Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Applied Force of Habit

Learning any new skill requires many things: You need a supportive environment, proper equipment, time, energy, and just enough information to move forward. But once everything is in place, there’s still the matter of actual learning.

I read an interesting article on the New York Times website recently that talks about the development of habits. And one of the elements of the article talked about neurological experiments that were done with rats. The rats were wired up, to show the researchers just what was going on in their minds, and then sent out into a very simple maze to look for some chocolate. The first time through the maze, it didn’t look like the rat was really trying to make much progress, but neurologically speaking, the rat’s brain was completely lit up, trying to incorporate every sensory input, and understand what was happening. With repetition, the rat’s brain quieted down, and as the habit of running the maze took hold, there was actually very little brain activity, except at the beginning, and the end.

(Side note: there's a lot more to the article than this, because it exposes some of the practical applications of this kind of research. It's scary, but worth reading.)

I think this description of habit forming is a pretty accurate description of what goes on at the bench when I’m learning something new, or trying to figure out a new procedure. It takes me a while, and after the first attempt or two, I start to get the hang of it.

I was talking with my wife about this yesterday. Ariel’s a Nurse Practitioner, and she confirmed that this is basically what she went through, when she learned new procedures. Early examinations of patients were very thorough, but unfocused, while she tried to take everything in, and get used to the new context. After a while, though, she began to find a few reference points, and it helped her to establish herself in the routine, and she was able to hone in on the parts of the body that she was specifically looking for. She said it was very frustrating for her, because she’s such a diligent student. She’d read so much, and studied the theory so hard, knew it backwards and forwards, and she told me that she had some hope that this would make learning the exams faster and easier. But the reality was that there were some things that simply didn’t make sense until she was in that context. Recited facts made more sense when she was able to match them up with what she was actually feeling. But more extensive knowledge of the theory involved didn't translate into a tactile understanding of what her hands and fingers were telling her in those early examinations.

Without the theory, what she does as a practitioner is just groping around. She needs the theory to help her make sense of what she’s feeling. I came at it from the other side, arguing that a child pulling a nail has a tactile, visceral understanding of leverage, but that learning more about how leverage breaks down will help refine that understanding. Which comes first: the theory or the experience? Once the process gets going, I lean towards doing the practical work before learning theory. Once I’m engaged in something, and I hit a snag, I’m fully engaged in trying to solve that problem. This is very fertile soil to plant new information in, because I’m invested in learning it, to solve my problem. That’s 180 degrees from the lab sciences I learned as a kid, where we’d learn something, and do a lab ‘experiment’ to see that it actually worked. My wife still leans towards theory first, because otherwise, any kind of physical exam would be nothing more than gratuitous groping. There’s a little bit of a chicken and egg thing going on here.

I also watched a video recently, of a talk given by Dr. Abraham Verghese, talking about the importance he finds in the ritual of the physical exam, and it really drives home the point that it’s important to remain present in the moment, and not be distracted or distanced by technology. And he makes an interesting point about how it’s very easy for some of them to really lose touch of the context, and the point: That context, and the point, is the patient. This is part of why I think that happens:

As you (yes, you) read these words, you’re not really paying attention to the rest of the screen. You’re almost certainly not paying attention to the rest of the computer. Or the desk that it’s sitting on, or the walls around you, the things that are on the walls, or on the floor,... or anything else that lies in the expanse of your field of view: You’re only focusing on the objects that your mind is telling you to look for: these tiny sequences of symbols that make up words and sentences. Despite all of the visual information that your eyes are actually taking in, your brain is actively ignoring most of it... or at least, it does when some goofy blogger doesn't deliberately call your attention to the rest of the room. It’s a habit that we form, to deliberately not see everything, because we’re not really looking at the room, with the computer in it. We make a habit of ignoring the context around these words. And a mental process that deliberately shuts out that wider context is going to lead to other habits with similar traits, like seeing the data, but not patient. (This also leads to a variety of other problems that I won’t get into here.)

But when you’re engaged in work that is guided by touch, it’s almost completely opposite. Your entire brain remains focused on making sense of what it’s hearing from your muscles and your skin, and all of the nerves that are communicating very little more than ‘hot-cold,’ ‘pressure,’ and ‘push-pull.’ Your mind isn’t ignoring any of that input, because it’s all necessary to help your mind form an image, and both hemispheres are fully engaged in the process of analyzing and visualizing the object.

This is where I finally bring this post full-circle. It’s important to keep your brain fully engaged when you’re trying to learn new techniques and processes in the shop, to form good habits. It’s important to understand enough theory to guide the learning process, but it’s just as important to feel what’s going on, and let the work guide that process. I know that I have a habit of bringing a dead horse in for its regularly scheduled beating when it comes to learning on the internet. I think this is why I keep talking about it. I believe that the best learning is the result of using theory to inform your understanding of the visceral understanding of the work that you do. And I believe that having your hands actively engaged in that work will make it more present in your thoughts, because when you’re physically working, you’re actively engaged in the work, and you’re not worried about something you just read. Once the work is done, you can see if it worked out as planned. If not, you can refine your strategy or your technique accordingly, to solve the problems that you’re having.

It's very easy to read, and read, and read, and wonder why it's not making the skill come any faster. And that's distracting, and demoralizing, and one of the other features of good habit forming is the reward that comes as a result of performing the habitual act. If you're reading too much, working too little, and the act of working doesn't bring the results you were hoping for, it's going to make a habit of working very hard to establish.

Regardless of the chicken and egg thing that’s happening, I think the fact remains that It’s critical to develop skill and understanding side by side, letting each inform the other,  to get the most out of both. And once that process gets started, it will start to sustain itself.

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