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Integrating Knowledge

The most powerful motivator for learning is instant applicability. A job to be done, a problem to solve or an argument to win can energise you to learn almost anything.

However, even if you are on fire with motivation, the distance to your goal will primarily depend on your prior knowledge. That's not just because you have more to learn, but because that prior knowledge makes it easier to learn new things. As memory expert Piotr Wozniak explains, like puzzle pieces clicking together, new knowledge sticks best when it integrates with what you already know.

Google is often touted as the answer to ignorance. However, as one early-career professional explained:

" I typed some words on google, read carefully the first 3 pages of results, opening 100 chrome tabs and read clueless all those walls of text without finding much meaningful. [My more experienced colleagues] typed something similar, spotted immediately a couple of relevant results and in a few minutes, had the solution in their hands."

Why the difference? The more easily some new idea clicks in and connects with what you already know, the more likely you'll experience an "Aha!" or "Eureka!" moment. When new information clarifies and adds meaning to your existing knowledge, you get a pleasure rush and say, "I get it!" or "That makes sense!".

Biologically, that pleasure is produced by chemicals like dopamine, which are in turn triggered by discovering something useful. But then, how does your brain know when to release dopamine? Also, if pleasure is so closely linked to learning, why don't school students experience a pleasure rush in every class?

Knowledge Networks

To answer these questions, it's useful to look briefly at how Google works. Every day, Google ranks billions of websites in order of quality, so that it knows which ones will be most useful when you do a search. It does this by giving every single web page a score, representing how many other sites link to it. The more sites that link to this blog post, the more valuable it is. Importantly, if the sites that link to this post have lots of sites linking to them, then this post will appear much higher in a Google search.

Our brains work very much like Google. If lots of high value concepts - that is, meaningful things, which you deeply understand and won't easily forget - connect easily with some new concept that you just learned, then that new concept will get instant credit. Dopamine will be released, making you feel good, and you'll remember it more easily.

Psychologists and neuroscientists call this feature of the brain "associative memory". It's easy to test for yourself. Consider the following passwords: 1) "uenlgd", 2) "ßäñӢøӜ", and 3) "catdog". They all have six characters, but the ease with which you'll remember them depends on what's already in your head. As an English speaker, you'll probably find "catdog" most easy to remember. If you ever watched the cartoon by the same name, you'll remember it even more vividly. In contrast, almost everyone will find "ßäñӢøӜ" hardest to remember, since the letters come from several alphabets. "uenlgd" is moderately difficult - it links to some things you already know (the English alphabet), but not to much else. Thus, integrated knowledge - that which connects in many ways to other things you know - is meaningful, and meaningful knowledge is memorable.

Taste buds in your brain

Your body knows what's good for it, which is why fresh food is delicious and rotten food is disgusting. Junk food is just artificial food that hijacks this otherwise-excellent system for finding nutrition.

Similarly, your natural sense of what's "interesting" or "boring" is just your mental tastebuds telling you how well new ideas are integrating with your existing knowledge. When you engage with meaningful ideas that boost your understanding you experience a pleasurable "Aha!" moment. Often the feeling can be small, but it is always positive.

Like with tasty junk food, it is possible for your mental tastebuds to get hijacked. For example, mnemonic techniques are widely recommended to help students in learning. Yet the purpose of any mnemonic technique is to take meaningless information and make it more meaningful, and thereby easier to remember.

Like junk food, mnemonics can add flavour to meaningless things, and this can be a dangerous way of accumulating piles of low value knowledge. It is precisely when knowledge does not integrate well with your existing knowledge, that you will want to resort to tricks to make it integrate. Instead, most of your learning should be focused on finding genuinely meaningful ideas. The result of that will be deep, highly integrated, knowledge.

In addition to the potential dangers of mnemonics, you can simply learn false information; "fake news". If you don't like the look of someone, and you hear a false rumour that that person is a thief, you might nod and say to yourself "I knew there was something wrong with them". This is called confirmation bias.

However, mnemonics, fake news and confirmation bias have one thing in common with good learning. The reason for the "Aha!" moment always comes from new knowledge integrating with old knowledge. The better it integrates, the better it tastes, the better you'll understand and remember it... whether it's true or not.

Continuous learning

"You must come round to my view, for otherwise I shall keep on piling fact upon fact on you until your reason breaks down under them and acknowledges me to be right" - Sherlock Holmes to Watson

So how can you build well-integrated knowledge while avoiding confirmation bias? The short answer is: You can't. Confirmation bias is just another face of associative memory. It happens when new knowledge integrates with existing knowledge, but that existing knowledge is wrong. It also happens when you reject new ideas because they don't mesh with your existing (wrong) knowledge. Rather than avoiding confirmation bias, you can only accept that it happens and then find ways to deal with it.

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget provided one way to deal with false knowledge, which he called "disequilibrium". Whereas equilibrium means balance, disequilibrium is the feeling that you have lost balance, because the thing(s) you knew seem suddenly wrong. This happens when you encounter something that doesn't behave the way you think it should. If Danny Trump initially dislikes all Mexicans, he could experience disequilibrium if he makes friends with someone, and only later finds out they're Mexican. Disequilibrium is really the opposite of the "Aha!" moment - a painful signal that tells your brain it's time to re-evaluate and update its knowledge with something better.

As long as you keep exposing yourself to reality and to other people's views, you'll inevitably experience disequilibrium from surprising or confusing things. When that happens, remember that the pain of confusion is there to free you from your misconceptions, so that you can attain a better understanding. Don't worry about preventing confirmation bias - your brain will do it anyway. Instead, if you commit to continuous learning from diverse sources and trust the wisdom of your mental tastebuds, the weight of reality will eventually sink in.

Deciding what tastes good to others

So far we've talked about how you might direct your own learning. But what if someone else is telling you what to learn? Curriculum is the process of serving the same mental diet to everyone, regardless of their individual requirements. Whether you're a student in school or university, or a professional being fed canned "professional development" courses, you may often find your mental tastebuds giving you very honest feedback about how well that curriculum is integrating with your existing knowledge. The problem is, without taking your sense of "interesting" or "boring" into account, that diet can easily result in a lot of expense, effort and disappointment. Because if it's not interesting, then it's not integrating.

December 2019
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Georgios Zonnios
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