“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?
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 perform 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.
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 © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons