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Prepared enough to be spontaneous

Nov 22, 2014

I was giving a neuroscience lecture, when I came to the topic of sleep disorders. I'd given this lecture several times in the past, and so I hadn't prepared much before this particular class. "The next kind of disorder we'll talk about is ...." I look at my notes and see Somnambulism.  "The next kind of disorder is called Som..NAHM..BOHH- lism".  As I struggle to get the syllables out, the class immediately realizes how unfamiliar I am with this term for sleepwalking. A moment passes, and I chuckle at my own foolishness. This seems to give them license to laugh as well, because they do. And I just keep moving ahead.  (Adelante!)

There are hazards to being under-prepared.  But the other day, I may have over-prepared. For this particular lecture I  added new material, and spent a lot of time tightening up the organization. It felt like time well spent.  But in the end, I think the lecture came off as stiff and not very interesting. My immediate thought was that I'd over-prepared.

But there's another way to look at it.  With all the recent reorganization and new material added, I was lecturing over relatively unfamiliar terrain.   With all these changes, I wasn't relaxed enough to improvise. My mind was still consciously working out the material. 

When you're very familiar with something, you can be more relaxed and creative with it. For the lectures that I've given many times, where I know the material to the bone, I know where I'm going and what I want to get across as soon as I start.  I feel confident that I can get the ideas across clearly and so I approach them in a looser, more relaxed way.  Sometimes I can think about the material from a fresh perspective as I'm presenting it. You have to be well prepared in order to wing it.

This is definitely true with jazz improvisation. If I know the chord progressions of a song well enough to play them without thinking, and if I have the jazz harmony under my belt, I'm more free to improvise and be creative. Enough 'preparation' allows you to perform spontaneously.  Same with language.  We no longer need to think about the words we choose and so we can use language in a spontaneous manner. Good luck doing that with a second language you're still trying to master!

A part of the brain, the basal ganglia, has the job of automatizing behaviors. Not just motor behaviors like how to ride a bicycle, but also cognitive behaviors like playing music, speaking, and (I assume) describing the fundamentals of neuroscience.  Well acquired knowledge of the piano, recognizing chess positions, using language, all of these eventually fall into the domain of the basal ganglia, which processes and stores information unconsciously.  Once the basal ganglia has mastered the material, higher brain regions can access it in a flexible manner.  You use both the basal ganglia and the "higher" cortical brain areas when you consciously and creatively make use of knowledge that you've stored unconsciously.  But that's for next time ("Unconscious and uncelebrated activity of ...").