How we learn
building a model inside of ourselves
Published: 2017 02 12
Updated: 2020 01 15
I like to think of the process of learning as that of building a model inside of ourselves. The better this internal model or representation, the better our understanding of the thing that it represents and the better we can act based on this model with zero or minimal thinking effort.
Learning can include building a mental model in the first place, and it can also include modifying and improving this mental model. An important part of learning is being able to use the model that we've built.
Learning is a process of building a model inside of ourselves. That's step one. The next step is being able to access and use what we've learned.
The learning process is thus two fold, installing the model, and accessing it. How do we make this process more efficient?
Efficiency here can mean two things. One is how quickly can we learn what we are trying to learn. Two is how much we can use what we've learned in other contexts.
Another important factor is can we make the process of learning enjoyable (or as enjoyable as possible given that there will be inevitable moments of challenge.)
Also important is that the movement segments are contiguous and easy to connect.
Giving models contiguous elements
If you are building a model it makes sense to have pieces that fit together easily. And this is where clear definitions are helpful. Not only do they make pieces easy to store and recall, they also make it easy to assemble them meaningfully into a model inside of ourselves.
Now once the model is constructed do we still need the definitions?
This is because the purpose of the definitions is to allow us to reconstruct the model inside of ourselves. Once it has been constructed we no longer need those artificial definitions.
This is like gluing a plastic model kit together.
Initially the model comes in pieces with clearly defined limits. The process of gluing the pieces together destroys those clearly defined limits. But it doesn't matter because they've served their purpose, allowing us to assemble the model in the first place.
When a model is installed in our brain (or uploaded to our consciousness), we can practice the movements smoothly, going from one to another without the need to think of how to do it We don't need the initial limits.
However, if we choose to refine the model, improve our understanding or skill, then we can define new limits to practice within.
Defining limits allows us to build models within ourselves or improve those models.
The idea of learning, is to be able to get rid of the limits, like training wheels on a bicycle.
Being able to define clearly defined limits can make the process of learning easier. The better we are at defining, and where necessary, re-defining limits, the easier we can make the process of learning.
I used this principle when teaching myself to write Japanes, and then Chinese characters. I used it to learn sequences of yoga poses and to refine the way I teach yoga poses in general. This idea is often used in Aerobics classes.
But there is one thing that can make this practice more effective and more fun.
The Theoretical and Flowing Modes of Consciousness
At this point it helps to further explore the theoretical and doing modes of consciousness.
These are important because the experience of both is different.
Many of us spend lots of time in the thinking mode to the point that we don't even know there is another mode of consciousness. Or we tend to think of it as rare and hard to get to, the realm of elite athletes and super yogis and martial artists.
Flow is a state of non-thinking that is never-the-less marked by intelligence. And it can be enabled when we learn things to the point that we don't have to think to do them.
When the model is good enough it does the thinking or mental processing for us so that we don't have to think. Instead we can enjoy the experience of flowing; watching ourselves respond to internal or external circumstances instantaneously.
It's actually the state a calligrapher enters when painting.
Instead of having to think about how to paint a particular character (Chinese or Japanese) because it has been painted so many times the model of that character and many others, is a part of that calligraphers brain. And so they can paint without thinking.
Rather than the exact same character each time, the character can be responsive to the mood of the calligraphter, to the ink, the brush, to the poem that it is a part of and to the characters already painted and the space left and the characters yet to be painted.
The painting becomes a response to what was happening at the time the calligrapher painted it guided by the integrated models of all of those characters inside of themselves.
In the same way, someone who is skilled at motorcycle riding, who has a sufficiently refined model of motor cycle riding inside of themselves can handle a bike with aplomb no matter the condition of the road or what is on it.
Now the interesting thing is that we can enter this state while learning. The key is working within the limits of short term memory.
We can practice from short term memory. When we do, we can get into the mindstate of flow because we don't have to think about what we are practicing, so long as what we are practicing is small enough to fit into our short term memory. One of the biggest reasons for doing this is to make learning a more enjoyable experience. Another reason is that it makes it easier for our brain to index what we are learning.
Know to flow
To get a better understanding of how to flow, and also how to learn both enjoyable and efficiently, read Know to flow