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The Tinkered Mind
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May 18th, 2020
Everyone claims to love learning, but this simply isn’t true. The default state of learning is confusion, and very few people have figured out how to enjoy the dance with this uneasy state. Once we have actually figured something out, once we’ve actually learned the thing, we are no longer learning. But it’s this end state, this sense of having some new ability, an increase in agency that everyone thinks of when we claim to love learning. We do not love the process, and in fact we actively try to avoid it most of the time. If this weren’t true then no one would watch reruns and we’d all be loaded with a dump truck’s worth of extraneous talents, abilities and skills. Truth is, we’d all love to have them, but we don’t actually enjoy the process that’s required to acquire them, namely, learning.
The default state of this process, confusion, is uncomfortable because it puts us in direct contact with the things we like the least: uncertainty and the unknown. We prefer roadmaps, and plans that offer a reliable prediction of what we should expect, but when it comes to raw learning, we have to speak about a place that everyone must go that has no road map. Certainly teachers and professors plan their lessons, but this is done with faith that the mind of each student will be able to make the leap from concept to concept. What such lesson plans really do is create a dedicated space for the mind to mingle with something new and confusing.
The mind will find the way if it’s pushed in that direction. But it can take a little time, along with all the usual accoutrement of questions and investigation, of tinkering and listening to explanations. These hallmarks of the learning process are but methods that the mind uses to shape itself. One can nearly imagine neurons in the brain sending out desperate signals in a chaotic new way, trying to strike upon some pattern that will close the loop and finally make sense of the situation. Regardless of how its achieved on a neuronal level, the mind does eventually shape shift until it’s created a working model of the confusion at hand, and when that model can work and produce predictable outcomes, then the confusion dissolves, and that satisfying sense of agency and ability that we like to associate with learning floods the system.
Though, the important caveat here is that the mind won’t bother to figure it out unless there’s a push to do so. Without a great enough need we resolve to a degrading homeostasis, content to atrophy in rhythm to studio laughter.
Reality is plump with puzzles and problems that deserve our attention – issues that would most certainly fall in defeat to the gaze of the human mind, but for too many of us, it often requires some crisis to galvanize the mind into a new direction. This of course extends beyond the lone individual and applies aptly to groups of any size.
It’s worthy to wonder if our discomfort with the unknown is itself learned. There is of course the well studied phenomenon of learned helplessness, where individuals and even animals can be conditioned to behave powerless, even in situations where they can take action. Children certainly don’t seem encumbered by much of a need for plans and predictability, as long as they are safe, and much of the time, they make learning look fun. Or rather, a learning child can be so immersed in the process that it seems as though they shed the sort of identity that would be offended by confusion and frustration, as is the perennial case with adults.
For all of us, it’s possible to look back on our own learning and see that there has always been some worthy treasure beyond the gulf of confusion. And regardless of how we’ve grown such an easily disturbed sense of comfort, it’s clear that the arduous journey of learning leads to one of life’s few truly fulfilling experiences.
Think back for a moment to those playground days. What’s the one thing that all kids talk about?
What they’re going to do when they’re older.
And why is this a topic of discussion? Because kids are looking at their future as a continuation and expansion of the playground. We talk about things we’ll do when we’re older because as children such things seem like fun, and chances are, as kids, we were right.
But ability and opportunity does not simply arise with time. Learning widely and deeply opens up the realms of play. In ways that we only dreamed of as children. But of course to traverse from the mundane living of an adult to that expansive playground of life dreamed of as children, the mind must first be pushed in that direction.