NPR logo The Art Of Knowing What You're Looking For


The Art Of Knowing What You're Looking For

Baseball batting.

I have an unusual name. As I've mentioned before in this place, it is difficult or even impossible for me to tell someone my name over the phone. If they don't know it, they can't hear it. It's just too unexpected.

In my experience, this is a quite general phenomenon. We see and hear what we expect to see and hear, at least a fair bit of the time. I don't have to actually hear your response to my "How are you?" to be pretty sure what you said in reply.

And it is striking that, as the linguist Geoffrey Pullum once mentioned to me, if I mention my hat, and then my scarf and then go on to mention my dloves, you will very certainly hear what context dictates I am likely to have said — which is not dloves (not only is that not a word in English, but the dl sound doesn't even exist in English) but, of course, gloves.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. It lets us hear and make sense of each other even when conditions are suboptimal or words are slurred or in some other way garbled. And anyway, we're not interested in the sounds we make, but in what we are saying. And context goes a long way to shaping that.

And, yet, there's something disturbing, not to say puzzling, about all this. It's as if to hear you, I need to already know what you are going to say. But if I already know, then I don't really need to listen!

Plato articulated a variation on this same puzzle a couple of thousand years ago: You need to know what you're looking for in order to tell when you've found it but, if you already know, then why go looking? The upshot, for Plato, is that you can't learn anything new. Perhaps he would have been better off noticing that hearing, perceiving, learning, is always a matter of using what you know to make sense of what is on offer.

We can see something like these same ideas working themselves out in the game of baseball.

Baseball players, like other athletes endowed with extraordinary sensory motor skills, don't necessarily always have faster reflexes or better vision than the rest of us. If hitting a fastball, or returning a serve, were dependent on reaction times, then, well, it'd be impossible to do either. The familiar advice of the coach to keep your eye on the ball is just not something that it is possible for a hitter to follow. The third of a second, or less, that is available just isn't enough time to see, to decide, and to act.

The good news is that we don't need to do the impossible. As in conversations, batters often have a good idea, much better than a guess, what a pitcher is going to throw. Not every pitcher can throw any pitch, and not any pitch would be appropriate in any situation. What batters excel at, generally, is reading the intention and body language of the pitcher.

What marks out expert athletes from novices, as Janet Starkes of the McMaster University showed in the 1980s, is not their special physiology or reaction times, but rather their ability to take in the meaning or significance of a situation right away. Novices need to figure things out. William Chase and Herbert Simon had demonstrated a similar finding about chess players. They are not better at remembering arbitrary arrangements of pieces on boards. But they are very good at remembering possible chess positions. For these aren't merely arrangements of pieces on boards; they are milieu, that is to say, meaningful situations in which one side is on the attack and other is vulnerable, or in which forces are awkwardly balanced, or whatever.

We remember meaning. We understand organization. In these cases, it's not about the brute facts or the physics and it's not about the sounds out of your mouth.

About ten years ago, superstar women's fast-pitch softball pitcher Jennie Finch went on the road to challenge baseball's best hitters to try their luck batting against her. Hurling softballs against MLB superstars — Albert Pujols and Mike Piazza, for example — Finch made the very best baseball hitters of the day look like amateurs. They couldn't touch her.

You can get a sense of the way she dominated baseball's best in this clip, where she faces off against Albert Pujols.

How can we explain this? It's true that a fastball thrown at 95 mph from a mound 60 feet, 6 inches away arrives 40 or some odd milliseconds later than Finch's underarm 70-mph pitch, tossed from 43 feet away.

But guys like Pujols routinely hit balls thrown a lot faster than 95. What explains their inability to put bat on the much larger, green softball?

The interesting story here isn't about baseball versus softball, nor is it a battle of the sexes. No, the interesting story here — and why it remains relevant today — is what it reveals about expertise and action.

The baseball players couldn't hit Finch not because she was too fast, or they were too slow, or because of her distinctive angle of attack. It wasn't physics that made her un-hittable. What made her impossible to hit was that she was, in a word, strange. She was serving dlove when all they knew was glove. She was speaking a language they didn't understand. Which isn't surprising: She isn't a baseball player; she plays a different game.

What makes hitting, like any other form of communication, possible is our participation together in an ongoing game or play or, better, relationship.

Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe