*Note: this post is based on my subjective observations of myself and a small, likely biased sample of people I know. It may not generalize to everyone.

A few days ago, during my nursing lab, my classmates and I were discussing the provincial exam that we’ll have to sit two years from now, when we’re done our degree, in order to work as registered nurses. The Quebec exam, according to our section prof, includes an entire day of simulations, basically acted-out situations where we’ll have to react as we would in real life. The Ontario exam is also a day long, but entirely written.

I made a comment that although the Quebec exam was no doubt a better test of our knowledge, the Ontario exam sounded a lot easier and I was glad I planned to work in Ontario.

“Are you kidding?” said one of the boys in my class. “Simulations are so much easier!”

I was taken aback, reminded myself that my friends and acquaintances are probably weirder than my models of them would predict (thank you AnnaSalamon for that quote), and started dissecting where exactly the weirdness lay. It boiled down to this:

Some people, not necessarily the same people who can ace tests without studying or learn math easily or even do well in sports, are still naturally good at responding to real-life, real-time events. They can manage their stress, make decision on the spot, communicate flexibly, and even have fun while doing it.

This is something I noticed years ago, when I first started taking my Bronze level lifesaving certifications. I am emphatically not good at this. I found doing “sits” (simulated situations) stressful, difficult, and unpleasant, and I dreaded my turn to practice being the rescuer. I had no problem with the skills we learned, as long as they were isolated, but applying them was harder than the hardest tests I’d had at school.

I went on to pass all my certifications, without any of my instructors specifically saying I had a problem. Occasionally I was accused of having “tunnel vision”; they meant that during a sit, treating my victim and simultaneously communicating with my teammates was more multitasking than my brain could handle.

Practice makes perfect, so I joined the competitive lifeguard team (yes, this exists, see https://picasaweb.google.com/lifeguardpete for photos of competitions). We compete in teams of four. In competition, we go into unknown situations and are scored on how we respond. Situations are timed, usually four minutes, and divided into different events; First Aid, Water Rescue, and Priority Assessment, with appropriate score sheets. It was basically my worst nightmare come true. And thanks to sample bias, instead of being slightly above average, I was blatantly worse than everyone else. It wasn’t just a matter of experience; even newcomers to the team scored higher than me. I stubbornly kept going to practice, and went to competitions, and improved somewhat. When I had my first nursing placement, something I had been stressing about all semester, it went effortlessly. There are advantages to setting your bar way, way higher than it needs to be.

There are various types of intelligence. The kind I have, the ability to soak up new information and make connections, is only one kind. But this ability-to-react must come from an actual difference in how my brain works compared to the brains of my teammates who perform well under stress, don’t get distracted, don’t suffer tunnel vision, and can communicate as a team and divide their labor on the spot. It’s another facet of the multi-sided phenomenon we call intelligence. As far as I’ve seen, it isn’t discussed much on lesswrong.

The following are my speculations. Hopefully some of them are testable.

1. Reacting in real time requires focus, but not the same kind of focus needed for, say, writing or programming. My evidence: I seem to be above average when it comes to the latter, but below average for the former, so they can’t be entirely the same thing.

2. The difference is related to the ability to silence your internal monologue, so that your thoughts are reactions to the outside world of the moment instead of reactions to, say, something you read a week ago. Based on the questions I’ve asked and the answers I’ve gotten, most people don’t notice specifically that they have to do this; it’s automatic.


3. People who are bad at reacting can be at either end of a spectrum; either they’re too open to stimuli and get distracted before they can plan their response, or they’re too closed and react in a stereotyped way based on their first impression, ignoring any new information. I’m in the second category. Watching other lifeguard teams compete in situations, I can pick out who leans which way. The first category people tend to be looking around constantly to the point that they can’t treat the victim in front of them. The second category people plant themselves, look at their victim, and don’t watch or listen to what’s happening around them. 

4. If someone is very bad at reacting, we call them shy. Even having a conversation challenges their ability to think in real-time, so that they find social interaction stressful. I’m basing this hypothesis on how I used to feel talking to people, although I wouldn’t consider myself shy now.

5. You can improve your actual performance by memorizing chunks of your responses, which you can then string together appropriately. The chunks can’t be too small, or stringing them together will be more work than it’s worth. They can’t be too big, or they become stereotyped and create tunnel-vision. In guard team, we memorize “speeches” that we recite to every victim. When my section prof for my nursing lab demonstrated a head-to-toe examination, I’m pretty sure she had a similar kind of speech memorized, although she probably never thought of it explicitly that way. This kind of practice is obviously non-transferable; I can’t use the same speech for guard team and my nursing lab.  

6. You can improve on your innate reaction times by practicing. With considerable effort, I’ve learned how to shut off my internal monologue, to a degree, and keep my ears and eyes open. I’m pretty sure this is transferable.

I don’t know how ability-to-react correlates with “school smarts,” the ability to absorb and integrate information. Most of my friends are better in one area than another, but the people I’ve known who are exceptionally good at reacting are usually quick learners as well. Is it a positive correlation? Negative correlation? No correlation? Can it even be measured reliably. 

I would assume that this affects people’s career choices, too. Fighters and paramedics need good reaction times; they need to be able to focus on external events. Programmers and scientists need to focus on internal events, on their own thought process. I have no real evidence to support this, though.

These are my questions.

1. Has anyone else noticed this? If so, which area do you think you’re better in? It would be interesting to gather some lesswrong community statistics. 

2. Is there anything in the literature? I’m hesitant to give ability-to-react a name, because it almost certainly has one already that I can’t find because I can’t think of the right keywords to put into Google.

