It is a common belief that consciously thinking about what we are doing interferes with our performance. The origins of this idea go far back. Consider, for instance, the centipede’s dilemma:
A centipede was happy – quite!
Until a toad in fun
Said, "Pray, which leg moves after which?"
This raised her doubts to such a pitch,
She fell exhausted in the ditch
Not knowing how to run.
The centipede performs a very complex task with ease, unless she thinks about the task. The story was thought to illustrate something fundamental about human nature. English psychologist George Humphrey wrote “[the poem] contains a profound truth which is illustrated daily in the lives of all of us.” Humphrey and others thought that not having to think about everything that we do provides a great advantage. According to the famed philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead believed that thinking must be reserved only for decisive moments.