Fred Dretske
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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Where is the Mind when the Body Performs?

Think about what your tongue is doing—where it's at and what it's touching—when you say something. When I try, I find it very hard to say anything. The more I think about how I say something, the less able I am to say it.

Or concentrate on what your left index finger is doing, which keys it is hitting, as you type a letter. Is it that finger or the one next to it that presses the "e" as you type your name? When I try to do this, I typically stop typing. I can't both type a letter and attend to those parts of my body that carry out the action.

In both cases—indeed, in the case of all skilled actions, whether it be tying your shoelaces, playing a musical instrument, or dribbling a basketball—the mind goes elsewhere while the body performs. It has to. The factors that constitute the reasons for action, the circumstances in which one performs the action—those of which the mind must be aware in order to plan intelligently—are always somewhere else.

As skills develop, as we become increasingly proficient at what we do, the mind moves away from the bodily movements by means of which actions are performed to the objectives or goals for which they are performed. There is, in this sense, a gradual distancing of the mind from executive details to strategic purposes. Learning how to do something, acquiring bodily skills, is a process in which control functions are delegated to lower level units in a command hierarchy. The conscious mind, the chief executive officer in this hierarchy, is thereby freed to attend to the objectives for which the action is undertaken. Learning to type or to drive frees the mind to think about what to type and where to drive. It no longer has to bother with the routine chores, the mechanical details, of moving fingers and pushing pedals.1

This, in a nutshell, is why I, a philosopher of mind, am interested in the athlete's body. Skilled athletic performance demonstrates in a dramatic way the partnership of mind and body. It thus tells us something important about the mind and the way it is constituted by its material embodiment. It does so because the acquisition of bodily skills—especially those on display on the athletic field—involves a delegation of intelligence to, and a simultaneous withdrawal of consciousness from, the bodily processes by means of which we carry out our purposes. We begin the learning process aware of the fingers, the arms, the legs—their position and movements. Precisely timed sequences have to be coordinated and the only way to coordinate them is by awareness of the individual movements. In learning to shoot a lay-up, for example, one has to concentrate on elevating from the left foot as one shoots with the right hand. In learning to swim, one has to concentrate on, think about, be aware of, one's breathing in order to time inhalations with the brief interval during which the nose and mouth are out of the water. In the end, of course, one is aware of none of this. The mind is emptied of such performance details in order to attend to the more remote conditions defining competitive opportunities and obstacles. The coordination tasks that once—during learning—filled our conscious thoughts and demanded our attention are delegated to lower-level motor programs in the body. The body is charged with the task of intelligently executing the commands the mind gives it. Higher level units of the nervous system relinquish control (and thus awareness) of individual limbs and muscles. The process in which this occurs reveals something important about the physical basis of intelligent action and the role of consciousness in its execution.

As I said, this process is particularly dramatic in the performance of a skilled athlete. As Tim Hardaway dribbles a basketball upcourt against a pressing defense or Steve Young looks down field for receivers under a heavy pass rush, what are they aware of? What is going through their minds? How much of their attention, how much of their mental space, is occupied with handling the ball that it is their business to deliver to the right person at the right time? I suspect they give the ball about as much attention as I give the letter "e" on a keyboard when I type my name: none. When I dribble a ball on the run, I have to aim it downward so that it returns to where my hand is. This isn't easy. Try it. For me it requires looking at the ball. If my mind isn't on the ball, I can't do it at all. I know Tim Hardaway doesn't do this. If he did, his mind wouldn't be where it has to be, on a defender pawing at the ball, on the shot clock, and on a teammate cutting toward the basket. If Steve Young had to think about the muscular adjustments needed to loft the ball over the outstretched arms of an onrushing defender, he would never see (let alone throw the ball to) the open receiver. In these situations, the body of an athlete takes over the business of getting the ball where the athlete's mind decides to deliver it—the mind, meanwhile, being about the business of deciding whether it should be delivered at all as well as the opportunities and obstacles affecting successful delivery. At a much more commonplace level, the same phenomenon, minus the competitive drama, is evident every time we drive to work, cook dinner, or type a letter. A slow-motion film of Matisse executing a single confident chalk stroke shows the artist's fingers making countless adjustments—one is tempted to call them decisions—in defining the edge of the leaf. Matisse, one suspects, is conscious of none of this. He's got his mind on the product—the leaf he means to draw—not the process of drawing it.

