Cognitive Friction (Part 2)

My latest musing on Cognitive Friction has led to a few different reactions, which I think could be usefully explored here.

First, my friends James Bollocks and Stuart Stevens shared their own experiences employing cognitive friction, albeit in vastly different contexts and for differing purposes. James, an avid skateboarder, writes:

For the last couple years whenever 'Travelling' on my skateboard - i make the very conscious choice to spin it 180° and ride in switch [with the dominant foot at the back of the skateboard instead of the front]. It costs me a lot of enjoyment - riding naturally i don't need to think at all and I can really enjoy the ride - but riding switch is heavy on concentration, and much more dangerous. So, why do i do it?...
Two reasons:

  1.  I want to become better at riding switch - I want it to become more natural for me - and to end up feeling as comfortable as when I ride my natural direction.
  2. Practicing 'travelling' in switch , as opposed to doing 'tricks' in switch (which I do also admittedly do) gives me a tolerable and just about safe enough level at which to experience this cognitive friction - whilst still being able to occasionally flip back round 180° (for example at dangerous road crossings) and assume soooo much more comfortable control over the board and riding experience in general.

I really can't emphasise the discipline required to do something you can do fine the one way the other. The temptation wins out more than I am proud to admit - and thus the purposeful friction (/learning) goes on. [revised terminology – 29/05/14]

Likewise, he writes that applying cognitive friction becomes pedagogically important in that, when working with beginner skateboarders, it helps to

remove the comfort and effortlessness in what you're doing and return you to a state of cognitive effort and awareness - in order to remember/re-understand exactly what your beginner skate brother or sister is going through.

From a musical perspective, my friend Stuart writes

In my exploration of melody using 31-edo temperament I have returned to my most familiar instrument - the electric guitar. After years of practice and doodling I am able to play the instrument with my eyes shut and my fingers instinctively know how to "land" on intervals (frets) in known relationships. Re-fretting the guitar with 31 frets in the octave has created a cognitive friction. While all the playing techniques around fretting, strumming, picking etc can still be applied, the new layout is forcing my mind to re-visit a process I obviously undertook many years before in my early guitar learning - that of matching interval relationships and fret positions to the pitches I am hearing and getting to "know the notes on the guitar" through improvising. As a consequence, when scoring, I find more and more that I think naturally in 31-edo as well as 12-edo. The one factor changed is the fret positions, and I now see that as cognitive friction applied to my well-established guitar-playing.

The means by which actions are learnt and habitualised share common features across a variety of contexts. Cognitive friction is a disturbance introduced into already-functioning systems.

Second, my friend Joe Scarffe raised the question of whether or not cognitive friction is another term for Daniel Kahneman's System 2? In a nutshell, what Joe is referring to is the dual ways of thinking proposed by psychologist Daniel Kahneman (the 2002 Nobel recipient in Economics):

  • System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control.
  • System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.

This division in thought processes is similar to that found in the work of management theorist John Heron ( Mode 2 and Mode 1 knowledge, in reverse numbering from Kahneman) and even as far back as Gilbert Ryle (procedural and propositional knowledge). What I'd like to make clear is that cognitive friction, as I envision it, is not necessarily mode of thinking itself. Rather, it is the process by which you shift from intuition to concentration. This resembles what psychologists have named task set reconfiguration, although I do not know the extent to which the practical uses of this concept have been explored.

The process of moving from intuition to concentration does slow things down, making you generally less efficient and more uncomfortable. However, the benefit is that it forces conscious re-engagement with the processes and actions at hand. This is not to say that consciously 'thinking' when we are 'doing' is always better: both systems/modes of thinking serve their purposes based on context and experience. Cognitive friction is the process by which we realise how much we have forgotten that we know. That realisation may then be used to learn about ourselves, adapt and improve our actions, and to teach others.

I am intrigued by this area, and would love to find out more about it (and how it may be usefully applied pedagogically and within my own performance). If you have suggestions on where to look, please let me know!

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?