Non cogito, ergo sum: the case for unthinking

Ian Leslie in More Intelligent Life:

IT WAS THE fifth set of a semi-final at last year’s US Open. After four hours of epic tennis, Roger Federer needed one more point to see off his young challenger, Novak Djokovic. As Federer prepared to serve, the crowd roared in anticipation. At the other end, Djokovic nodded, as if in acceptance of his fate. Federer served fast and deep to Djokovic’s right. Seconds later he found himself stranded, uncomprehending, in mid-court. Djokovic had returned his serve with a loose-limbed forehand of such lethal precision that Federer couldn’t get near it. The nonchalance of Djokovic’s stroke thrilled the crowd. John McEnroe called it “one of the all-time great shots”. Djokovic won the game, set, match and tournament. At his press conference, Federer was a study in quiet fury. It was tough, he said, to lose because of a “lucky shot”. Some players do that, he continued: “Down 5-2 in the third, they just start slapping shots …How can you play a shot like that on match point?”

Asked the same question, Djokovic smiled. “Yeah, I tend to do that on match points. It kinda works.”

Federer’s inability to win Grand Slams in the last two years hasn’t been due to physical decline so much as a new mental frailty that emerges at crucial moments. In the jargon of sport, he has been “choking”. This, say the experts, is caused by thinking too much. When a footballer misses a penalty or a golfer fluffs a putt, it is because they have become self-conscious. By thinking too hard, they lose the fluid physical grace required to succeed. Perhaps Federer was so upset because, deep down, he recognised that his opponent had tapped into a resource that he, an all-time great, is finding harder to reach: unthinking. Unthinking is the ability to apply years of learning at the crucial moment by removing your thinking self from the equation. Its power is not confined to sport: actors and musicians know about it too, and are apt to say that their best work happens in a kind of trance. found that the less information people were given about a brand of jam, the better the choice they made. When offered details of ingredients, they got befuddled by their options and ended up choosing a jam they didn’t like.

More here.