When we don’t know the complexity of our actions, we feel most confident about performing them. We’ve all heard the bicycle analogy: If someone is riding a bicycle and they begin to think of what their body is doing at every instant, they’re going to mess up and eat dirt. The more we know about a subject, the more we doubt our competency to work with it.

That is the essence of the Dunning-Krueger effect. I’ve written before on how confident I was as a beginning musician and how I would play without any worries, but the more knowledge I accumulated about music, the more constricted I felt from this (necessary?) intellectual overload. Then, after that, it was (and still is) about freeing myself from what I knew.

Recently, I was advising a younger musician on a music-related issue, and I noticed I was not easily getting through to him. As I drove back home, I recalled things my bass teacher used to tell me roughly seven years ago. These things were stored in my memory, but didn’t really take effect on me when he said them; maybe because I lacked his experience and was already overwhelmed with the little that I knew about music. The truth is: there is no limit to how much you can know about anything.

Now that I’m playing with The Lebanese Philharmonic Orchestra alongside my teacher, my mind takes me to flashbacks of lessons with him. I hear him giving me a piece of advice that I simply didn’t relate to back then. Seven years later and without warning it comes back and it makes sense; as if it had been waiting all along for the right moment. Statements like: “The more difficult the task, the more relaxed you need to be”, “Use your natural arm weight”, “No two musical moments should be identical”, “A good sound is the most important thing”, “Be fully present and engaged!” All these phrases come back to me and manifest when it’s right for them to do so.

It’s fascinating how much the mind retains; it records and stores everything all the time, even things that we thought we didn’t perceive. These remarks from my teacher come back, because now I share his experience of the world. I hear what he heard, see what he saw… our perceptions are better aligned.

I consider this a creative act… creativity is problem-solving, it is the act of making connections between seemingly unconnected ideas. From my research on creativity, I assume that this phenomenon happens through “incubation”: a period of unconscious processing of a concept in the creative mind.

Say, for example, a graphic designer is asked to create a logo for a brand. She is given all the information, and during the next few days/weeks her unconscious mind begins to form all these links between what she already knows from her practice and new information she has gathered about the brand and developments in her field. Suddenly she has the “Eureka!” moment. She formulates a vivid image of the logo, and then proceeds to consciously realize the idea on paper.

The way I see it, the same happens between a teacher and a student, mentor and apprentice, parent and child, husband and wife… Sometimes I remember, for the first time, things that my parents said to me twenty years ago, maybe they were irrelevant or not useful the moment they were said. But my mind stored them, and when they prove useful they unfolded themselves.

This gap in knowledge doesn’t necessarily have to be age-related… I could try to explain something to someone older and more experienced than me, but if they didn’t share my experience of that thing, they can only compare it with the closest memory that is stored in their mind, which could still be quite far from mine.

When I think of my consciousness in those terms, and believe that it always attempts to work for my benefit, I cannot help but be astonished by the supercomputer between our ears. It’s one powerful machine. Powerful, but not immune to sabotage from conscious thinking activity. Whether it’s riding a bike, getting to know a person you’re attracted to, or playing your instrument in front of a public, I believe our unconscious mind has all the data needed to guide us to perform our best at any given moment.

Thinking is very important… it’s the way we organize things in our heads, develop ideas, form our character. But when it’s “crunch time”, or time to get things done, it’s often proved healthy to sit back and observe oneself perform without conscious intervention.

Reviewed by: Hiba Makarem, Farah Aridi.