In Praise of Automaticity

Don't underestimate the advantages of automaticity. The picture below gives you a little idea of how much easier it is when skills become automatic. Look at all the brain regions (frontal - executive, parietal - imagery / representations, and more) that don't have to work as hard (hot colors: increased work, cold colors: less!) when the task is learned.

When academic or motor skills don't become automatic, a whole host of problems present themselves. Dyslexic students who have trouble remembering how to form letters automatically, can overload with essay writing, taking notes, or math problem sets (dysgraphia). If math facts, spelling or grammar conventions aren't known to the point of automaticity, then even very intelligent students can find themselves overwhelmed by higher order activities based on these building block skills. As a result, if we don't look for opportunities to accommodate, we may never discover a student's creative or critical thinking strengths.

For us adults, automatic expertise helps us carry out most of our activities of daily living and multi-tasking. It's a beautiful system because it allows us to rest while still getting plenty of work done.

The Neural Correlates of Motor Skill Automaticity


  1. Wouldn't it be nice to have this kind of visual feedback on a student. To know when you can stop with the practice on a task by following thier drop off in activation.

    Where do I get one of these things brain scanning things for the home?

    Also, long ago you posted some pictures of people being read to verses reading. I belive it was implied that the higher activation was an indication of "more learning".

    While it may be true in some hebbian sense it seems more likely that the increased activation is realated to the relative rarity of being read to. Unless the reader is practiced with the text and doing a dramatic reading, it is likely that the increased efficiency of reading would lead to greater conceptual lerning.

  2. a new blog community was created for those with dyslexia. pretty cool and if you find useful, spread the word.

  3. Oops! Sorry many of you had comments stuck in moderation. We goofed on the blogger template. We'll have to catch up on past comments, thanks everybody for leaving remarks.

    Robert you bring up a good point. More activation is not necessarily better...or worse!

    From a pure efficiency basis, less might be more efficient decoding. But more could also occur in the setting of richer associations, imagery, or inferences. Kind of like when fMRI of high IQ folks have more activity on word association tasks.

    It does point out some caveats for interpretation. As doctors, some of used to complain about radiologists who insisted on knowing the clinical story before looking at the scan. If you're good at reading, we surmised, shouldn't you not need the story? But of course they were right. If you want to make your best interpretation, you should have the info on the table.

  4. Anonymous1:59 PM

    Dear Brock and Fernette, I just happened on your blog. Great! Your bit on automaticity made me think of long discussions I have had with associates in the UK about dyslexia and giftedness. They speculate that the automaticity that many dyslexics do not have may sometimes be an advantage. It slows them down. But it forces them to think deeply or differently each time. This may prevent the dyslexic from making the mistakes everyone else is making--automatically. Last time we talked, they had not written anything about this. But it may now be time to design some sort of study--or at least write up the (counter-intuitive) theoretical approach. Same theme as usual--what looks like a problem can sometimes be a considerable advantage. Tom

  5. Hi Tom!

    That's a wonderful comment. Lack of automaticity is almost always seen as a negative, but you're right - if you're forced to slow down, you're going to notice all sorts of different things.