3. Does anyone have short-cuts or practice tips that have improved their ability to react? I’ve read a lot about study methods, which apply to “school smarts,” but less about this.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
99 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:40 AM
Some comments are truncated due to high volume. (⌘F to expand all)Change truncation settings

Thanks for bringing this up. Now that you've said it, I think I'd observed something similar about myself. Like you, I find it far easier to solve internal problems than external. In SCUBA class, I could sketch the inner mechanism of the 2nd stage, but I'd be the last to put my equipment together by the side of the pool.

Your description maps really well onto introversion and extroversion. I searched for psychology articles on extraversion, introversion and learning styles. A lot of research has been done in that area. For example:

Through the use of EPQ vs. LSQ and CSI questionnaires (see FOOTNOTE below), Furnham (1992) found that extraverts are far more active and far less reflective in their learning. They don’t need to chew over the information before they act on it.

Jackson and Lawty-Jones (1996) confirmed those findings with a similar study but fewer questionnaires (only EPQ vs. LSQ).

Zhang (2001) administered more questionnaires (TSI vs. SVSDS) to find that, unsurprisingly, having a social personality makes you more likely to want to employ external thinking style—that is, interact with others.

More studies used more questionnaires to find the same—i.e. Furnham, 1996; Furnham, J... (read more)

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
WOW MoreOn...this is exactly the kind of thorough research/data I was looking for. I think I may have done the Eysenck test or a similar one in high school, during our "Civics and Careers" class.

(Disclaimer: Nothing I say here should be construed as speaking for NASA. These are strictly my personal thoughts. All technical information written here is in the public domain.)

In my job as a spacecraft engineer, most of my time is spent designing and testing the systems that control spacecraft pointing and propulsion. However, those of us who design the pointing system generally need to be on-hand for launching a new spacecraft and establishing a stable attitude. So, I have helped operate a couple of spacecraft in their first few months (the first was WMAP, and the most recent was SDO, the Solar Dynamics Observatory).

Leading up to launch, it is customary to do a lot of simulations, especially of potential failures. The simulations sometimes go badly, with things really getting screwed up. But practicing until everyone is bored with simulations seems a key to a successful launch team.

On the actual launch day, the adrenaline level is weird. You have taken all these actions before in sims, yet you know it's quite likely to have no failures, but that it's more important this time that you catch any failures early.

Frankly, I love it. It's one of my favorite things about my job. Here ... (read more)

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I'm interested by your mention of sports. Anxiety and stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, raising the heart rate, reducing bloodflow to the gastrointestinal tract, etc. Exercise has the same effects. I swam competitively as a teenager and I didn't tend to notice feeling nervous DURING a race, possibly because the exhaustion of swimming masked the physiological stress reaction. Also, sports are one of the few areas where the sympathetic "fight-or-flight" reaction can serve its original evolutionary purpose. You want your heart rate to be up before a race, whereas that reaction is pretty useless before, say, a spacecraft launch.
Not being terribly good at sports, I tended to be very nervous leading up to a game. I frequently made mistakes that hurt my team (I only ever played team sports in any organized way), and I began to learn to fear making new mistakes. Then, once the game started and as it progressed, that anxiety changed depending on how much I was actually exercising and what skill I was showing (i.e. was I making us lose again, or was I actually being helpful?) And--here is the useful point for this discussion--I could observe during the game what effects my nerves were having. I could tell when I was getting too hung up on performing well and it was making me perform badly. I could tell when I was keeping the energy pumping enough and I was missing things. Not caring and caring too much about winning are the Scylla and Charybdis of sport. Sympathetic nervous system responses are the churning of the water, making you always have to adjust course. You're not exactly correct about wanting me wanting my heart rate low before a launch. I clearly don't want to be bouncing off the walls, but I want a certain level of eustress (as opposed to distress) so that I can think quickly and clearly. That's how I work best.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
The only sport I was ever deeply involved in was competitive swimming, which is a) an individual and not a team sport, and b) ALWAYS involves the maximum physical effort for the duration of a race. The pre-race adrenaline rush seemed to help a lot of people to go faster, but not me; I was the same speed in competition as in practice. I did experience nervousness before a race, but more on a psychological than a physiological level. I would feel a sense of doom, but my heart rate wouldn't go up much. Interesting, what you're saying about eustress/distress. I suppose maybe you need a certain level of sympathetic nervous system activation in order to be focused on outside events in real-time. This is what I noticed at a recent lifeguard team competition; I wasn't nervous and I didn't feel pressured to do well, and my performance fell drastically! Maybe next time I won't be so irritated by the pre-competition butterflies, since apparently they serve a purpose.
