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January 31st, 2019

This term is used in biology to describe some sort of agent that is beneficial in small doses and toxic in large doses.


A classic example is physical exercise.  A little goes a long way, but too much causes damage.  Many phytochemicals in plants are believed to have a similar kind of hormetic effect. 


We might try to transfer this concept to a more abstract world and ask what hormesis would look like in our ability to learn?


Here the hormetic agent is unavoidable.  We learn only by trying to interact with that which we do not understand.  The unknown is perhaps the ultimate example of hormesis.


Too much of it and we become overwhelmed.  But in small doses we can nibble away and slowly pull back the curtain as we resolve confusion and put things together.


Simply put, learning is sped up by a careful mitigation of the size and scope of confusions we engage with.


We would be unwise to bite off more unknown than we can chew.   Not simply because it’s overwhelming, but without any understanding, we lack a starting point from which to start. 


We might for a moment think of being teleported to a place that speaks a totally unknown language.  The experience can be overwhelming, but luckily we would still be in the company of humans who do the same things that we do.  We are not in a totally unknown place because we have the physical world and the knowledge of how people generally behave to serve as a starting point.  We track down a couple of key words and then begin working up from there.  We do not on the other hand begin with an attempt to write a linguistic treatise about the new language’s grammar. 


This hormetic view of learning and confusion gives rise to a useful and practical question that we can keep handy when dealing with something confusing.


Am I trying to understand too much of this?  Is there any way I can look at a smaller part of this problem and try to understand just that part? 


If we can scale down our scope with this question, we might find the feelings of frustration and aggravation that so readily accompany confusion being replaced by a nascent curiosity, especially when our efforts begin to garner small victories in such unknown land.

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Podcast Ep. 291: Hormesis

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