Tuesday, April 13, 2010

ALL experience leads to PROGRESS, even if it appears we are DIGRESSING!

Ever wonder if it is really useful to help the drug addict 70 times 7 if he always goes back to his drugs????

The previous blog deals how the brain functions on the neural level. It gives the basics of how a Neural Network works. This is very important to understand if you are to understand the concepts I am going to present in this blog posting.

What is the number 1 secret to learning new things? REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION, and so on... Seriously, this is how our brain learns new things. For example, if I am training my brain in how to swing the perfect backhand in tennis, I will need to train my brain through continuous repetition until it becomes easy and natural. We all have learned and have stories of our own that prove the effectiveness of repetition, but what exactly is going on in the brain as we repeat actions over and over again?
When you try something for the first time, your brain uses the neurons that are associated with movements or thoughts or ideas that are related to what you are trying to learn. Not just individual neurons are used, but rather neural networks are used. A neural network is a group of neurons that are all interconnected. Some of the neurons in the network will receive input and some will push the output and there will probably be a mesh of other neurons in the middle that are often referred to as the hidden layer.

I do not know if the brain actually has hidden layers or not, but I suspect it has MANY MANY hidden layers. And in fact, in a later posting I will discuss what I believe are the relationship between the hidden layers and the subconscious. But for now, think of the hidden layer as a network of interconnected neurons that are between the input and output sets of neurons. Their purpose is to facilitate learning.
Now back to the example. Let's suppose that one thing I do know how to do well is karate and let's suppose that what I am trying to learn how to do is a tennis backhand. Well, since this is the first time I have ever tried a tennis backhand, my brain has to decide which set of neurons to use to execute the backhand. Well, let's suppose for this example that the set of neurons that executes movements closest to a tennis backhand is a karate move called the backfist. So there I am on the tennis court and the ball comes to me and I attempt the backswing and well.... I fail naturally. Why? Well, it is my first time and the neural network I used works great for a backfist in Karate but isn't quite good enough for a backhand swing. So, before I try it again, I analyze what I wanted to do against what I actually did and think about the corrections I need to make in order to make it work. This is when your brain either chooses another network, OR your brain makes some adjustments to the configuration of the neural network it is using. Then you try again. Well, naturally, the second attempt will usually have better results, but they will be far from perfect. So then you re-analyze and your brain re-adjusts the configuration of the neurons, and guess what? You try again. And you do this over and over again. In theory, your brain is re-fining the configuration of the neural networks it is using until it finds the best configuration.
However, one thing I have learned is that when trying to learn new things it is best to repeat, repeat, repeat UNTIL you get to a point where you do not notice anymore incremental improvement. Then what should you do??? Give it a rest for a while and do something else. Why? Well, my theory is that during the rest, your brain does not stop working on the problem, but rather it uses the rest time to actually grow new axons and connect up the neurons in such a way as to make the network work better and more efficient. So after the rest, try the backswing again, and this time, it should work better. Why is that? Well, that neural network that was used which was setup for Karate backfists, has just been modified by adding some extra axons (neural interconnections) to make it also better at tennis backhand swings. So now let's suppose that I continue to practice both my Karate backfists and tennis backhand swings on a regular basis, what the brain will do is continually grow new axons to the neural network in order to maximize the learning of both tasks. After continuous repetition, what I have is a network of neurons that works now for both backfists and backhand swings!
This process works FOR learning ALL things, from walking to calculus to interpersonal relationships to controlling our emotions. The secret is REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION, etc.
Now, the reason I suggested the rest in between repetitions is because this the time the brain uses to grow new axons. Let me take this thought one step further and say this is one of the purposes of sleep. Humans need sleep because that is the time when short term memory and newly learned tasks are repeated over and over again virtually in the brain in order to train the networks in the long term memory and grow new axons to make the networks more efficient.
Okay, now that we have established how the brain actually learns things, let's discuss the philosophies of life that we can apply that will effectively use the brain's way of learning.
First off, real-world experiences are MUCH more effective at teaching a brain new concepts than learning through other sources such as books, speaking with others, teachers, etc. So whenever possible, it is best to teach or learn through real-world experiences.
