As the tennis ball flies over the net, Federer draws back his racquet. In a split second he has pre-calculated where the ball is going to fall, where it will bounce, and the angle at which he will hit it. And as soon as he has hit it, he knows from experience whether or not it is a winner.
Here is just one of the fundamental feedback systems in one part of his brain:
But the functionality of such processes is what really matters. The reason things get easier as we do them more – the reason practice makes perfect – is the presence of an automatic response tendency which we carefully control. Reward – in our case finding what you want – reinforces the correct action.
What’s more, we anticipate what is coming. We second-guess life, hence the utility of experience. Of course, this has been known for some time, but now there is direct evidence for it’s precise anatomy from modern imaging studies:
For correct anticipation, we have specific brain areas such as the prefrontal motor cortex to control it. Otherwise a forehand smash might be prepared for a ball falling far too low.
Research shows that overlap with irrelevant reward associations (ie. when blue ink is used to spell the word ‘red’) influence the automaticity.
If we blindfolded Federer and randomly informed him that his shot was ‘in’ or ‘out’, regardless of the truth, it would severely affect his automatic ‘knowing’ of whether he has hit a winner.
Why is this relevant to searching the web? The major languages are said to have several hundred thousand words each, depending of course on how you count them. And if we cross over enough websites with limited numbers of keywords, we have some inevitable irrelevant reward association in our searching.
A picture has no such limitations. No such overlap. No such irrelevant reward when ‘catalytic converter’ brings up ‘how one works’ as well as ‘how to replace it’.
What about more correct keywords, you may say. Certainly – this will help. But given the growing gap between available information and available words, we need more differentiators.
While Federer may be interested in the percentage backhands Nadal plays in a match, and how far he can run in 30 seconds, chances are he would prefer to visualise his returns against Rafa’s low, powerfully angled shots as his form of practice. To emulate how the ball will look when it comes to him at that speed and that angle. And not overfeed himself with information that may or may not still be true by the end of his match against Nadal. After all, imagery and perception have a surprising amount in common, and Nadal will be doing the same visualisation:
So whether it’s tennis or web searching, we have a natural tendency to visualise and anticipate. And whether the reward is a good shot, a great site, or a bar of chocolate, reinforcement is key.