May 21, 2018
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Knowing by instinct what isn’t known in fact

by Greg Westrich

Special to The Weekly


This morning I was jolted awake by a single loud sound from an alarm. I rolled over and looked at the clock. It was 6:40. Time to get up. The sound that woke me was not the alarm from the clock. I had not set it. The sound had existed solely in my head. Somehow my brain knew it was time to get up and set off the alarm to wake me.

Many people, my wife and son among them, usually wake up when they are supposed to without an alarm. How is it that we know what time it is when we are asleep? And what else do we know that we don’t know we

When hiking in the woods, sometimes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up and I feel all tingly. Usually, it means that there is wildlife to see: a moose standing silently a hundred feet away in a muddy swale, the white flag of a deer’s tail as it bounds away from the scent of me, a bear that skulks into the shadows before I can meet its eye. Or just a red squirrel watching me from a spruce limb. I have never figured out how I knew those animals were there, but my

body’s reaction proved that I knew before I knew I knew.

I could have smelled something. I have read that humans regularly react to smells without ever being aware of the smell. It is possible that the smell of the bear or moose caused my brain to go on high alert, pumping adrenaline into my bloodstream. That would give me that jolt I felt and make my small hairs stand up. Whatever process was at work, I somehow knew there was a potentially dangerous animal nearby without consciously knowing it. Not the same as waking up without an alarm, but both suggest that our mind knows things that it never bothers to inform the conscious part of the brain.

That started me thinking about basketball practice. Coach and I make the boys run through shooting and passing drills over and over again. They practice their offensive sets and transition until they double over with fatigue. The point is to have them know these things without thinking about them. We want them to catch a pass and automatically position their feet for a shot. We want them to make a strong chest pass to a teammate streaking down the lane for a fast break lay-up without having to even look. We want them to know how to dribble, pass, shoot, read the defense and see their teammates all without knowing they are doing it. It’s why all coaches teach their players  always to shoot free throws the same way every time. You don’t want the players thinking about it. Consciously knowing or thinking about some things gets in the way.

I rolled out of bed thinking about the human animal beneath the thin veneer of culture. It tells time without a clock. It senses animals in the woods and reacts to them without thinking about it.

If I practiced enough, I could make use of basketball skills without thinking. Then I realized that I was 54 and the ability to play ball like that had fallen to younger athletes.

Two out of three ain’t bad.

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