Ode to Automaticity

A few posts back, I promised more Barenaked Ladies. That’s the band, not actual ladies. BNL had quite a few popular songs, although most people don’t know all that much about them since most of their stuff is actually a little off the wall. One of their most popular songs was a quasi-rap called “One Week”. I recall with some fondness listening to my friend “V” singing along to the words:

How can I help it if I think you’re funny when you’re mad?
Trying hard not to smile, though I feel bad.
I’m the kind of guy who laughs at a funeral.
Don’t understand what I mean?
Well you soon will.

I wanted to learn this song. Anyone can do it. That’s the beauty of the brain, neuroplasticity: the ability of the brain to adapt to doing anything, from complex mathematics to intricate hand-eye coordination or even singing a rap song. This is also where automaticity comes in. In truth, the words to this song are far too fast for anyone to consciously sing along to, I had to learn to utter a stream of words without actually cognating on them, so my brain can focus on other things like driving or trying to remember the next three verses. This ability to do something without thinking about it is known as automaticity.

Automaticity is a result of learning. It’s the reason professional sportspeople have such quick reaction times: they’re fit, and they’ve done the same smooth, perfect motion over a million times before, it’s automatic. It’s also the reason we’re able to walk, talk and daydream at the same time.

One of the more difficult things I had to overcome during this learning was the fact that I kept using the wrong words in the wrong sequence. This is because our brains respond to almost imperceptible stimuli to determine what to do next, my brain was responding to very similar stimuli with different responses. This is one of the most interesting things about neuroplasticity (or, the brain’s approach to learning): Hebbian Learning Theory. My friend Jude describes it as: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. It means that if you do or think certain things at around the same time, your brain will begin to associate those things together. It’s the reason the brain is so good at pattern matching, association and signal processing.

It also explains why the words “vanilla” and “wassabi” are now indelibly linked in my brain (see if you can figure out why). Good thing the brain is so adaptive, I probably won’t be putting vanilla on my sushi anytime soon.