Something doesn't seem right there. People swim faster in a 200m race than they do in the first 200m of a 1500m race. They do not exert the same amount of physical effort during that time.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I guess that's true... It was always less true for me because I was a distance swimmer with almost no capacity to sprint, so my first 200 split in an 800 or 1500 is quite close to my 200 time. There is some pacing involved, but you want to be just as tired after a 1500 as after a 100, so overall the race uses maximum effort.
In amateur choral singing and musicals, we often say that a smooth dress rehearsal is bad news, because you get a sense of complacent confidence. It makes it harder to focus, because you have to do so consciously. We prefer for things to be rough the night before the performance, because we all go to sleep a little nervous, our bodies and unconscious thoughts focusing our conscious minds on the things we need to get right that weren't automatic in the rough rehearsal. I imagine professionals have less of a problem with this, since they perform much more often, but I don't know. Our cognitive processes use energy and biochemicals that must be replenished with food and sleep. So, there's no way the brain can be at 100% all the time. Anxiety, epitomized in the fight-or-flight response, allow us to call up full faculties for a short period of time whenever it's needed.
We say this a lot in amateur theatre, too. That said, I'm 95% confident that we say it as a way of not letting ourselves be discouraged by rocky dress rehearsals, not because it's actually true. After all, it's not like we worry that our second-night performance will be sabotaged by a good opening night.
Hmm, I have certainly seen really excellent dress rehearsals followed by shabby opening nights. And if we do fantastically on the opening night, we often do a little less well (though still usually a good show) the next night. People get lax and allow themselves to be distracted by other things. All that said, your experience is different, and I acknowledge that. I may be suffering from confirmation bias, but I don't think so for the group I sing with. It may also be that, in theater, you are far more likely to be noticed if you make a mistake, whereas in choral music you can often be covered by the rest of your section.
Might this be regression to the mean? Following a particularly good performance, the majority of possible performances are not as good as the particularly good preceding performance. See also the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx. (I vaguely recall reading about this quite some time ago from a source that went into more depth than the Wiki article, not sure where though.)
For activities like competitive sports or extemporaneous acting, I could see what you're saying. But, I don't think that the quality of different performances of a given show, in which the actions are the same each performance, would be scattered in a Gaussian or other randomized way. A performer generally expects only to improve on a particular show, as long as one applies oneself, as will have been happening during the rehearsal period leading up to the performances. If there is a reduction in performance quality on a given show, either the performers are not applying themselves with the same intensity (as I suggested), or there is some other explanation. Now, if you compared performance quality across different shows and different seasons, you might see something more like a random scattering around a mean.
Whatever factors, including intensitity of actors applying themselves, affect the quality of performance, themselves will have some distribution that can be mapped to a distribution of performance quality. If a particularly good performance occurs because all the actors had a good previous day, got good sleep the previous night, and applied themselves with full intensity, then the following performance is not likely to repeat that confluence of favorable factors and therefor is not likely to repeat the same quality of performance.
I can't speak to professional theatre, but among amateurs in my experience average quality of performance may increase over time (though it's hard to be sure over 6-9 performances), but that's swamped by show-to-show variability. Some performances just "click" better than others. Whether the variability is "randomized," or a product of us not "applying ourselves" with the same intensity, or there is instead "some other explanation," I don't really know. It certainly feels like there are all kinds of contributing factors... the audience, the kind of day everyone has had, etc. ... and one could measure those factors and look for correlations, and manipulate them to see what happens, but I've never seen any such results. I expect that audience response is the single strongest correlate to variability in performance (once outliers like actors having heart attacks or sets catching fire are eliminated), but the causality there may be entirely in the other direction. Beyond that, I'd guess sleep. (Which we can consider rolled into "applying oneself," I suppose.)