Skilled action reveals the relationship of mind and the body to be something like the hierarchical arrangement of an efficiently run organization. The chief executive officer—the mind of the organization—has her eye on strategic goals and long-range plans. It's her job to attend to the external conditions and opportunities, the ones that affect the interests and well-being of the company as a whole. It's the job of others—the body of the organization (the shipping, marketing, advertising, and personnel departments) to see to it that whatever decisions are made at the top are carried out intelligently. When things are working properly, there is no need for the president to get involved in—no need for her even to be aware of—the activities and performance of these departments (let alone the actions of the individuals in these departments). These units do their job without the continued supervision of the executive level which determines what that job is. The reverse is also true: these lower-level units do not have to understand or even be aware of the strategic purposes for which their activities are undertaken. This separation between decision-making and performance units is made possible because intelligence is allocated to the departments and individuals that carry out the commands. They have the resources—which are the essence of intelligence—to make flexible and adaptive responses to constantly changing circumstances without continuous supervision by higher-level units. If they were not intelligent in this way no responsible chief executive could delegate authority to them. The efficiency of a purposeful organism demands divided functions: the command unit that formulates goals and monitors conditions relevant to the continuing desirability of these goals cannot be involved in the minute-by-minute execution of the multitude of actions required to achieve those goals.

The command hierarchy by means of which the mind is allowed to ignore performance details in order to focus on strategic goals and objectives has long been familiar to cognitive psychologists, thanks to their study of perception. Helmholtz, the great nineteenth-century physiologist, thought that none of the underlying processes involved in vision, thought, memory or speech are conscious. We are conscious only of conclusions, not the premises required to reach those conclusions. The mind is aware of what transpires out there, not what happens on the surface of the receptors, even though our knowledge of what is happening out there must be reconstructed from the flux of events occurring on receptor surfaces. This is called perceptual constancy. For example, all kinds of changes occur on the retina of which we are totally unaware, though aware of what we see—a distal stable scene—by the flux of proximal events. The retinal image of the object shrinks, it moves, it changes its orientation. We are only aware of the distant, stable, unchanging object. The mind ignores the blooming, buzzing, proximal confusion in order to focus on what it signifies about distal affairs.

The conscious mind, then, sits at the apex of two hierarchies—an information delivery system and a command hierarchy. Each gives rise, in its own way, to a constancy. Corresponding to the perceptual constancies is an action constancy: an awareness of certain stable end results (an objective or goal) that remains the same even as circumstances affecting the way this end is achieved vary. Whether we sign our name with a pen sitting at a desk (in which case the muscles are largely in the forearm), at a blackboard with chalk (in which case the muscles are in the shoulder) or with our toe in the sand (muscles in upper leg and hip), the result is the same—an easily recognized signature—while the bodily means are different. Altogether different muscle groups are called upon to execute the decision to sign one's name, but the objective, what one consciously intends, remains the same. This is an instance of action constancy: the mind's awareness of an unchanging, stable, objective—of getting the ball to X—with a corresponding blindness (in the case of skilled actions) to the cluttered details of how, exactly, those objectives are attained—of how, exactly, the ball is to be delivered to X.

Why are things arranged this way? Because, in the case of skilled actions—especially those occurring on the athletic field where split-second timing is important—there is no other way to engineer an intelligent response.

