Why does learning take so long?

Have you ever wondered why it takes years to learn a language or play the piano? Why aren’t we wired to simply take instruction, instantly memorize it, and start flawlessly performing?

Quite a few cognitive scientists have commented on this. The explanation I most recently came across was in Alva Noe’s book Out of Our Heads. The essential argument is this – evolution has helped us reach a happy medium between complete inertia (inability to learn anything new) and over-learning from single instances. Obviously, a creature that cannot learn or adapt to changing circumstances won’t be contributing to the downstream gene pool. Hmmm… those bushes are rustling – let’s go investigate. Oh, it’s a cougar!  Run away! Phew! Survived that. (Later) Hmmm… those bushes are rustling – let’s go investigate… (repeat until luck runs out).  We need to engage in novel activities and register whether they were pleasurable or painful at some level and remember that association in the future. After getting chased by a cougar in the bush, we should think twice before running toward such a noise in the future.

Harder to comprehend is the disadvantage to immediate learning. Hmmm… those bushes are rustling – let’s go investigate… Cougar! Run away!  (Later) Hey, there’s a bush! Bushes are dangerous. Boy, those berries look yummy! Nope, bushes hide bad animals – stay away (stomach grumbles).  We can over-learn a concept or association, giving it a cause-effect association that may not be consistently warranted in reality. Most of the world isn’t black or white: sometimes the barking dog means to bite you, sometimes it’s warning you of external danger. Some red berries are yummy, others are bitter, others will make you sick.

Imagine a toddler associating words with things. She sees a four-legged animal and says something like “dog!” Mom smiles and laughs. Now the toddler points to a squirrel and says “dog!” Mom is going to start to correct her, breaking down that over-learning. 2+2 is 4, 3+2 is 5, 4+2 is 6, 1+2 is 7… because 7 comes after 6. Nope, start over.bIt seems like we have the capacity to over learn or over-generalize, but it’s governed or inhibited both by external teaching and, perhaps, our own internalized habits of mind. And habit is the key concept in Noe’s book – we develop these over time, but they are also malleable with effort.

I’ve been feeling a bit frustrated with learning some new music lately. On the guitar there is a one-to-many correspondence between a note on the score and a fretted note on the fingerboard (a single note can have up to four different fingerings on four different strings). I’m still a little fuzzy in sight-reading the upper reaches of the fretboard, which is inhibiting my ability to start playing new works – I have to both learn to translate the note positions and train myself to move my fingers accordingly. And as a physical learning task, I also need to develop the “muscle memory” and dexterity to play some passages rather quickly.

Another example: today I was working on a design for a piece of learning technology in the wood shop (not all instructional technologies need to be on 2-D screens!) I developed a working prototype, and it took me a few hours of fiddling around to fit certain pieces together – this is on top of the hours of design work spent in a computer drafting program. Again, why couldn’t I simply visualize the finished product, deduce the cutting sequence, and get it right the first time? There were too many details to keep in my head, and I ended up learning things through the prototype that I did not envision beforehand. This is a fairly common experience among artisans – the draft prototype ends up “talking back” to us and informing our ideas.

Maybe it’s the specter of my 50th birthday looming next year, but I’ve been dwelling on how long things take lately. Like aging itself, I have this sense of some cosmic unfairness – that we know our time is limited and we have to make economic choices with how to spend it and learning new things can take a long time. For somebody with more interests than I can possibly find the time to fulfill, that is the ultimate frustration.


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