Probably the most dangerous thing about college education, at least in my own case, is that it enables my tendency to over-intellectualize stuff, to get lost in abstract arguments inside my head instead of simply paying attention to what's going on right in front of me. Paying attention to what's going on inside me. As I'm sure you guys know by now, it is extremely difficult to stay alert and attentive instead of getting hypnotized by the constant monologue inside your own head. Twenty years after my own graduation, I have come gradually to understand that the liberal-arts cliché about "teaching you how to think" is actually shorthand for a much deeper, more serious idea: "Learning how to think" really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. Because if you cannot exercise this kind of choice in adult life, you will be totally hosed.

-David Foster Wallace, commencement speech given to 2005 graduating class of Kenyon College.

Some people, not necessarily the same people who can ace tests without studying or learn math easily or even do well in sports, are still naturally good at responding to real-life, real-time events. They can manage their stress, make decision on the spot, communicate flexibly, and even have fun while doing it.

We call them "winners".

I think a similar thing happens in dancing. I've taken hundreds of dance lessons, in most styles of dance, over a period of ten years. I still can't go out onto the dance floor and dance. I've probably taken 200 ... (read more)

Ironically, you've been learning dance in exactly the wrong way. Being able to dance well in a Dance Lesson (or dance troupe) environment is only somewhat correlated to being able to dance well in a salsa club. To use your karate analogy, going to a salsa lesson is equivalent to mastering several Kata; going out dancing at a club is like fighting off a dojo of ninjas with your kung-fu skill. In my own case, I took about four semesters of dance classes before I took the plunge and went out dancing. I quickly realized that while my skills were marginally transferable, I was essentially at the bare-beginner level. Terrorized, I would have abandoned the hobby if it weren't for the fact that I'd made a lot of friends in my dance class and they made me go out again and again. Fast forward to present day, and I am usually recommended as the best or one of the best dancers in any venue I go to. I use a standard repertoire of less than 10 moves: Woman left turn, woman right turn, hammerlock turn (behind the back), man right turn, cuddle step, slingshot (not sure the name), a reverse (just undo what you last did), and a pause. I also have half a dozen "flair" moves which can be used in combination with any other moves: kick, body roll, arm flair, body shake, arm wrapping, a twist, and a halt. There's also a handful of special moves like dips, lifts, and leans. That's it. In total, it's a significantly smaller move-set to learn than your average Street Fighter or Soul Calibur character. An extremely advanced dancer might have a significantly expanded move-set, but the sum total of all salsa moves is really quite limited. Learning the moves took about a month of going out; learning to do them well is still ongoing after several years of dancing. A common problem in dance class is that little understanding is given into why certain combinations or flairs work. As a result, each 20 second sequence is it's own little ritual which cannot be deviated from. Few instructors explain
That sounds encouraging. Thanks! By slingshot you probably mean a cross body lead?
Have you considered taking improvisational dance classes? They teach a variety of exercises (not in the strength-training sense, in the gaining skills sense), improv prompts, and things like that that help you to feel intuitively what to do next. I'm guessing it won't help you do salsa, but it will help you go to a club and impress folks--and just enjoy dancing more.
1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
All the examples you gave involve physical coordination. Have you tried any activities that involve on-the-spot thinking but not coordination? Debate club and improv theatre are two examples that other people listed in the comments. If you have tried these, I would be curious to know what your experience was like. As for the coordination thing...I feel your pain. It takes me a lot longer than most people to fit new skills into muscle memory. It took me an entire semester before I could reliably take blood pressure. I remember my friends in rez used to learn hip-hop routines by watching Youtube videos. I wonder if being able to pause a video and observe each frame would help you? It would allow you to learn the moves at your own pace, but if you're not very aware of your own body, it might be hard without the feedback of an instructor.
I'm not good at wit or banter. I live-action roleplay, and of course used to tabletop roleplay; and I like improv games, like Once Upon a Time. I'm pretty good at those. Baron Munchausen is difficult for me - but the only group I've seen play it well was a group of professional fantasy authors. That game terrifies most people. I don't think coordination is the problem. It's not like I know what to do but have difficulty doing it. There are just too many variables to keep track of.
Your difficulty with martial arts sounds like it's mostly because that particular martial art doesn't agree with you. There's an immense variation in the styles of martial arts, and it's very important to try several and find the one that works best for you. But then you said you've been doing it for about 10 years, so you probably know that. You sound like you would benefit from one of the ones that puts a lot of emphasis on pair work, like Shorinji Kempo (it's quite obscure everywhere except Japan). It does have katas, but not many, and they all have pair-form versions, which helps with figuring out why you're doing each particular move.
Have you tried looking for teachers who specialize in beginners and/or searching for teachers who are willing to break things down farther?
I hadn't mentioned this before when I had gotten dating advice, and I know the question isn't for me, but: even in a metro area of ~200k, the "dance class" thing doesn't seem to be a real option. Every one I've checked here says "must bring partner". *facepalm*
I see that sometimes for ballroom classes, but not for latin dancing. If there is no such dance class in a metro area of 200,000 people, you should probably rent a building, hire a teacher, and open a dance studio. Try community colleges and local YMCAs and recreation centers. Dance studios are often much more expensive. $15 per group lesson is pretty standard around DC. I bet you can find a partner to bring, if you're willing to ask a woman whom you consider below your dating standards. There may be resulting complications, so use your judgement.
If the sequence is too complicated than you are taking a class that's above your level. If you have done a lot of Salsa lessons than you might feel that you should be able to go to the intermediate level classes. If you however can't follow those than you should continue with the beginner classes. Duplication isn't that bad. It doesn't prevent you from having a fun dance on the dance floor. You don't need 100 different moves either (if you define 1 moves as what you dance to 8 beats). You don't need to review anything. You just need to make a new move from the hand position in which the last move ended.

I strongly agree that this type of dynamic intelligence can be enhanced through training.

When humans are placed in a stressful situation for the first time, this is usually what happens by default:

  1. Human enters stressful situation.
  2. Human experiences a physiological stress response, e.g. sweating, stuttering.
  3. Human says, "I am freaking out," and loses all confidence in their ability to perform.
  4. Loss of confidence leads to decreasing performance, a vicious cycle of failure is entered upon.

With practice / experience, a human can retrain themsel... (read more)

