Reacting To Things Before You Know That They’ve Happened

Here’s a funny thing.
I recently had the bizarre experience of reacting to something before I noticed the thing that I was reacting to.
It happened like this.
Although I’m a cartoonist by profession I also have a small sideline in creating ceramics. That’s me in my studio, below.

Me in my ceramics studio

Me in my ceramics studio

Part of the process of making ceramics is that the objects being created have to be glazed: this involved coating the object with powder that’s suspended in water (so that it can be brushed on, which is what I’m doing in the photo). The object is then placed in a kiln and heating it to a very high temperature – over a thousand degrees Celsius. At this temperature the powder melts and turns to coloured glass. The temperature is then lowered and the ceramics are taken out of the kiln when they are cool enough to handle.
A few days ago I took the ceramics out of the kiln when they were still quite hot (about 200 degrees C), using a pair of specially insulated oven gloves. You can see the objects in the photo – they are the shiny, greenish, roundish things in the middle. As these objects cooled down they occasionally emitted a very short sharp pinging noise.
Because the objects were very hot, quite large and quite heavy, I had in my mind fantasies of them exploding as they cooled too rapidly: as a result I jumped very slightly every time there was a ping.
This was where the bizarre thing happened. I could swear that with most of the pings I actually jumped before I was aware of the sound.
I suspect that if that is what actually happened (and that it wasn’t an illusion) it’s normal. I therefore suspect that itís quite common to react to anything in a knee-jerk, automatic kind of way before being conscious of the thing that is being reacted to. What may have set my example in my ceramics studio apart from most such situations, and what made me notice it, may have been simply the fact that the thing that I was reacting to was a very short, sharp and precise sound and the reaction was very slight and short, so the delays or overlaps between the reaction and the registering of the sound were noticeable.
It seems that my ears picked up the ping and my brain then sent it to my muscles before it sent it to my hearing centre. Quite sensible really.
I’m sure that I’ve heard of this phenomenon before, but it’s very interesting to actually notice it.
By an interesting coincidence, for several days after I experienced this time-lag, there were numerous articles in various newspapers and magazines about Malcolm Gladwell (he’s got a new book out: Outliers), whom I’m pretty sure mentioned a similar time-lag phenomenon in his book Blink: that people make decisions before they are aware that they’ve made them. This seems logical to me, as I’d presume that the brain’s conscious/deliberate verbalisation of a concept must follow the underlying formulation of the concept, otherwise it can’t put it into words for the simple reason that it’s got nothing to work with. The apparent novelty of the idea that people make decisions before they know it is, I suspect, due to the fact that it’s an overstated assumption that people actually think in words, or that an idea isn’t actually nailed down until it’s verbalised. I spend a lot of time trying to be as creative and original as possible in my work as a cartoonist and elsewhere, and I know that dragging the ideas to a conscious, expressible level often diminishes the ideas rather than making them real.


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