommel 2001). Likewise, the more adept we become, the more we may downplay exactly how much thought had originally gone into our learning of that task.

One thing that I find exciting about conducting research is the opportunity to be surprised. In my particular area of research – how musicians create performances, either by themselves or with other people – I can dredge my own experiences playing music for inspiration or clarity. Merely writing down and contemplating my experience performing does not spark my curiosity, though. What is most useful is an element of cognitive friction: a small tweak to one element of a system which forces us to reconsider the entire operation of the system. In other words, putting our metaphorical belts on backwards. On a mundane level, this could include events such as realising that you can't open your front door if your keys are in the wrong hand and trying to discover the best alternate route through town to avoid being stuck in traffic. On a larger level, though, cognitive friction may be a beneficial means by which we can cultivate and encourage reflective practice. Introducing such friction into tasks or contexts we are researching may allow us to more fully understand the systems within which we exist.

Whilst I can envision many ways that I can introduce cognitive friction into my own work, I am curious to see if anyone else has encountered this concept and/or applied it in their own development, either as a musician, researcher, or otherwise. What do you think you can learn through cognitive friction?