I've noticed a very specific feeling -- a conscious decision to stop fretting about how badly my current situation could go wrong, and to genuinely be calm and composed, focusing entirely on the situation itself. It's hugely useful, but I don't know how it works, or how to teach someone else to do it. I think it's this ability that you're talking about. And you're right that it transfers to other domains. I once saw a guy with this ability step on a nail. It went right through his shoe and into the sole of his foot. After a few seconds of shouting, he calmed way down, sat down, and removed his shoe. It was pretty damn bloody, and several people around him started freaking out. He began talking in a slow, confident voice to try to calm them down, and then asked them to fetch some bandages and antiseptic, while he used his sock to stanch the immediate bleeding. The guy with the bleeding wound was the one with the most level head! If anybody can figure out a repeatable way to instill this anti-freakout reflex in someone, that would be potentially life-saving.
I know that feeling, but I don't know how conscious it is. Basically when then outcome matters in a real immediate way and is heavily dependent on my actions, I get calm and go into 'I must do what needs to be done' mode. When my car lost traction in the rain and spun on the highway, I probably saved my life by reasoning how to best get control of it, pumping the break, and getting it into a clearing away from other vehicles/trees, all within a time frame that was under a minute. Immediately afterwards the thoughts running through my head were not, 'Oh fuck I could have died!' but 'How could I have handled that better.' and 'Oh fuck, I think the car is trashed.' It was only after I climbed out of the car that I realized I was physically shaking. Likewise, when a man collapsed at synogogue after most people had left (there were only 6 of us), and hit his head on the table leaving a not unimpressive pool of blood on the floor, I immediately went over to him and checked his vitals and declared that someone should call an ambulance. The other people just stood around looking dumbfounded, and it turned out the problem was no one had a cell-phone on Saturday, so I called and was already giving the address by the time the man's friend realized there was something wrong and began screaming. Doing these things did not feel like a choice. They were the necessary next action and so I did them. Period. I don't know how to describe that. "Emergency Programming"?
Hard to distinguish from shock/adrenaline, but cool.
I have a relevant story. I was once hiking down a mountain, and near the top I slipped and fell on a rock, cutting my knee to the bone. When I saw it, I calmly called out to the person I was hiking with to get gauze pads, without any panicking or shouting. He helped, and I was able to make it down on my own. The way I did it was by looking at the situation and seeing what had to be done, then figuring out the best way to do it. I'm not sure if this was normal, but it was an immediate reaction for me. Moral: Search for goals than find an optimal path to achieve them, even in stressful situations. The way to do this is by drilling a procedure in your head until you can do it by instinct. Not specifics, as you can't plan for things like nails in your shoes. But you can plan general emergencies procedures, like remove the puncture, clean the wound, and apply pressure.
I had a similar experience after getting hit by a car while crossing the street. A friend who saw me and came running over actually thought I was in shock or something, because he couldn't believe that I was taking it so calmly. The adrenalin also helped, of course - I didn't feel any pain at all until nearly half an hour later. The only emotional reaction I can remember was extreme annoyance at the breaking of my glasses. Oddly enough, I fall into the same category as the post author. I don't think I'm very good at reacting swiftly, and I absorb information and handle that sort of testing very well. But I do generally manage to keep my head. I suspect this is a pretty recent development, which may affect my perception of the matter. I've found one useful heuristic. If I periodically remind myself to keep cool and reevaluate the current situation, I generally get good results. Slow-reaction types tend to quickly make a bunch of assumptions when thrust into a situation calling for swift action, and weeding out the erroneous ones is very helpful.
Movie/book "Touching The Void". F'ing amazing story of not giving up.
I disagree about people being born "good public speakers." I have no stress symptoms when I speak in front of groups of people. I find it quite comfortable. I have experienced an occasional butterfly if I'm going to be on a stage with lights and everything, but that's more anticipation than anything else. I do get a bit of stage fright singing in front of other people, but that's more a matter of extensive early criticism of my singing than difficulty making a fool of myself in front of a group.
3Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Very true. I've known a few people who enjoy that adrenaline-buzz and will actively seek it out. And even though I hate the physiological side of nervousness normally, it can be exhilarating when I feel confident and in control. That confidence takes a while to attain, though.
I think I'm one of those. I love being in front of an audience. I do get the physiological symptoms of stage fright once in a while, but I interpret it as an exciting situation, not a scary one.

I suspect a large part of the ability to deal with stressful situations relies on pre-established cognitive shortcuts that free up more of the brain for flexible analysis. One part of this I imagine involves what psychologists call "chunking", the ability to fit large data sets into the mind by unifying disparate data points into unified chunks.

Chess grandmasters, for example, can memorise the complete positions of twenty or more chess boards and play them out blindfolded, as long as the board positions are sensical and distinct, and they do so b... (read more)

1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
For some reason, I've always imagined that "nerd-type" people would have less ability-to-react than the general population. Maybe it's partly the stereotype of the awkward geek, or the fact that programmers, in particular, spend long periods of time alone without social interaction to impose thought-deadlines. But this population also (stereotypically) plays a lot of online multiplayer games. I wonder if playing games like World of Warcraft could lead to transferable skills, like better awareness/awakeness to immediate events.

My own experience learning fencing may illustrate some solutions. Fencing is not an "instinctive" sport. None of the motions feel natural, and if you try to rely on instinct, you almost invariably lose. You literally have to outthink your opponent. Obviously, this isn't something you have a whole lot of time to do (most fights last significantly under 30 seconds), so you do have to develop that "ability to react" that you're talking about. Typically, beginning fencers will get so caught up in their own thoughts as they make a plan that ... (read more)

1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Fascinating. Fencing is something I have zero experience with (although I once read a book, The Speed of Dark, that you might find interesting.) Your second suggestion is very relevant to me; once I get past the beginner step of really having no idea what I'm doing, I like to turn my knowledge and experience into a plan, but I don't think fast enough on the spot to make a second plan if the first one doesn't work. I guess one thing that comes with experience is the ability to plan in real time. Also, it makes me very happy to be described as a "competent nurse-in-training"!
Glad to hear it. By the way, who wrote The Speed of Dark? I didn't find anything in a quick google search that seemed to be about swordfighting specifically, although it is possible that some of the characters could be fencers. the reviews didn't state anything explicit.
1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
It's by Elizabeth Moon. It's not expressly about swordfighting, but the main character is autistic and does fencing as a hobby. I was interested by the descriptions of how he struggles at first to learn the technique, but ends up being quite good because he is better than most people at thinking through and planning his actions.
Sounds interesting. I'll check it out.

I loosely suspect this has to do with how you've conditioned your use of working memory and your amount of it. I've heard of a study where they found that some people with high IQ and high WM do poorly on standardized tests, because the situation narrowed and shrunk their WM temporarily. High IQ/low WMers did not appear to suffer this effect.

