The Key Behind Progress and Learning

“I hear and I forget, I see and I remember I do and I understand” – Confucius

A lesson is not learned when you can recite its contents word for word, or when you receive an A in school or an excellent diploma, nor when you are able to speak about your subject at length and impress your listeners. A lesson is learned by doing, when it becomes so much a part of you that it seems like you always knew its contents, that you were born knowing how to do it or at least there was a piece of that knowledge in you before you ever even knew about it. You might not even be able to put it into words. When someone asks you “How do you do that?” you can’t even begin to think how to explain it, you just know how to do something and it feels natural – a part of who you are, that is the essence of learning. But how does that happen?

Habits

It happens through acquiring habits. Habits are the building blocks of any skill, the key to internalizing new knowledge and turning it, literally, into a piece of you. Most people believe it takes 21 days to form a habit, now scientist claim that this is false and it could take 60+ days to automate behavior, with some people taking as much as 200-300 days. Whatever the magic number is – that’s not important, what is important is that it’s possible, everyone can do it, and the key to achieving it is consistency.

When you first ride a bike you must think about your body’s position on the bike, you need to think about the pedals – where they are, how much pressure to apply, you must try to keep your balance, you need to think about how to change your gears, how to steer, how hard to press on the brakes. At the same time that all this is happening you need to also keep in your head all the information about where you’re going, dodge pedestrians and vehicles, watch out for potholes or poodles, think of shortcuts and traffic jams. But after several tries, after a few weeks have passed, you no longer need to think about each individual thing, when you want to turn the handlebars you don’t need to look down – you know where they are, you know how they work, your brain has memorized the position perfectly and is guiding your body without you having to adjust anything, you squeeze on the brakes with just enough force to respond to the situation, you don’t get thrown over the front of the bike anymore when you see something in the distance, your brain has internalized the pressure needed to produce a certain response, the pedals are a part of your legs and you can even stand up while pedaling to go faster. Balance? No problem. You’re no longer thinking how to stay on the bike for longer than 10 seconds or go in a straight line, you’re now able to think creatively about what to do with your new skill. Should you try mountain biking, maybe some cool tricks, or maybe ride off the roof onto a trampoline and jump in your neighbor’s second story window? It’s all a possibility now, your horizons expand with your new abilities and your brain is free to direct its attention to creative possibilities, instead of being stuck in technical details, it can give you great or sometimes weird ideas about what to do next. Creativity is not possible before the formation of essential habits necessary for you to be able to performΒ  your task effortlessly.

The Living Matter behind Learning

I’m no brain scientist and this is definitely not the whole picture, it’s incomplete or at the very least oversimplified, but take it as your basic understanding. You don’t need to know everything to start and for me the following is a great foundation to build from.

Let’s first begin with a very short introduction to learning. Learning a skill or really anything at all, is a function of your brain. Every time you learn something a pathway in your brain is formed – either new brain cells are generated or connections between existing cells are created. This literally means that learning things makes them a part of you. Your brain will create a map for the sequence of your actions and it will use that map and build upon it as your skills progress.

There is an area in your brain called the Prefrontal Cortex – this is the most highly evolved area of the brain and the development of this area is what separates us from all other species. It’s associated with problem solving, concentration, emotional regulation, complex thought, creativity and many other things. And it also comes with a problem – it can only focus on one thing. When you’re learning a new skill the prefrontal cortex is occupied with the acquisition of new information, this is why you can’t think creatively while you’re learning – all your conscious thought is occupied in solving technical issues and you can’t think of anything else, because you’re limited to 1 thing at a time. The more you distract your attention with other things, the less attention gets devoted to your task – the slower you will learn.

As your Prefrontal Cortex processes information, it begins to build its maps in another area – the basal ganglia, this area is concerned with automation of tasks amongst other things. As the maps are stored in another area, this means that the Prefrontal Cortex can explore new things. So whatever you were doing a week ago that was so difficult you had to devote your whole attention to it, now becomes something you can do without even giving it a thought, thus earning the ability to concentrate your attention on new things and develop more complex skills or think creatively about a problem.

You get what you earn.

