Skill, Know-how and Myelin: the difference between knowledge and experience

Eureka moment

In 1990, a British naval officer, Michael Riley, was on board HMS Gloucester monitoring the ship’s radar during the Desert Storm operation in Kuwait. HMS Gloucester, a British destroyer, was responsible for protecting the Allied fleet, which meant that Riley had to monitor all of the airspace surrounding the naval convoy. Because of the intensity of the battle, the radar crews had maintained an exhausting schedule. They were on duty for six hours, then they had six hours to sleep and eat, and after that brief respite, they headed back to the claustrophobic radar room.

Five hours into another exhausting shift which had begun at midnight, Riley noticed a radar blip. A quick calculation of its trajectory had it heading straight for the convoy. The blip looked identical to the blips caused by American war planes (A-6) returning to their aircraft carrier. Not only that, but its route was nearly identical to the one being followed by friendly aircraft returning to base. The blip was also traveling at the same speed as the fighter jets and had a similar surface area. It looked exactly like an A-6 on the radar screen.

But despite this, and even though he was mentally exhausted, there was something about this radar trace that immediately made him suspicious. He couldn’t explain why, but the blinking green dot on the screen filled him with fear.

Riley had to make a call: to flag the blip as hostile missile or to let it reach their ship and land. If he flagged it as a hostile plane, it would be shot down, and that might mean death of one of their own if his instinct is wrong. On the other hand, it could be an Iraqi  missile and not taking action would mean that hundreds of sailors would die. Riley decided to go with his instinct, with his intuition, and made the call for the blip to be shot down.

The blip turned out to be a Silkworm, an Iraqi missile, rather than a friendly aircraft.

When experts later rewound the radar tapes to study Riley’s decision, they were dumbfounded by how he did it. Riley himself didn’t know why he’d considered that early-morning blip so dangerous. He assumed, like everybody else, that he’d just gotten lucky.

But, as psychologists who have studied the case and many others will tell you, it wasn’t luck that drove Michael Riley’s decision-making, it was instinct. It was experience.

An athlete’s instinct

Even though it sounds logical, it is impractical to tell a batter to think while they are at the crease. A batter can only rely on the skills that they have and deploy them depending on whether they are playing an attacking game or a… Click To Tweet

A lot of times reporters will ask an athlete how they made a certain decision during the game. They ask about the thought process that went into certain decisions like the choice of a particular shot if it a cricketer, why the player moved into certain spaces if it is a soccer player, and so forth.

However, the result is often mumbling and unsatisfactory answers, because the athlete did not think of what they were doing, they relied on instinct. To paraphrase the Nike slogan, they just do it. This is why, even though it sounds logical, it is impractical to tell a batter to think while they are at the crease. A batter can only rely on the skills that they have and deploy them depending on whether they are playing an attacking game or a defensive one.

A cricket pitch is 22 yards or 20.12 metres in length, and even if one is facing a bowler bowling at 130 km/h. The batter has just one second to react from the time the bowler releases the ball and less time when the bowler is bowling at higher speeds.

A cricket pitch is 22 yards or 20.12 metres in length, and even if one is facing a bowler bowling at 130 km/h. The batter has just one second to react from the time the bowler releases the ball and less time when the bowler is bowling… Click To Tweet

According to papers written by Peter McLeod (“Visual Reaction Time and High-Speed Ball Games”) and Terry Bahill and Tom LaRitz (“Why Can’t Batters Keep Their Eyes on the Ball?”), whether we are bank tellers, computer nerds, weekend warriors, or pro athletes, human reaction time is not very different. It takes around 200 milliseconds, or one-fifth of a second to hit a button in response to a light switching on. A fifth of a second is about the minimum time that it takes for the retina at the back of the human eye to receive information and for that information to be conveyed across synapses — the gaps between neurons that take a few milliseconds each to cross — to the primary visual cortex in the back of the brain, and for the brain to send a message to the spinal cord that puts the muscles in motion.

There is, literally, no time to think. There’s only time to react.

In his 1992 book, Young Men and Fire, Norman Maclean says, “On a big fire there is no time and no tree under whose shade the boss and the crew can sit and have a Platonic dialogue about a blowup. If Socrates had been foreman on the Mann Gulch fire, he and his crew would have been cremated while they were sitting there considering it.”

“On a big fire there is no time and no tree under whose shade the boss and the crew can sit and have a Platonic dialogue about a blow-up. If Socrates had been foreman on the Mann Gulch fire, he and his crew would have been cremated… Click To Tweet

Maclean said this paragraph to show how difficult it is for firefighters to make logical decisions and how they can only depend on the strength of their training, on the habits that they learnt during training to see them through a raging fire. In an ideal situation, firefighters would have enough time to pause, strategically think and evaluate their options. But, in many cases, this is not often the case. The same is true for athletes, in the heat of competition, they do not have the luxury of time to carefully evaluate each ball and the options that they have before logically picking the right response.

In the same vein, facing bowlers, many analysts and commentators would be bowled out while they are busy discussing the type of delivery that the bowler is about to deliver and the best way to play the shot. Many people want athletes to make logical decisions while they are competing, but this is impossible to do because skill is not logical, it is automatic. Athletes can only utilise the skills that they have to meet the demands of the situation. So, for a cricketer whose go-to skill when in doubt is to use force, they will always employ that tactic whenever they are in doubt.