The analogy given was that you're used to working on a nice executive desk, and suddenly you have to do the same tasks but with a clipboard and sheet of paper. Whereas if you have low WM, you're already used to working... (read more)

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Thank you for the well-thought-out comment. According to a test we did in my first-year psych course, I have a very poor short-term memory (and an excellent long-term memory, partly because I intuitively use word and image associations to memorize things.) I've always done well in school pretty easily, possibly because my learning style is well suited to the most common teaching styles. Your car accident story is fascinating. I've never been put into a situation like that before, and I tend to worry how I would react–would my brain be able to rise above the immediate shock to reach the 'alert and analytical' level that you reached, or would I freeze and be useless?
Well, let's hope you never have to. I didn't think I'd have a situation like that, either. That experience itself is similar to the hyperfocus state of ADD/ADHD - can anyone corroborate? I have had that diagnosis, then had it revoked. I have my own self-theories, including having low WM (which is why I recall that study), but I should really go try something like http://www.cambridgebrainsciences.com/ May I ask what you plan on studying? School was extremely easy for me once, and then extremely difficult (to complete).
I have difficulty classifying my different kinds of memory as good or bad, and am often confused when others classify their own memories. I have poor verbal recall, short or long-term. I find it very difficult to remember poetry, unless it's sung. but, I never had a problem memorizing poetry when that was assigned in school--I just practiced saying it for a few days, and I had it. After I stopped saying it to myself all the time, I forgot it again. I try never to argue with someone about what specific words were used in a conversation a year ago, the previous day (or often even an hour ago). However, I have very good short-term aural memory--whatever the last few moments of sound I heard have been, if I need to recall them, usually can sort of play them back, even if I wasn't paying much attention. This means I am often able to identify the exact words that have just been spoken, even when the speaker doesn't realize they've misspoken. I have good linguistic memory, and good spelling memory, but my ability to recall something that could just as well be one thing as another (like exact words versus my interpretation of general meaning) is I think below average. So, do you have a generally poor short-term memory, or are there some things you can repeat or recognize perfectly shortly after seeing or hearing or feeling them?

Hi swimmer, It sounds to me you are writing about the difference between mindfulness and concentration. In the practice of meditation one goal is to find balance between these two. Too much concentration and you stop being aware of the moment to moment experience, too little concentration and your mind flutters a.k.a "monkey mind". For some basics about mindfulness/meditation google "mindfulness in plain english".

According to that text both concentration and mindfulness can be learned. Mindfulness is the more difficult skill to master.

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Thank you cochlea, very thoughtful comment.

I'm considered to be a shy person, but I think whether I am slower at responding or not depends on the situation.

I am a much better communicator when I have time to think over my response and put it in writing. I have trouble getting a word in during large group conversations, because by the time I think of something I can add, someone else starts talking. Then the conversation shifts to a different topic, and what I was going to say is no longer relevant.

If I'm talking to a friend one on one I can respond quickly and the conversation flows well. Thoug... (read more)

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
It looks like you have a reaction problem in a difference sense than I do; I have no trouble thinking of intelligent conversation in real time, but physical skills elude me. I would guess you have faster reaction times with sports and video games because it's easier for you to gain expertise in these areas and "chunk" your skills so that you don't have to constantly re-evaluate. But in conversation, you find it harder to "chunk" intelligent replies. (I'm not sure if this is chunkable, but having a large store of general knowledge to incorporate in your comments would help.) If you're going to try participating more in class, it might help to read your textbooks or do your own Internet/library research the day before, so that you're more likely to have something to say. Good luck!
Yeah I think those things just require less thinking and more doing. My shyness doesn't interfere with those things because they are comfortable situations for me. But with things that require me to act all of a sudden with thought involved like answering a question or acting something out, I feel a lot more uncomfortable. I can do it, but I'd do it much better if I had more time to think about it and to write it down. Thanks, I tried that last week with my psych class but still ran into trouble like you can see on my blog post, but I'll keep trying. It makes me really nervous to think of doing this, but I just have to go for it. :)

Some personal observations:

Reacting and Thinking are definitely two separate mental modes for me. I can do both fine, but I prefer not to mix the two. When I'm in the thinking mode, I cringe when I have to react on stuff like email or errands or coworkers' requests. When I'm in the reacting mode, I tend to avoid thinking-type problems that require uninterrupted time.

I often face this distinction at work. I'm a lead developer (not a coder) and, simultaneously, a project manager of a relatively large software project, so I often have thinking-type stretches ... (read more)


In high school, I was on the Academic Decathlon team. One of the activities we had to do were impromptu speeches - you would get one minute to choose one of three prompts and prepare a small speech, and then two minutes to deliver it. Practicing for that event was awesome, and my ability to react in that domain clearly climbed over the months of practice.

It didn't seem to transfer to my prepared speech. I was more nervous delivering that, because I hadn't had as much practice on simply recalling text with the specific distraction of judges, and because I w... (read more)

In my experience, the primary benefit of getting good at improvisational performance to delivering prepared content is that I can handle unexpected events. If I get heckled, or challenged, or I go up on my lines, or my scene partner does something completely unexpected, or a prop turns out to be missing, or the couch suddenly collapses, I can ad-lib some kind of a plausible response and maintain an air of everything being under control. And simply knowing that helps reduce performance anxiety, so it pays off even in the more common case where nothing goes catastrophically wrong.

I have also had the experience you relate, but from the opposite side. I volunteer as a peer counselor. From time to time our training involves practicing with other volunteers. One of us pretends to be the client and we practice our skills. I love doing it and I had no idea that half the volunteers hate it.

I wouldn't actually link it to introversion/extroversion. I am shy, especially in groups where I am unfamiliar with the appropriate way to behave. Even when I feel like I am participating often I find that I am not, such as in seminars. I need to know m... (read more)


I observe that people fast at reacting are generally fast. They walk fast, talk fast, learn fast (when the material isn't intellectually demanding). According to the reigning Cattell-Horn-Carroll model of cognitive abilities, the capacity determining these traits is represented by a factor--referred to as speed in simple operations, cognitive speed, or g sub s. This capacity is only weakly correlated with fluid intelligence, but it isn't substantially modifiable. I don't think it corresponds to any part of brain anatomy; perhaps is more an anlage function representing some parameter of neural function.