There are, first, just too many degrees of freedom at the bottom of an action hierarchy to let the general who determines what is to be done make intelligent decisions about how it is to be done. Decisions have to be delegated. Successful action requires a dispersal of intelligence, a separation of function. Imagine a general trying to make all the decisions required to carry out his command to execute a flanking maneuver. In a properly trained army, the privates, sergeants, captains and the colonels are, as it were, pre-packaged units of intelligence. Each is charged with making his or her own decisions in the execution of orders. That such a maneuver be executed may be the decision of the commander in chief, and it may be intelligent or not, but that it be executed in exactly this way rather than that way, at exactly this time rather than that time, is the decision of others. And these decisions, too, can be either intelligent or not. Training and practice, whether of a platoon of soldiers or a regiment of motor neurons, is not meant to remove intelligence from the lower order units that execute orders, but to disperse intelligence, so that when the time of action arrives a flexible and appropriate (i.e., an intelligent) response can quickly be made. Nor does the withdrawal of awareness from lower order units mean that the routines delegated are fixed, rote, mechanical, or unintelligent. Quite the contrary. They bear the marks of genuine intelligence. They have to, otherwise the delegation of decision-making power would not achieve its purpose. The body's response to novel circumstances—even when the mind is completely unaware of these circumstances—can be, and in highly skilled action is, both flexible and adaptive.

The intelligence of the body—and by "body" I mean those parts of the body from which awareness has been withdrawn—is evident throughout the spectrum of animal behavior. Even at the simplest levels we find the body responding intelligently to changing circumstances with no supervision from the mind. Even a decerebrated cat—one whose brain has been surgically separated from control of limb movements—can walk. It can even change its gait as it encounters obstacles. Or consider the lowly cockroach. The neural machinery responsible for the roach's stepping patterns of forward locomotion constitutes a prepackaged unit of intelligent action. The brain triggers these pre-programmed units of action, but their intelligent execution is independent of higher-level supervision (they occur even without the brain). These units of action, though unconscious, are intelligent for the same reason anything is intelligent: because they are appropriate and adaptive to changing circumstances. The cockroach has six legs and it lifts three at a time—two on one side, one on the other—leaving three solidly planted to form a stable tripod. But if two are removed, the middle one on each side, the circuits that control the stepping automatically adjust to keep one foot planted on each side as the other two feet are lifted to execute a forward step. If we think of intelligence as the performance of an operation that is plastic and flexible, a way of doing it now in one way and now in another, but with each way "fitted" to the occasion, then "the neural machinery that organizes the sequences of stepping movements in the cockroach already manifests elementary properties of intelligence."2  The cockroach can keep its mind, if it has one, on where to run and when to run because it doesn't have to bother with how to run. The machinery delegated the job of running will get it there no matter how many legs it has to work with.

Aside from the many degrees of freedom at the bottom end of the action hierarchy that make necessary a reallocation of both intelligence and awareness, there are also temporal considerations that mandate such an arrangement. Not only must intelligence—and, thus, awareness—be delegated to lower level units because there are too many lower level units to keep track of, authority must also be dispersed because there is too little time to communicate up and down the chain of command. Intelligent decisions require flexible and rapid responses to changing circumstances. If the circumstances change too rapidly for the brain to be informed, skilled performance requires that such decisions be made by more peripheral units in the nervous system. It has been shown, for example, that athletes react to starting signals before they become aware of them. A runner will start to run, at least the motor commands to initiate running, will be sent to leg muscles, before the starter's gun is actually heard. One can see why this should be so. Given the sluggish communication between ear and brain—sluggish in terms of the highest level of athletic performance—consciousness of the starting signal is inefficient. It takes more time for the runner to become conscious of X than it does for the runner's body to respond appropriately to X. Hence it is the body's response to X, not a person's consciousness of X, that is important—as it is in the business of getting to the finish line first. The athlete's body—almost literally—leaves the athlete's mind behind at the starting line.

Fred Dretske



(1) In sports, the exceptions to this rule are those athletic activities (e.g., diving, figure skating) which have, as part of their successful performance, an aesthetic dimension. What matters in these cases is, so to speak, how you get the ball in the hole, not just (as in the case of basketball and golf) that you get it in the hole. I am here concerned with only the latter sort of skills.

(2) C. R. Gallistel, The Organization of Action (Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum, 1980) 10.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.