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Massage Today
June, 2009, Vol. 09, Issue 06

Thinking in Practice

By Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB

"Experts see the world differently. They see things the rest of us cannot. Often experts do not realize that the rest of us are unable to detect what seems obvious to them." Gary Klien, author of Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions.

The world of learning has long fascinated me. I've taken the opportunity to walk it from a number of different perspectives: a physics graduate student; a research scientist; a massage student, practitioner and instructor; a martial arts student and teacher; a music student; and a folk dancer. My experience has thus spanned both the academic and experiential realms; both the conceptual and the kinesthetic. And out of all these experiences, one lesson has become clear (and applied in multiple realms): You cannot just pour information into a student and expect it to become magically useful.

Creating useful skills requires skill practice in context, and requires changing the manner in which the student uses their mind and senses to perceive the world. Without this context, information lies dormant, unconnected and unusable outside of the academic realm. I've had the opportunity to verify in my own experience that "experts see the world differently,"1 just as Gary Klein, senior scientist at Applied Research Assoicates, concluded from his field research. This change in perception is not a result of classroom lectures, but a result of guided participation. If we want to create skilled massage practitioners, we cannot just talk at students or be satisfied when they have memorized definitions and phrases from books. We must encourage and guide them in gaining patterns of tactile memory coupled with active awareness of what they are encountering.

From his research, Klein summarizes what differentiates the novice from the expert into three aspects: a history of experienced patterns; the ability to project the effects of an intervention; and a tuning of sensory discrimination. "These aspects of learning can be tied to the two primary sources of power we have been examining: pattern matching and mental simulation. Pattern matching (intuition) refers to the ability of the expert to detect typicality and to notice events that did not happen and other anomalies that violate the pattern. Mental simulation covers the ability to see events that happened previously and events that are likely to happen in the future. We also encounter some additional sources of power. The ability to make fine discriminations must involve some sort of perceptual learning."1

In a recent book, Think Again,2 authors Sidney Finkelstein, Jo Whitehead, and Andrew Campbell drew on Klein's research and other sources of neurological and cognitive research to better understand failures of decision. One of the things they noted is that experts rarely compare alternative actions. Instead, an expert will move directly to what experience indicates to be a viable solution. This can be both a strength and a weakness: a strength in that it generally produces a correct action quickly, and a weakness because it can also be the cause of occasionally missing alternatives or misidentifying a situation. One interesting aspect of this process is that most of the cognition happens at an unconscious level, as in the following quote taken from Think Again:

"Klein discovered that people with experience do most of their decision making unconsciously. They assess the situation by drawing on similar experiences from their memory, but much of this assessment process happens unconsciously. They then select a course of action from their memories of past actions. Finally, they test the practicality of this course of action by imagining what will happen if the action is taken. The imagining activity is the main conscious work that happens during a decision. What Klein had discovered is that we mostly make decisions unconsciously using experience, intuition, and imagination. We do not normally do much conscious analysis, such as identifying and comparing options or challenging assumptions and initial assessments."2

The conscious level of processing is primarily used only in unfamiliar situations and, for decisions where there is time, for consciously cross-checking the faster, unconscious process. It's fair to ask if this really is the case in health care. The answer provided for nursing, from over a decade of study by Patricia Benner and colleagues is a definite yes. The following is an excerpt from a book written by Benner, et al Expertise in Nursing Practice3:

"As a process, the diagnosis-treatment model was simply not apparent in the narrative accounts provided by nurses at any level, but clearly not in those by nurses practicing at the expert level. The judgments were rather characterized by immediate apprehension of the clinical situation, progressive understanding of the patient's story through his narrative accounts, and the capacity to notice qualitative changes by knowing the patient's pattern of responses; nursing actions were typically response-based, relying on whole intuitions of what had worked in past similar situations, and modified in accordance with this particular patient's responses to it. In this kind of fluid, skillful response, there was virtually no evidence of 'treatment' based on explicit nursing diagnoses."3

The above in no way diminishes the usefulness of anatomical information and abstract knowledge of techniques. What it does indicate is that, like pouring the molten bronze for a cast statue, the usefulness and integrity of the end result is only as good as the containing mold created by practice and experience. Without such a mold, all that is obtained for either statue or learning is a puddle of slag.


  1. Klein G. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions. MIT Press, 1999.
  2. Finkelstein S, Whitehead J, Campbell A. Think Again. Harvard Business School Press, 2009.
  3. Benner P, Tanner CA, Chesla CA. Expertise in Nursing Practice. Springer, 1996.

Click here for previous articles by Keith Eric Grant, PhD, NCTMB.


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