The brain systematically prunes connections and gets rid of cells. The brain is incredibly complex and needs to constantly reorganize data, this means that whatever is not being used for a period of time gets destroyed, connections are severed, cells are lost. You can’t hold on to everything and your brain is definitely no hoarder. It will mercilessly destroy your 3rd grade geography lessons, names of people you haven’t seen for some time or your most precious and essential skills if you don’t prove that they are worth retaining by using them often. There is a bright side to this and it’s called Myelin. Myelin is an insulation sheath that increases the information transfer speed between cells. Connections in the brain which are used often are wrapped with more and more insulation, making the connections faster and thus your skills become sharper – you become more accurate, faster, make better decisions and less mistakes.

Summary

So what does all this mean? In as few words as possible – you are responsible for your development. There is a mysterious and wonderful organic computer inside your head, it grows and changes, it learns what you show it, its shape changes with each new item you put in there – networks and pathways are formed, highways of information speeding up to 120m/s (390ft/s) charging through your head without you even being aware of it. Each time you practice your craft you lay a foundation, you erect a wall, you build a bridge, knowing that you have this amazing power, to literally shape the physical architecture of your brain, of your life, how could you let that go? How can you sit down and passively watch TV until you fall asleep when you could be building the most magnificent organic architecture that will shape your life and thoughts? When you study for your next lesson or practice your craft, think of it as sculpting or as building. We are careless with our practice because others can’t see us or the work will not be judged, but that is not so. You are the result of your actions, of your character, of your discipline and practice, what you have done so far is visible in your next actions – the lazy man gets lazier, it’s what his brain has been shown, the good student progresses and the lessons become easier – the brain automates and repeats to make what you have taught it easier for you. Talent is earned, not given, a gift is built, not received, your participation in the building of your own character and skills is essential, no one else can do it for you, your personality and your abilities are a manifestation of how your brain is connected, if you don’t like it – change it, you can, it’s all up to you. So what will your next action be?

 

Photograph used Β© Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

13 thoughts on “The Key Behind Progress and Learning

    • inpursuitofart
      inpursuitofart on

      Good job man, now the hard part is to keep it in mind and use it πŸ™‚ Thanks for reading.

  1. Christopher Phoenix on

    Wow, very inspiring words… I’ve never thought about life and learning this way before. Once you realize that every habit we form and skill we practice is literally sculpting the connections in the complex structure of neurons in our brains- you just can’t allow yourself to lapse into laziness!!

  2. Christopher Phoenix on

    Wow, very inspiring words… I’ve never thought of forming habits and learning as sculpting the physical living structures of our brains before, even though that is exactly what it is. When practicing art, it isn’t what I put down on paper in any one session that matters, but what new skills I take away from the experience. Makes it much easier to learn from my mistakes without getting down about them!! πŸ™‚

    Incidentally, this outlook also underscores the importance of forming the right habits and of constantly practicing so our hard-won skills don’t rust.

    • inpursuitofart
      inpursuitofart on

      Exactly man, you got it right, and thanks for all of your comments, it’s been awhile since I’ve had the opportunity to think about things like that, feels great to find like-minded people. Being outcome independent is one of the major lessons from art for me. I used to judge every drawing before, especially when they were really really horrid, think of what I’d like to do and see the completely inadequate result. I never feel happy with a piece, I never feel dissatisfied with a piece, it’s just another link in the chain. If I can’t figure something out – I just leave it for later, when I know more, it’s not a failure, it’s not a personal inadequacy, it’s a problem waiting to be solved. Outcome independence, consistency & discipline, those are the tools you need. Perfect those & you can do pretty much anything. I constantly notice how much better I could do if I only eliminated lapses in those 3 areas. Perfection is impossible, but there sure is a lot of improvement that could be made πŸ™‚
      Best of luck to you, my friend πŸ™‚

  3. Christopher Phoenix on

    Sorry about the double comment- it looked like the first one was eaten somewhere in the tangled connections of the internet!! πŸ™

    • inpursuitofart
      inpursuitofart on

      Not at all man, it’s my bad, I need to sort out my spam filter and have comments appear automatically… not to mention check my own website for comments more often πŸ˜‰