The predictive brain

So how do batters know where the ball is going and how to play it? Bruce Abernathy, Sean Muller and Damian Farrow conducted a study, which they published as a paper titled, “How do world-class cricket batsmen anticipate a bowler’s intention?” For their study, they recorded videos of bowlers in action. They then showed the video to a wide range of people, from expert batters to ordinary people. But the videos were cut before the bowler released the ball. The participants were asked to predict where the ball would pitch after only seeing a segment. Unsurprisingly, the expert players were better at predicting the path of the ball than the rest of the participants.

The difference is that professionals do not just watch the ball. As the bowler is running in, their eyes take in information about the ball, the bowler’s torso, hand, wrist, and elbow, among many other things. Without consciously knowing it, they zero in on critical visual information and make a decision on how to play, using their skills.

Professionals do not just watch the ball. As the bowler is running in, their eyes take in information about the ball, the bowler's torso, hand, wrist, and elbow, among many other things. Without consciously knowing it, they zero in on… Click To Tweet

This is why batters often take a little to get the measure of a bowler, get fooled by deliveries like the googly and certain slower balls. It is because bowlers who execute these deliveries perfectly present body movement and information that is consistent with a certain delivery and then bowl something different.

The other thing is that the human brain is a predictive machine. This is how we are able to anticipate things before they happen, we make the use of patterns from the past, from the knowledge that we have pertaining to the subject matter at hand, and we make predictions on what is most likely to happen and how best to react. Therefore, as a bowler is running in and the brain is taking in all the available peripheral information, the batter can anticipate a delivery that is most likely to come and move into position even before the ball is released.

As neuroscientist Lars Muckli says, “The main purpose of the brain, as we understand it today, is it is basically a prediction machine that is optimising its own predictions of the environment it is navigating through. So, vision starts with an expectation of what is around the corner. Once you turn around the corner, you are then negotiating potential inputs to your predictions – and then responding differently to surprise and to fulfilment of expectations.”

The brain is basically a prediction machine that is optimising its own predictions of the environment it is navigating through. Click To Tweet

Myelin and skill

This does not relate only to cricketers, it relates to tennis players, volleyball players, soccer players and a wide range of athletes across numerous disciplines. They develop these abilities through deep and targeted practice. This form of practice goes beyond just hitting balls in the nets, it is a focused practice that is meant to help them perfect particular shots and help them navigate particular surfaces or deliveries. It is much more frustrating and time-consuming than just easy-going, mindless practice.

Athletes develop their abilities through deep and targeted practice. By repeatedly working on a particular skill or mastering a certain surface, they build lots of myelin through deep practice. Click To Tweet

Each time we practise a new skill, our brains create a neural pathway or network to help us remember it in the future. However, if we neglect it, that pathway or network disintegrates, and the next time we try it again it will feel like we are learning from the beginning again (because our brains have to create a new network or pathway). Every human movement thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal travelling through a chain of neurons — a circuit of nerve fibres.

And when athletes practice targeted practice, they do not just create neural networks specifically for that action, but the more they do it, the more they create a sheath called myelin around those networks. With each repeated movement that we make, we trigger what are called glial cells to myelinate neurons that are communicating to make that movement possible, increasing the strength and the signal.

Myelinated neurons transmit information with blazing speed, because it increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become. Therefore, the thicker the myelin, the quicker they transmit information. As author, Daniel Coyle said, “Skill is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and that grows according to certain signals.”

Skill is habit, and habit is myelin insulation that wraps neural circuits and grows through repeated activation of signals. Click To Tweet

What athletes do, though it looks easy to the viewer or analyst, is a result of years and years of deep and targeted practice, years and years of myelin accumulation. As viewers, casual observers, analysts and commentators, we need an extra second to take in information in relation to the match situation. Athletes need much less time to make decisions and take action.

What athletes do, though it looks easy to the viewer or analyst, is a result of years and years of deep and targeted practice, years and years of myelin accumulation. As viewers, casual observers, analysts and commentators, we need an… Click To Tweet

The difference between skill and know-how

All of this, this targeted practice and development of myelin along neural networks, it happens in an area of the brain that houses procedural memory, also known as motor memory or implicit memory. It is stored in the area of the brain called the amygdala. Daniel Kahneman, the author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, calls this part of the brain System 1.

This is a part of the brain different from the one we use to analyse events around us. For analysis, we employ explicit memory or System 2. This is the part of the brain responsible for facts and information, among other things, and it is found in the hippocampus. And just like with motor memory, neural networks in this part of the brain also develop myelin around them the more we practice them. The more we study a particular topic, the more we are able to recall facts and information pertaining to that topic.

Therefore, one doesn’t need the experience of using System 1 in a particular field to be able to utilize System 2 in it. Put simply, one doesn’t necessarily need playing experience to be able to analyse and offer valid opinions. In fact, all they need to do is develop myelinated neural networks in this particular subject in System 2 to be a good analyst or commentator.