The Centipede’s Dilemma

You may remember that about a month ago, I bought a unicycle. Since then, I’ve been practicing every day most days, and I’ve gotten a lot noticeably better. I can now get on the damn thing easily, go forward a few feet pretty consistently, and not die when I lose my balance. Trust me, for a guy like myself, these are major achievements.

Most of all, I’m starting to build some confidence. The unicycle has become less a bizarre psychological torture device, and more a thing I might legitimately ride if I could just lean forward a bit farther at the right time.

Armed with that newfound confidence, I began practicing yesterday afternoon. As soon as I got on, I shit you not, this is what my brain did:

Hey, you’re on a unicycle! You got this! You have skills now, and you’re not even worried about falling. Which is kind of weird considering that you only have one wheel, so if you lean in any direction, you’re going to fall. I mean, how do you not lean? Is that even possible? Like, what the hell are you doing right now? Oh crap we’re overthinking this just go just go just go ZOMG DISASTER

That all flashed through my brain in about eight-tenths of a second.

Instincts work fine until you think about them. This phenomenon has a name: the centipede’s dilemma, so called for the creature who could no longer walk after someone asked him how he did it.

(As I mentioned once before, Garfield had the same problem in one of my favorite comic strips of all time.)

“Centipede’s dilemma” is a funny name for this, because real centipedes are (presumably) immune. This would seem to be a uniquely human problem. Only we are so good at thinking that we’ve figured out a way to muck up the things we’ve already learned.

Have you run into the centipede’s dilemma, or “the CD,” as psychologists (probably don’t) call it?

4 responses to “The Centipede’s Dilemma

  1. This reminds me of the Looney Toons gag where (I think) a young Elmer Fudd is chasing Bugs Bunny, and doesn’t fall off a cliff because he is ignorant of the law of gravity. Bugs gives him a book, Elmer reads it, and then falls.

  2. Yes. All the time. I struggle with CD when I try to relax, for one thing.

    “Relax. Re-lax. All I have to do is lie here and relax my muscles and not think of anything. How do you not think of anything? Am I not thinking of anything? I’m, nothing thinking of anything. Wait, I’m thinking about not thinking about anything, so that’s thinking. Nonono, stop thinking. And relax. My muscles are relaxed, right? Are my muscles relaxed? How relaxed do they have to be? Oh my Gods, I think they’re getting less relaxed. Aaargh!”

    Or breathing. I’ve over-thought breathing to the point of hyperventilating. True story.

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