Monday, April 04, 2005

2001 thoughts on learning

There's more going on here than meets the eye.

Learning is changing one's mind by adding new stuff, repudiating old stuff, or by making connections. But how does one change one's mind?

Metaphors We Live By posits that all thoughts are relative. And most are expressed in words. This aligns with the popular wisdom that we learn from stories.

The Mind's Past talks about the internal conversation always going on in our heads. Listen for a minute. Yeah, that's it. The book also describes a mediator between the brain and the mind called "the interpreter."

Let's call the subconscious, autonomic brain simply "the brain;" it's attached directly to the senses. The conscious, aware portion of our gray matter, we'll call "mind."

The brain gets sensations first. It rejects most of this sensory input and makes basic decisions about what to do next. Later, "the interpreter" creates a story to provide a rational explanation. The interpreter weaves together a plausible story to bullshit the mind into believing it's rational and in control. In fact, most decisions are made before they enter consciousness.

Got that? Your don't make up your mind; your brain makes up your mind. Its interpreter spins yarns the way you do when recounting a dream. A lot more of the brain comes with mechanics "factory-installed" than we like to think. As Bernard Malamud has observed, "All biography is ultimately fiction." Gazzaniga says, "Autobiography is hopelessly inventive."

Changing one's mind consists of convincing the interpreter that the facts of the matter or memories of the past or one's self-image or the rules of the game haved shifted. The changed interpreter puts a different spin on the stories it tells, for those stories must seem internally consistent. The stories must also maintain the fiction that the mind is calling the shots, not the brain.

What might be the nature of this interpreter? Clearly, it needs an image of who its owner is and what the owner is capable of. I'll call this the secret resume, for like a printed resume, it's a very selective and self-serving sense of one's past. The interpreter also needs a worldview or meme library, the rules by which things operate. And the interpreter must retrieve memories, for this is the content of thinking. Changing either the secret resume, the worldview, or the memories changes the interpreter's stories. This is learning.

The Mind's Eye tells us that "the brain is not primarily an experience-storing device that constantly changes its structure to accommodate new experience. From the evolutionary perspective it is a dynamic computing device that is largely rule driven; it stores information by manipulating the value of simple arithmetic variables We are a finely honed machine that has amazing capacities for learning and inventiveness. Yet these capacities were not picked up at a local bookstore or developed from everyday experience." They were, as the author says, "factory-installed."

Our brains have a built-in macro library from which they select responses to environmental challenges. "We don't select sentences preformed, like Tickle-Me-Elmo dolls. Rather, we put together fragments to form the whole. So, too, with our thoughts. We think by selecting objects." Our memes are constructed from meme-objects, the grains that add up to a beach of thoughts.

There's a hierarchy in learning, e.g. Bloom's taxionomy. To me, I think of changes to the heart (emotion-laden, deep inside, self-image), which primarily impact the secret resume. There are changes in the head (explicit = facts, implicit = memories), which are matters of facts and rules. And there are changes in the hands (tacit, manual skills, automatic functions) such as bowling or painting.

[break. Next section to address how to effect change in heart, head, & hand.]

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