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.

Brief thoughts on learning and meaning

I feel like I’m fighting a bug, so tonight’s entry will be short. My colleague Cynthia D’Angelo posted today about Zelda Speed Runs, a form of “speed gaming” I had not heard of. Basically, one learns – over time and with much community support – how to efficiently traverse a game, gathering all the goodies (or similar goals) in a minimum amount of time. A single run can take 18 hours, so this is not for the faint of heart.  Edit: As Cynthia pointed out in a comment below, the speed run can take 18 minutes, while a “normal” run of the game can take 20 hours.

My first reaction may be similar to many readers’: this is what people spend time getting good at? You have to understand, it takes many many repetitions of a game run (again, these can take 20 hours-plus once you get good at it) to be competitive. People record glitches in the game code that might afford one a shortcut to a particular goal. This is a huge investment in time.

But then I thought about some of my own challenges. Among other pieces, I’m starting to work on Bach’s Chaconne transcribed for the guitar. 256 bars (actually, 64 variations on a 4-bar pattern). Professional violinists spend a lifetime mastering this one piece – once you get all the notes down (and with runs of 32nd notes, there are a lot of them) you still have to develop a feel for how the various variations string together, when to hold back, when to cut loose. It’s going to take me a very long time to master (if I ever do).

So, speed gaming and playing the Chaconne. Neither is intrinsically worth more than the other. To the individual practitioner both activities are engaging. There are audiences that derive pleasure from supporting / spectating the practitioner.

What makes both of these “challenging” – and this is the thought I want to mull over at length in a future post – is rooted in the very nature of human learning. Learning is fundamentally about training neurons to fire in new patterns. This takes time and repetition (in most cases). It’s been noted that humans have to strike a balance between complete inertia – the inability to learn anything new – and over-learning, or the ability to learn new behaviors so quickly that we never adopt habits.  (I don’t think I’m getting that contrast exactly right – I’ll try to research it in that future post I keep talking about). In short, there are good evolutionary reasons why I can’t just read through the Chaconne once and have it completely memorized. I have to train my fingers and my memory to anticipate passages, train my fingers to fly quickly enough over the strings, even work out individual fingerings for each note to make the passage more efficient. It’s a great deal of work.

Oh yes, I wish I could learn it quickly and simply start performing it. But that’s not how we’re wired. It’s both frustrating and rewarding. And with that, I bid you all good night. Really, at some point soon I want to reflect more deeply about biological origins of slow learning, but not tonight. I’m too fuzzy-headed. And as Dragon-born, I still have to locate an Elder Scroll to learn the Dragonrend shout and save the world from extinction.

Music, math, learning and immediate gratification

Have you ever wanted to play guitar? I’ve been reflecting on my own learning lately, particularly after attending a workshop last night by one of my all-time favorite guitarists, Chris Proctor.

I started off in a fairly traditional manner, learning basic chords and strumming. This was in the context of a high school music class where every student either took beginning recorder or guitar lessons.  I enjoyed it so much that I wanted to continue after the course was over. Well, I knew this teacher had private students, and I knew which instruction book he was using (having seen his students carrying it around), so I picked up a copy of Solo Guitar Playing by Frederick Noad and dove in.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but this book took a very different approach from the one my teacher had taken. In class, we had started with left hand positions for strumming chords – you lock down your left hand at various positions on the fretboard and then strike all of the strings simultaneously to produce harmonies. Noad’s book, by contrast, began with single-voice melodies – you learn the pitches of the open strings and start playing simple 3 note exercises on each string, ultimately combing strings to have a greater range of pitches. Well into the book we encounter the two-note chord – striking a base note with the thumb while the fingers play a melody. It wasn’t until much later – after a year’s worth of study – that I encountered anything that looked like a “traditional” guitar chord. By then it was slowly dawning on me that the longer pieces with names (pieces other than short exercises) were all composed in the 18th century.

Eventually I came to realize that there were (at least) two pathways to learning the guitar. One can start with the chords and work up to adding melodic embellishment and finally full melody with harmony. This is the path of the folks/blues/rock guitarist. The classical path reverses the order – one begins with simple melodies, builds up to simple two-note harmonies, and eventually arrive at full melodies and chords.

Both learning paths can take us to the same place – being facile both melodically and harmonically. I would argue, however, that beginning with chords favors the short-term feedback and gratification needed to get through the frustrations of first learning an instrument. With a good teacher and some guidance, one can play recognizable music in the first one hour lesson. The “fun” and reward of playing is available almost immediately.

Taking up a classical method requires a tolerance of delayed gratification. It’s not very “musical” to play three note ditties over and over while memorizing standard music notation and locating fingers on the frets. Mistakes (particularly buzzing strings) sound much more acute when playing single notes. If I had not already been learning some chords and “real” music to keep me amused, I might not have had the patience to stick with the classical instruction path.

Every since my epiphany around the dual approach to learning guitar (I think I first had this insight while in college) I’ve been paying attention to other “dual paths” to learning.  Nowadays I sometimes treat my own continuing statistics education as a dual-path approach. On the one hand we have the formal theory of conditional distributions described by density functions and how they interact. On the other is a purely computational/simulation approach – let’s try doing something a gazillion times and observing the distribution of the outcome. When I’m feeling a bit shaky on my theory, I often simulate a problem computationally to confirm that the results conform to my expectations.

In formal education I’ve recently come across two initiative by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching: Quantway and Statway. These are two “developmental” math courses for community college (i.e, “remedial” courses for those who are not yet ready to cover college level mathematics). One of the key features is that they allow students to engage in real mathematics by focusing on reasoning and applied statistics, developing the formalisms (the parts students generally get stuck on) along the way. This is analogous to how people learn folk guitar – begin by making real music, however simple, and then pick up the formalisms (tonic and dominant chord theory, for example) in the context of making music. I’m paying close attention to an evaluation of these programs, and am curious whether this approach helps struggling students over the hump.