Attention and Mindwandering in Skilled Behavior: An Argument for Pluralism

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Peak human performance—whether of Olympic athletes, Nobel prize winners, or Carnegie Hall musicians—depends on skill. Skill is at the heart of what it means to excel. Yet, the fixity of skilled behavior can sometimes make it seem a lower-level activity, more akin to the movements of an invertebrate or a machine. Experts in multiple domains have described what they do as sometimes “automatic.” Expert gamers describe themselves as “playing with” automaticity (Taylor and Elam 2018). Expert musicians are said to balance automaticity with creativity through performance cues: “Performance cues allow the musician to attend to some aspects of the performance while allowing others to be executed automatically” (Chaffin and Logan 2006). Peak performance in elite athletes is often described as automatic by those athletes: “The most frequent response from participants (eight athletes and one coach) when describing the execution of a peak performance was the automatic execution of performance” (Anderson et al. 2014). For some, the automaticity of skilled behavior challenges the idea that it exhibits human excellence. And so two camps have developed: those who focus on the automaticity of skilled behavior, the “habitualists,” and those who focus on the higher-level cognition of peak performance, the “intellectualists.” We take a different tack. We argue that skilled behavior weaves together automaticity and higher-level cognition, which we call “pluralism.” Just how it is so weaved will depend on the form of pluralism. We present three forms in this paper: level pluralism, synchronic pluralism, and diachronic pluralism. We find that diachronic pluralism presents the strongest case against habitualism and intellectualism, especially when considered through the example of strategic automaticity. In each case of pluralism, we use research on attention and mind-wandering to explore the presence or absence of higher-level cognition in skilled behavior.
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