  4. Nabeel Altamash on

    Hey Volen i can’t see my msg which i posted weeks ago, plz check your spam folder cuz i m so worried i asked you so many important things πŸ™ plz bro

      • Nabeel Altamash on

        Hey brother, I am very happy to see a person who are that helpful and passionate for helping others :’) I have read your posts and its very inspiring but i need to discuss HUGE problems cuz i m in a very bad situation now so i need to tell you from where it started and my English is not my main language so sorry for mistakes. When i was a lil kid i always wonder how does cartoon made or who creates cool video games and movies vfx. But after growing up i only see very few choices to select career and move in it specially in my country. Which were engineering, medical or commerce side included and i got in huge depressed that what will i select cuz i hate all. Then selected engineering by force from parents and got failed and wasted 5-6 years T_T. Then i said its enough i am not gonna continue this and join art school which is very rare and with few courses include: Fine Art, Digital Media, Textile Design and Communication Design. I selected Communication Design in hope that someday i will earn a lot by joining ad agency and become Elite. But after studying and time goes on i took positions and good reputation in this field but its too boring and not challenging at all, although i now hate it too much and don’t even want to continue for working in advertising agency Then now i am at final year exam time and i am talking to myself what i just did to my life. Cuz learning concept art in my country there is no institution or any guidance but animation industry and many design houses exist but for taking job/internship of course they need someone with great portfolio. I really don’t know how do i penetrate in concept art and then moving into Zbrush modelling. I draw very slowly and i can’t create anything from my mind or any anatomy. And it takes forever if i try to replicate Art masters work for learning. Now i don’t have financial support left cuz my father passed away previous year and my family is very unhappy cuz i am not earning any golds. I can show you my drawings which i have posted in fb. Many times i feels like if i draw something by watching other works i feel like a thief and guilty and not accomplished. I also tried to make it as habit but its not working yet bcoz of so much depression and laziness or procrastination. Can you give me some guidance on where and how do i start or what to do now and i got like 2 months left of studies. After that i must have to do job to live. Everyone says draw everyday but what to draw everyday for concept art learning is still unknown for me. I can download pdf or video tutorials in my country Pakistan without any issue if you think i will learn by that way or any specific course.

        • Volen
          Volen on

          Hey Nabeel,

          Thanks for the comment and the kind words, those are some tough questions you’re asking and I can’t say that there are any definite answers that I can give you.
          I can see that you really emphasise the negatives of your current situation and that’s one thing that I can guarantee never leads to a good outcome… For every single thing that you list as a negative – you can also view as a positive and a challenge to tackle.
          I also come from a country with very little choice for most people. The upside is that everything is cheap and it doesn’t take a lot to make the rent, especially now, with the internet – you’re not really constrained by anything. Being in Pakistan, having limited options of what you can choose from – those aren’t really issues with the internet available. I’ve had people in very similar situations write to me, quite a few from India and they manage to make a living and pay the bills working online. If I had a choice right now – going to a cheaper country would actually make things quite easier for me as I’d have to work less to cover my expenses.
          You also label your previous education as wasted time. You could also turn that around and either see what you can learn from what you’ve already done and transfer it to your new field or think about what not to do again. You say about your current job that you thought it would be great, but it turned out to be not what you thought… Could concept art be the exact same experience? Could you spend a few more years going after this only to realize it’s not very challenging and not what you wanted. I can guarantee you that as you get better some things become automatic and are no longer challenging, you can just cruise through what you’re doing… So what is it that determines what you should do? A lot of times it’s just your attitude my friend. Your first step is working on yourself, reframing your situation as a series of challenges, not inescapable dead-ends. There is nothing that you can’t do and the world, at the moment, is the best it’s ever been, it’s never been as connected and open to all. Drop your negative thoughts, think about how you could rethink everything you see as a negative and turn it into a positive. Use what you’ve learned so far and extract the lessons from it, there’s no way that having gone through a few different fields you can’t find huge amounts of concepts and ideas that can transfer over directly to art.

Let me know what you think