Psycho Babble

Golfers, Toothpaste, and How Not to Overthink

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By Jessica Love


 

Invariably, for you, it was a different word. For me, it was “toothpaste.” At eight years old, I sat in a tub and listened to myself say the word repeatedly. “Toooooooothpaste. Tooooooooooooooooothpastah.” My lips and tongue configured and reconfigured themselves as if of their own accord. What silly, stupid noises were coming out of me! How strange that everyone I knew had conspired to attach these sounds, in this order, to the gel that keeps our teeth clean! Then, at some point during that odd hour, the specifics of what I’d been repeating abandoned me entirely. Though I continued to speak, I could no longer be sure I was saying the right words—or any words. “Pastetooth?” “Stoopah?” I’d lost my intuitions about how the word “toothpaste” worked.

So it goes when we overthink things—penalty kicks, keyboard commands, Shakespeare lines, or how to get to the library. Most psychologists consider this type of overthinking to be the result of a Celebrity Deathmatch-style competition between procedural memory, our largely unconscious memory for how to do things, and declarative memory, what we can consciously “declare” we know and recall. Practice pushes memory for a behavior from declarative to procedural: we rehearse until a set of discrete actions becomes routine enough that we can stop thinking about it already. But overthinking pulls the behavior back into the declarative realm. Much, it seems, is lost in translation. A number of studies have shown, for instance, that expert golfers perform more poorly after being asked to attend to a single component of their golf swing or to verbalize their putting technique. In other words, conscious decomposition estranges skilled golfers from their own best practices. (Note that novice golfers, who have no best practices, are actually helped by the same exercises.)

Language is no exception. In fact it is, in a sense, the ultimate example. Languages are extraordinarily complex, yet for most of us our native spoken language comes cheap. We know how to say “toothpaste,” we know what it means when we hear it, and we don’t have to work hard at either. But if we couldn’t rely on procedural memory to access our language’s sounds, words, sentence structures, discourse patterns, and the processes that govern them all, we’d be unable to communicate with this level of sophistication. We’d be reminding ourselves how to round our lips and consulting subject-verb agreement checklists. We’d be smart, complicated creatures with the verbal abilities of a two-year-old. It is hard to imagine a more frustrating reality.

Nonnative languages are far likelier to demand more conscious thought from us. But even in our native languages, when we rack our minds for an uncommon word, searching memory one lexical feature at a time—It’s a long word, and I know it begins with a “p”—we’re flirting with the declarative mode. And when we overthink, we, like Michelle Wie or Phil Mickelson, run the risk of estranging ourselves from our own best practices. Who among us hasn’t spent hours laboring over a cover letter, deconstructing and reconstructing and trying, above all, to sound perfectly normal, only to encounter said letter a day later and think, Whaaaaa? Obsess over language long enough and hard enough and, be you linguist, pothead, or persistent eight-year-old, your intuitions will become “stoopah” indeed.

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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