WHAT IS LEARNING?
By Roland Watson
In the last article, I reviewed the different types of education that we require to make the most of our lives. Now I want to consider an even deeper question: What is learning? For example, some people might say that learning is the comprehension of "true" statements about existence. However, this raises the question, what is true?
In the series of talks on knowledge, I explored the issue of whether true knowledge is even available to us, and, using my analogy of the ant farm, I demonstrated that it is not. Of course, to be precise, what I said is: while we may uncover real truth, because of the limitations of our perspective we will never know for certain that it is the truth.
What all of this implies is that education can always be refined, or even corrected. Today's education is just our current set of views, one could even call them biases.
As an example of this, our education about the solar system has progressed from the idea that the sun revolves around the earth, to the earth revolves around the sun, to - thanks to Albert Einstein - that the earth follows the path of least resistance through the space that has been curved by the sun's massive presence. It follows this invisible curve through space.
When understanding is refined in this way, step by step, this is known as perturbation. In a scientific sense, it means giving an approximate answer to a question, and then systematically improving it.
On the other hand, perhaps learning is something else entirely. Education is a guide, leading us in a direction, or directions. There is an ethical direction, away from selfishness, and a knowledge direction, towards a greater estimation or realization of truth, towards comprehension of greater systems of order, or, with chaos theory, of disorder.
Discovery and education are giving us a better appreciation of the order that is implicit in physical reality - this can also be called objective reality; and the order implicit in our interactions with it.
Having said all this, though, we can start with the fact that all learning is incremental. This is because all knowledge is composite. To learn something, you must learn everything of which it is composed.
If you want to learn a particular subject, you begin by learning the first few things about it. Then, after you have absorbed them, after you really understand them, you learn the next few. All you need is time, and a good teacher: someone who, or a book which, understands the subject well.
The most difficult subjects, such as advanced mathematics, are simply very long strings of ideas, thousands of distinct steps of knowledge, but they still have to be taken a few at a time.
Viewed another way, and to continue an earlier discussion, to understand a complex system you must understand all of the separate subsystems of which it is composed. For example, the "system" of another person includes their subsystems of race, sex, age, and culture, as well as the basic human system, and by derivation, the universal system.
Here's a quote from Albert Einstein. "Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone."
Einstein was right. Most ideas are simple, once you have built the platform of their predecessors. Each subsequent step is only that, the next single step, and given time, your mind will take it.
We can also see that Einstein, one of the greatest geniuses of all time, agreed with the premise of human equality, including human intellectual equality.
What is intelligence?
Of course, some people do learn quicker. There are differences in teacher ability, but also in raw intelligence. Their brains have deeper folds, and more neurons and synapses.
As a biochemical phenomenon, one can consider intelligence to be the rate at which neural networks are fired, or the level of activity of one's mind, together with the complexity of such networks, the number of neurons that are involved in each. Indeed, this is the objective reality behind the phrase, "to put a lot of thought into it."
Even more, when your brain realizes that something is going to be difficult to learn, it does this by estimating just how much neural processing will be required.
More precisely, intelligence can be considered to be the amount of energy that flows through the frontal lobe, which is the part of the brain responsible for reason. Furthermore, it is structured energy. Most neurons fire periodically, but in an unorganized fashion. Thought only occurs when the firings are synchronized.
Use it or lose it
This idea also gives us insight into a couple of other points that I have discussed in other series. The first of these is that the overall effect of brainwashing is to reduce neural circuitry firing, whereas education increases it.
Secondly, when someone has a narrow life, this means that they are using only selected parts of their brain, although this usage could be so extensive that these parts become quite active and developed. For example, it has been shown that the areas of the brain devoted to finger dexterity, for violinists and pianists, are extremely well developed. On the other hand, other parts of such an individual's brain may atrophy, and they could even be pruned.
Pruning occurs when the brain eliminates what it considers to be unnecessary synapses. This can represent a shrinkage of your collection of memories, and even of your intellectual capacity.
The goal of learning is to exercise your mind, to increase its level of processing, and to ensure that as little as possible is lost. You need to use your willpower to generate more electrical charge in your brain, to create larger, more complex, and more frequently fired neural circuits.
From this we can also see that having control of your will, is the same as having conscious control of your unconscious mind.
Differences in aptitude
To return to the specific differences that exist between people, there is also the issue of aptitude. There are so many things to learn about, and do, and some of them will be easier for you than others.
You may find mathematics easy; or language; or you may have a talent for a form of artistic expression; or, you might have great sensitivity to relationships and other people; or finally, you might have great strength, dexterity and coordination.
The human brain is almost unimaginably complex. As an organ, it has proven itself capable of literally everything that anyone in history has ever been able to learn, and do.
Moreover, as part of this, it is changing itself all the time. Change is the constant for the brain. Not only is it continually charged with purposeful electricity, synapses are being added or pruned, all the time. Indeed, you should never underestimate your brain. As I said in the articles on personal change, the best way to develop as an individual is to work on your weaknesses. Don't accept being weak, at anything. Force your brain to get better at it, to devote all of its resources to the task.
The educational method
Another aspect of education is its breadth, the variety and depth of the different subjects that you learn. This in turn relates to the fact that education is also a "method." You learn how to learn.
For example, once you have become well educated in a couple of subjects, new ones are easier. Part of this comes from that fact that through having a broad educational background, you will probably have gained some exposure to the new subject. In other words, you have already learned a bit of it, taken the first few steps.
From all of this, we can further see that what you have learned shapes - it enhances or limits - what you subsequently can learn.
Another factor here is your desire to learn. It may even be the most important factor of all. Many people learn quicker simply because they have a greater desire. They try harder to concentrate, and they study for more hours.
From this, we can also see that the brain is like a muscle. Through such discipline, we can improve its fitness. Therefore, no matter how weak your brain might be right now, if you start working it, it will eventually become strong.
Also, your environment plays a large part in building, or killing, your desire. For instance, if your family prizes education, if you receive regular and close assistance, if the assistance is supportive - if you receive positive reinforcement, then you will enjoy education. You will enjoy the process of learning. You will not view it with disdain, or as a necessary evil.
Moreover, it will become a matter of course for you to have a dictionary handy, including on your computer, and if you do not know the meaning of a word, you will develop the habit of always looking it up.
In conclusion, the final issue is the problem of fear. Learning too is an exploration of the unknown. Indeed, the hardest thing to do is to start: to get over the psychological barrier, which can seem overwhelming, of what it is that you want to do. The solution to this is to use your will, to control your anxiety, and then to start - and to keep going: to learn a little more each day.
In the next article, I will explore what parents should teach their children.
© Roland Watson 2014