I would buy that some people are "generally fast." I am. Talk fast, walk fast, learn (simple things) fast, write fast, type fast, eat fast. I tested my reaction times, though, for, say, pushing a button as soon as I hear a beep, and they're average; so this is probably a temperament thing rather than literally having a brain that "runs faster." I'm good at spontaneous reaction, I think -- I've been complimented on my ability to travel well (orient myself, seize opportunities in unfamiliar surroundings, notice the crucial road signs). I used to love debates in middle school and high school because I was damn good at adapting arguments on the fly. I can also solo/improv/learn musical pieces by ear. Stress is a different issue. I can become completely freaked by fear. So if my own experience is any gauge, "ability to react" seems to mean a lot of things, not all correlated with each other.
"I tested my reaction times, though, for, say, pushing a button as soon as I hear a beep, and they're average" What equipment do you use to measure your reaction time with sufficient accuracy to know you're average? Reaction time is a little different from speedy walking and talking, which load on cognitive speed, because reaction time has a higher loading on fluid intelligence than many other speed measures. But that still doesn't explain your (supposedly) average score
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Interesting. I suppose I'm pretty much equally bad in all areas of "ability to react" except for learning fast–I soak up information easily, but I've never noticed that I walk or talk faster than usual. I guess I was quick to point out "speed of learning new information" as separate from reaction speed because my abilities in the two domains are so opposite-end-of-the-spectrum. Which is why it's always a good idea to have other peoples' input...

I have also noticed this ability-to-react for several years. I am definitely good at it. Unfortunately, I cannot offer any advice on developing the skill, but I do have some observations:

-I tend to get nervous after doing something. For instance, when presenting to a large group, I feel completely calm. Afterward, however, I often start shaking as I go over it in my head.

-Regarding public speaking, I don't generally need to write out what I'm going to say, but I do need to think it out in advance. Usually, I have a 5-10 line summary for a 10 minute presen... (read more)

That's very impressive, and also very odd. It's quite hard to be aware enough of yourself and your partner that you can do something both complicated and unfamiliar. And yet when I've done so, I always remember what it is I did, because I was thinking about it quite hard at the time.
I don't think this is that odd. I'm similar; I have only just started getting formal dance training this semester, but my body intuits cool looking ways to move, that I then have difficulty remembering perfectly. I'm very much in the same boat as johnwentsworth, but because of my inability to remember prechoreographed moves, I only do improvisational dancing. For example, one time I was dancing in heavy boots on a linoleum floor and I did a slide, moving several feet along the floor without picking up my boots (and also without making that annoying squicky sound). The guy next to me said "whoah that was really cool, do that again" and much to my chagrin I couldn't, and haven't been able to since.
Dancing alone? Improvisation gets a lot harder when you have to mix in the mechanics of two people and then lead it.
I'm doing both. I was in a performance last week, my part was an improv. It was me, two other dancers, and three musicians: a guy on sax, a guy on xylophone, and a gal on the piano. All six of us were improvising, taking turns leading, following, &c. It was pretty cool.
The single greatest factor in noise for that sort of thing seems to be moisture. Actual sliding is a matter of balance, distributing weight evenly across the bearing surface so it's easier to break static friction all at once.
Are you saying more moisture causes sound, or less?
There's an optimum amount of moisture which produces maximum squeaking.
Certainly. What is it? Also, more importantly, what is the optimal amount of moisture that produces minimum squeaking?
Unfortunately I don't have hard numbers available, just informal observations of high school students with boots goofing around after coming inside on rainy days.
Shazbot. Some experimentation is called for. I recently did something similar but not quite as impressive on a freshly waxed(?) floor, and it worked fairly well with no noise.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I actually thought about including this in the post: what is the correlation between ability-to-act and creativity (which is considered to be a right-brain phenomenon, I think)? I've known people who were extremely creative and also very open and able to react. They tend to be performers in theatre or music, and very extroverted. I've also known very creative people who are introverted and shy in person. They tend to be poets or writers. And most of the lifeguard team people I know are quite analytical rather than creative, but they can still have fast reactions.

For a while I've been trying to read around topics that seem related to highly effective behavior with an eye towards figuring out which data structures and algorithms might implement it successfully.

I'm not sure how much the construct you're calling "ability-to-react" actually exists as a coherent thing but you might find a pre-existing vocabulary you can point to by reading around subjects like: flow (the mental state of being absorbed in successful coping), tacit knowledge (the tricky to describe skills frequently deployed when coping), situ... (read more)

I most often hear it referred to as "thinking on your feet," which is admittedly not noticeably more felicitous than "ability to react."

If you haven't read Gladwell's Blink, you might find it interesting.

You might also find extemporaneous speaking and improv theatre a useful way to improve at this.

Regarding Gladwell, I think he's a good source of interesting anecdotes, but I'd be very cautious to take his conclusions too far -- he's much more of a Oprah-philosopher than a rationalist thinker.
1Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
That's funny, because I actually did improv theatre for a while in high school. Like you might expect, I found it very stressful and difficult. I would get about a month of practice before they picked the competitive team, and I was never good enough to make it. Good experience, though, and I would probably find it much easier now.

