This article is part of a series exploring research done by professor Jeff Elison and Don McGrath for their upcoming book about mental training for rock climbing, tentatively titled Vertical Mind.
In a previous article we introduced the concept of neuronal activity forming the basis of learning, and how Hebb’s Law makes neurons that fire together, wire together. We then introduced the concept of schemas or schemata, and showed how they are powerful mechanisms that enable us to function efficiently and operate at a high level of awareness.
In this article, we’ll go up one more level and introduce the concepts of scripts, which shape the majority of how we react to and interact with our environment. The figure below shows how we have proceeded in the discussions on the blog. All thoughts and actions are results of neurons firing. When neurons fire together in generating a thought or movement, they become more likely to fire together in the future. Repetition of these firings are the basis for our ability to learn rapidly. When we learn about an abstract concept, we form schemas, which help us remember things and help us interpret our world, with all its ambiguity. Finally, scripts are schemas that determine how we react to events or social interaction.
Brains, especially human brains, have evolved to perceive patterns – what makes this situation similar to previous situations. Who or what were the key players? How did I, or other people, or animals, or things behave? Generally this is a very positive mechanism. It allows us to respond automatically, quickly, and efficiently. Scripts are what cognitive psychologists call these sequences of perceptions / thoughts / feeling / actions. The term comes from play writing since scripts specify the actors, actions, emotions, motivations, expectations, and more. They may be as mundane as your morning routine or what you do when you bump into someone trying to walk through a doorway. Or they may be as important as your way of interacting with loved ones or responding in emergency situations. For example, the novice driver does not instinctively turn into the direction of a skid, but the experienced driver does this before she even registers consciously what is going on. The experienced climber backsteps automatically, quickly, efficiently, without deliberate conscious analysis. The experienced typist presses the appropriate keys without looking at the keyboard or wasting conscious thought on where the keys are. These examples point to the adaptive aspects of scripts.
Scripts explain more than just habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving. They include patterns in general. For example, you might not refer to your trip to work or school a habit, but it is definitely scripted. You have expectations about what you are going to see (e.g., stop lights), what you are going to do (e.g., turn at Elm St.), and you can make the trip with little conscious effort. Scripts also include things we have learned, but not yet experienced. For example, you may have knowledge and expectations of what it would be like to be a cop or a professional climber or married. That knowledge and those expectations are scripted and may drive our thinking, feeling, and behavior when we later end up in those situations.
Why We Need Scripts
Scripts are typically automatic, quick, and efficient. As such, we usually carry them out reliably – in the same or similar way every time. Moreover, they require little conscious effort, allowing us to conserve very limited resources: attention, consciousness and working memory. Attention, consciousness and working memory are very intimately linked and very limited. On average, a human adult can hold about 5-9 items in working memory (i.e., newer, more accurate term for short-term memory). Working memory is the bottleneck in thinking. As such, individual differences in working memory predict intelligence, as do differences in attention. These individual differences are partially hereditary (i.e., good genes) and partially learned (i.e., concentration). One of our greatest adaptations is the ability to learn, to practice, and to turn conscious working-memory intensive tasks into automatic scripted tasks. This is the automaticity we mentioned previously.
Perhaps you can still remember how mentally exhausting it was to drive a car. Now you drive miles and miles, navigating turns, stop signs, stop lights, and more, barely conscious of what you are doing. Instead you have attention and working memory to spare for talking to a passenger or singing along with a favorite CD. Similarly, the skilled typist can think about more important things than typing. He can think about flow of ideas, topic sentences, summary sentences, and segues. Practice and familiarity improve performance, create automaticity, and reduce the load on working memory and attention. That is why many moves on your project feel easy and automatic after 20 attempts. By sparing working memory and attention, we can improve performance – often in spite of our genes. Unfortunately, at other times, practice makes our mistakes habitual!
Simply put, practice turns the explicit (i.e., conscious, deliberate) into the implicit (unconscious, automatic). Patterns of neural firing become highly probable, easily initiated, and reliably executed. As an illustration, if you are a good typist, finding the keys is an implicit skill. But it wasn’t always so. At first you had to hunt for them. If you are a good climber on overhanging terrain, you grab that sidepull and implicitly look for a foothold on which to backstep. But as a novice, you had to figure it out or get beta from others.
Building effective scripts is critical for high performance in rock climbing, and in upcoming articles we will share some insights on how to form scripts, which we fully reveal in our book, Vertical Mind.