Secondly, if you can relate the new concept to another concept the student has already learned, then this helps their brains use the neural networks that are the closest match for the learned concept. The example of using a karate backfist neural network to learn how to do a tennis backhand swing illustrates this. Another example might be when teaching chemistry, try comparing the concepts in chemistry to other concepts well understood by the students such as cooking (molar chemistry) or magnetism (ionic bonding) or sharing (covalent bonding). Or as students ourselves, we should always try to relate what we are learning to concepts we have already learned.
Thirdly, we should repeat, repeat, repeat in our minds what we are trying to learn. This is the purpose and beauty of homework... It allows us to repeat the application of what we learned. It is through this repetition that our brains refine the neural networks enough until they are perfected for the task or concept.
I want to address something now that is more emotionally impacting and that is the changing of character. William James said, “Sow an action and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.” Let's say that I were to have a problem with drinking. I might have this problem of drinking for many reasons, but for this example, let's say that the reason I have a drinking problem is because I errantly believed and learned the concept that to have a good time, I need to be drunk. After repeatedly getting drunk time and time again and finding it very fun, I have just strengthened this belief in my mind. If I continue to repeat this and continue to find that my funnest times are when I am drinking, I will find myself developing the habit of drinking to have fun. And in time, my character will reflect this belief. Now let's say that after several years of repetition of the application of this concept, I find that the side effects of alcohol abuse start having their impact on me, such as liver problems, failed relationships, financial problems, etc. Well now, I am at the cross-roads of learning. I can either continue to believe that drinking is the key to fun, or I can believe that drinking is the cause of my sufferings. Some people would immediately LEARN the concept of that drinking causes problems and that would counter the learning that drinking is the key to fun. Others do not learn this new concept that fast. WHY??? Well the reason should be obvious to you by now. The more we train our neurons in a concept through repetition, the more refined the neural network becomes until it is perfectly learned and very strong. So if I repeatedly apply the concept of drinking to have fun and I find that it IS FUN repeatedly, then the neural network gets cemented on this concept. For me to learn the concept that drinking causes problems to the point to counter the other concept, I will need to have this new concept as strongly cemented in my brain as the errant concept. And how do we get the new concept as strongly cemented???? REPETITION, REPETITION, REPETITION, etc. So for the people that take longer to overcome their drinking problem, it is because they need to be reminded and experience the problems OVER and OVER and OVER again.
I am reminded of a conversation I had with a friend who was frustrated at a church that was trying to help homeless people. The frustration was that despite bringing food to the homeless, giving them money or shelter and preaching to them of a better way of life, the homeless seem to always go back to the homeless life and the life of bad decisions. What I realized is that for some people, it may take one application of preaching to turn their life around. Maybe that preaching was successful at reminding the people of both the concepts of responsibility and the concepts of problems associated with irresponsibility and the learning of the positive concepts was strong enough to counter the negative concepts already learned. However, we will find that for most people, it will take much more preaching than just one time. It will take repetition, repetition, repetition.
Let's look at two example individuals, John and Betty. Let's say for John it takes 100 repetitions to learns the concept of problems come from drinking and for Betty it will take 10,000 repetitions. Well, unfortunately, no-one knows how many repetitions it will take for John or Betty. So imagine that we keep preaching this concept to John and Betty and after 100 repetitions (maybe 5 months), we see John finally "get it" and turn his life around. For Betty, we still have another 9,900 repetitions to go. But since we cannot know how many we have left, it is tempting to simply give up!
We need to realize when helping someone else, if they do not understand the concept and do not change at that time, your attempt is NOT IN VAIN. It was simply one repetition closer to the goal. For Betty, each repetition is simply bringing her closer and closer to the goal, and that is how we should view it. If we give up on Betty, it is because WE DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE CONCEPT OF LEARNING THROUGH REPETITION!
So when we see the drunkard make progress and then DIGRESS back to being a drunkard, please understand that the exercise was simply another repetition that brings the drunkard closer to a sober life. ALL life experiences lead us to PROGRESS because all life experiences teach us concepts. Even if it appears that for a time a person digresses, it is really just one more step in the right direction. Before we can succeed, we first must fail, analyze, and then try again, fail some more and re-analyze, try again, fail some more and re-analyze, and so on until we finally succeed. And once we succeed, we need to continue the process of repetition and analysis to cement the success and build a successful character.


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