One of my first thoughts, on starting to consider this situation, was how higher levels of expertise (in the Dreyfus sense) relate to this. I wouldn't consider myself, in general, someone who has good/fast reactive abilities, but in my areas of expertise I often work quite comfortably even under pressure because I simply "do what I do," and don't need to think about it too much. However, when someone at a lesser level of expertise demands justification for my proposals, I typically cannot quickly come up with a good argument; it's generally hours... (read more)

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
Thank you for that book recommendation. I will check it out.

I also have anecdotal evidence that this ability to ACT is acquired with practice. My observations are from martial arts, where it seems that this skill is somewhat orthogonal to technical ability or power.

I'm pretty good at thinking when things go bad, but I have had a lot more practice than most people.

This is because 1) sorta enjoy it, 2) I want to be able to react well when its more serious, so I try to do things that might put me into these types of situations (as long as it wont kill me/permanently disable me to mess up). For example, I'll purposely fishtail the car pulling onto an empty road, and I crash my bike every year (and narrowly avoid about a half dozen more).

I'm pretty sure you'd put me in your 'quick to react' category. I'm the person who remains calm in stressful situations and figures out what to do. I don't think it's a matter of shutting off my internal monologue (my internal monologue never shuts off) but of redirecting it. I tend to be fairly good at thinking about what I want to be thinking about. Useful in a crisis, really bad when I'm procrastinating.

I also tend to be really good at connecting and remembering information, and at taking tests, though, so I'm not sure that the skills are in opposition. I suspect that thinking on your feet and being able to retain and synthesize information are separate skills, but much more effective when put together.

Posting this before reading the comments to give a summary/response based on my own internal experiences. Quick note: I'm extremely good at internalizing/manipulating information, and about proficient at "reacting". It might also be worth noting sex (I'm male), since I could definitely see these kinds of thought processes being different on the two standard systems.

This analysis is definitely subject to the "generalizing from one example" problem, considering some large differences between the thought mechanisms you mention and my own.... (read more)

0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 10y
...Several years later, I finally got up the willpower and time to start meditating, and it did help. But not as much as other things, like just getting a lot of practice.

I've noticed this and in my case it's more a matter of mindset than anything else. My day job consists of programming, and at night I do public speaking.

I find it takes me longer to get into a flow state when doing public speaking. I think the terms sometimes used are "up time" and "down time".

Practice definitely helps. I've taken improvisational acting classes and those were slightly helpful. I've learned to recognize when I feel I'm inside my own head. It feels like you know how you want to come across but actually speaking doesn't c... (read more)

This ties a couple of things together. Normally, when a person is celebrated for being a hero, they back off from the acclaim and say something like, "I just did what was necessary ".

Your piece implies that this reaction is useful to protect the ability to handle stress-- thinking about how heroic one is or ought to be is not the right place to put one's attention.

In addition, all the cultural stuff about wondering whether one is the right sort of person to do something heroic makes it less likely that people will react well under stress.

All this... (read more)


Moridinamael is right about self-confidence, it is really important in fast reacting, even more than practice.

When I joined the military as a private in Russian army my performance during certain stressfull tasks was significantly lower during approximately first six months. As time passed, sertain situations became less stressfull, and I became to outperform lots of my peers as I gained more self-confidence and was finally able to think clear and fast.

(Practice is most essential in ability to react fast and cooperatively. To effectively cooperatively rea... (read more)

Sufficient practice can be a source of confidence. So, they're not unrelated dimensions.
A lesson in itself. :/
Whether or not he meant "revolved" or "evolved", it does seem likely that this is a poor situation for anyone to be in, unless somehow it's really mutually desperate, or the center-of-the-universe person is unusually able to maintain attraction for someone who constantly signals low relative value.

In your third speculation, I think the first and second category have got swapped round.

2Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
You're completely right. Thank you for reading it carefully enough to make that observation.
0Swimmer963 (Miranda Dixon-Luinenburg) 13y
I edited it and fixed that, and also the numbers, which weirdly all turned into 1s when I copy-pasted.

I'm considered to be a shy person, but I think whether I am slower at responding or not depends on the situation.

I am a much better communicator when I have time to think over my response and put it in writing. I have trouble getting a word in during large group conversations, because by the time I think of something I can add, someone else starts talking. Then the conversation shifts to a different topic, and what I was going to say is no longer relevant.

If I'm talking to a friend one on one I can respond quickly and the conversation flows well. Thoug... (read more)

Complete agreement; I'm in exactly the same boat.

One thing I've noticed is that high-speed action-reaction iterations seem beyond my grasp to truly master; one example is tracking objects with mouse movements in video games; I am exceptional compared to most humans, but among other highly-trained gamers, I seem to be a poor performer - even though my tested reflex speed is normal. This makes me a great general and a poor soldier. Any other good-analysis-bad-reaction minds care to weigh in on this? I'm curious if there's a connection.


My experience with this feels more like going deeper and deeper into a particular mental state, where context switches out of that state break all of my abilities to pieces. The beginning of a book is harder than the middle or end of a book, because after a while I've picked up all the proper contexts and loaded them into memory. After reading a book of poetry, I can think and dream in poems. But switch the context too harshly, say, in the middle of a deep concentration task, and my brain is thrown for loops, has no idea where it is, and refuses to come up... (read more)


Fantastic post.

I'm not 100% sure but I think what you describe is typical for people who have Asperger syndrome.

I vividly remember allowing a pigeon to die due to not acting quickly enough, and I've always been bad at social interaction with people I didn't know well, but I was also rather good at high school basketball and multiplayer FPS video games. Thus it seems that domain-specific perception of self-competence might be important, and that patterns of slow reaction might be self-perpetuating (compounded by actual lack of competence),