Centipede's dilemma

Centipede's dilemma

Ask a question about 'Centipede's dilemma'
Start a new discussion about 'Centipede's dilemma'
Answer questions from other users
Full Discussion Forum
"The Centipede's Dilemma" is a short poem which has given its name to an effect in psychology: the centipede effect (or centipede syndrome). This is when a normally automatic or unconscious activity is disrupted by consciousness of it or reflection on it. For example a golfer thinking too closely about her swing or someone thinking too much about how they knot their tie may find their performance of the task impaired. The effect is also known as hyper-reflection or Humphrey's law after the English psychologist George Humphrey (1889-1966) who propounded it in 1923. As he wrote of the poem, "This is a most psychological rhyme. It contains a profound truth which is illustrated daily in the lives of all of us".

The poem

The poem, a short rhyme illustrating a solvitur ambulando
Solvitur ambulando
Solvitur ambulando is a Latin term which means:* it is solved by walking* the problem is solved by a practical experimentDiogenes of Sinope, also known as "Diogenes the Cynic," is said to have replied to the argument that motion is unreal by standing up and walking away.The phrase appears early in...

-in reverse, is usually attributed to Katherine Craster (1841-74) in Pinafore Peoms, 1871.
It had begun appearing in journals by 1881, in particular The Spectator and The Living Age.
The poem later appeared in an article by the British zoologist E. Ray Lankester
Ray Lankester
Sir E. Ray Lankester KCB, FRS was a British zoologist, born in London.An invertebrate zoologist and evolutionary biologist, he held chairs at University College London and Oxford University. He was the third Director of the Natural History Museum, and was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal...

 in the May 23, 1889 issue of the scientific journal Nature
Nature (journal)
Nature, first published on 4 November 1869, is ranked the world's most cited interdisciplinary scientific journal by the Science Edition of the 2010 Journal Citation Reports...

which discussed the work of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard Muybridge
Eadweard J. Muybridge was an English photographer who spent much of his life in the United States. He is known for his pioneering work on animal locomotion which used multiple cameras to capture motion, and his zoopraxiscope, a device for projecting motion pictures that pre-dated the flexible...

 in capturing the motion of animals: "For my own part," wrote Lankester, "I should greatly like to apply Mr. Muybridge's cameras, or a similar set of batteries, to the investigation of a phenomenon more puzzling even than that
of "the galloping horse". I allude to the problem of "the running centipede." Lankester finished the article on a fanciful note by imagining the "disastrous results in the way of perplexity" that could result from such an investigation, quoting the poem and mentioning that the author was unknown to him or to the friend who sent it to him. It has since been variously attributed to specific authors but without convincing evidence, and often appears under the title "The Centipede's Dilemma".

The version in the article is 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.

Modern versions of the poem often recast it in verse as a fable of a spider (or other protagonist) who found a clever way to avoid being eaten:
"How do you keep all those legs coordinated?" the spider asked.
The centipede replied, "I don't know. I'd never thought about it before."
At this point, the spider ran off, and the centipede tried to give chase, but was unable to because he couldn't make his legs walk properly, and he could never move again.

In psychology and philosophy

The psychologist George Humphrey referred to the tale in his 1923 book The story of man's mind: "No man skilled at a trade needs to put his constant attention on the routine work," he wrote. "If he does, the job is apt to be spoiled." He went on to recount the centipede's story, commenting, "This is a most psychological rhyme. It contains a profound truth which is illustrated daily in the lives of all of us, for exactly the same thing happens if we pay conscious attention to any well-formed habit, such as walking." Thus, the eponymous "Humphrey's law" states that once performance of a task has become automatized, conscious thought about the task, while performing it, impairs performance. Whereas habit
Habit (psychology)
Habits are routines of behavior that are repeated regularly and tend to occur subconsciously. Habitual behavior often goes unnoticed in persons exhibiting it, because a person does not need to engage in self-analysis when undertaking routine tasks...

 diminishes and then eliminates the attention
Attention is the cognitive process of paying attention to one aspect of the environment while ignoring others. Attention is one of the most intensely studied topics within psychology and cognitive neuroscience....

 required for routine tasks, this automaticity
Automaticity is the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. It is usually the result of learning, repetition, and practice....

 is disrupted by attention to a normally unconscious competence.

The philosopher Karl Popper
Karl Popper
Sir Karl Raimund Popper, CH FRS FBA was an Austro-British philosopher and a professor at the London School of Economics...

 referred to the centipede effect in his book Knowledge and the body-mind problem: in defence of interaction: "if we have learnt certain movements so that they have sunk below the level of conscious control, then if we try to follow them consciously we very often interfere with them so badly that we stop them." He gives the example of the violinist Adolf Busch
Adolf Busch
Adolf Georg Wilhelm Busch was a German-born violinist and composer.Busch was born in Siegen in Westphalia. He studied at the Cologne Conservatory with Willy Hess and Bram Eldering...

 who was asked by fellow-violinist Bronisław Huberman how he played a certain passage of Beethoven's violin concerto
Violin Concerto (Beethoven)
Ludwig van Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61, was written in 1806.The work was premiered on 23 December 1806 in the Theater an der Wien in Vienna. Beethoven wrote the concerto for his colleague Franz Clement, a leading violinist of the day, who had earlier given him helpful advice on...

. Busch told Huberman that it was quite simple — and then found that he could no longer play the passage.

Cultural references

In 1903 Simplicissimus
Simplicissimus was a satirical German weekly magazine started by Albert Langen in April 1896 and published through 1967, with a hiatus from 1944-1954. It became a biweekly in 1964...

 magazine printed an adaptation of the story by the Austrian author Gustav Meyrink
Gustav Meyrink
Gustav Meyrink was the pseudonym of Gustav Meyer, an Austrian author, storyteller, dramatist, translator, and banker, most famous for his novel The Golem.-Childhood:...

, "The Curse of The Toad" ("Der Fluch der Kröte"). The fable was also published in Meyrink's 1903 collection of tales, The Hot Soldier and Other Stories.

The fable was later applied in Spider Robinson's Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
Callahan's Crosstime Saloon
In the fictional universe of Spider Robinson, Callahan's Place is a bar with strongly community-minded and empathic clientele. It appears in the Callahan's Crosstime Saloon stories In the fictional universe of Spider Robinson, Callahan's Place is a bar with strongly community-minded and empathic...

 story of the same name, in which an amoral but unimaginative man was using an unusual psychic power to win games, do well as a fisherman, and steal booze from others in the bar. He was found out, and when asked how he did it, he replied that he made things "want" other things. His glass "wanted" booze, the dartboard "wanted" darts, and so on. When pressed for details on what the "state of wanting darts" was like, which he had never actually considered before, he created the state in his own head—which caused the darts to fly from the dart board to hit him, luckily non-lethally, in the forehead. Robinson also used the concept in his completion of the Robert Heinlein novel Variable Star
Variable Star
Variable Star is a 2006 novel written by Spider Robinson based on the surviving seven pages of an eight-page 1955 novel outline by the late Robert A. Heinlein. The book is set in a divergent offshoot of Heinlein's Future History and contains many references to works by Heinlein and other authors...