Posted in Psychology & Medicine

The Centipede’s Dilemma

In 1889, British zoologist E. Ray Lankester published an article on the work of the motion of animals in the prestigious journal, Nature. He concluded his article with a poem (which he admitted in not knowing the author of, but commonly attributed to Katherine Craster). The poem goes as follows:

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 allegory of the centipede illustrates a strange yet hilarious psychological phenomenon, which has been called the centipede effect to honour the poem. Most of the time, we do not put much thought into day-to-day activities such as breathing and walking. We do not have to give much thought because they have become habitsa handy mechanism nature devised to let us do more while using our brain to think about more important things. Habit automatises tasks to reduce attention, but it comes at the cost of the centipede effect, where conscious thought and attention impairs the ability to do that task, much like the centipede tripping on her own leg.

For example, even a professional golf player or violinist will make mistakes the more they thinking about their individual swings or notes they play. A simple experiment you can do is thinking about your breathing. Just by reading that sentence, you consciously divert your attention to your breathing and you will find it difficult to breathe “normally”. Similarly, you can cause considerable distress and time-wasting if you point out a tiny error in someone’s habits, making them overanalyse what they are doing wrong and hyper-reflecting.

What we can learn from The Centipede’s Dilemma is that overthinking never helps. The more we think about something, the more we look at the trees rather than the forest and we get lost in the details. This means we cannot see the overall big picture, which may turn out to be very simple. So the next time you are stuck on a problem in life, stop and take a breath. Clear your mind and let your gut feeling do its thing. Your mind can build so many roadblocks by overthinking – clouding your judgement and crippling your ability to do things. But just remember, all you have to do is drive through those roadblocks and let your heart do what it wants.

Thinking Ahead

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