On Being Lost and Learning

They say technology is making us smarter.  I disagree.  If you’ve ever seen some idiot slowly driving into a lamppost because their eyes were glued to the GPS, you know what I am talking about.  But it’s not because of the minor accident that they’re stupid, it’s because they’re not getting lost.  Let me explain.

One of the big “benefits” with technology is that we no longer have to think.  I mean, why would you every want to know how to do spell a word, do arithmetic, or learn how to navigate to the grocery store?1  We have solutions for each one of them, they’re called spell-check, calculators, and GPS.  The fact that we have technologies to solve these problems doesn’t automatically turn off our brains, it just has a tendency to do so.  The natural tendency of the human brain is to use what’s easily available, not what maximizes what we learn (which usually tends to be difficult).  So for the prototypical GPS driver, not getting lost basically equates to not learning how to get there (without a GPS).  If you’ve ever been lost, I think you’ll realize the universality of this logic: getting lost helps you learn to find your way.

What’s really interesting about this idea is not that it’ll help you become a human navigator but rather how much this generalizes to other areas of learning.  Getting lost is really a metaphor for making mistakes and figuring out why you made that mistake (i.e. learning).  I contest that if you’re not in position to make mistakes (e.g. a test, a competition, a peer-reviewed paper, a job) then you’re not really going to learn much.  This goes back to the theory of the lazy brain: it does what’s easy (rightly so), not what’s necessarily beneficial.

One of the big tricks that excellent researchers (read: people who are good at learning) know, either explicitly or implicitly, is that it’s important to get lost — that’s how you learn!  A blog post I came across titled “Mathematicians are chronically lost and confused (and that’s how it’s supposed to be)” really resonated with me on this point.  In the article, it mentions an excellent quote by Andrew Wiles (a renowned mathematician) about research:

You enter the first room of the mansion and it’s completely dark. You stumble around bumping into the furniture but gradually you learn where each piece of furniture is. Finally, after six months or so, you find the light switch, you turn it on, and suddenly it’s all illuminated. You can see exactly where you were. Then you move into the next room and spend another six months in the dark. So each of these breakthroughs, while sometimes they’re momentary, sometimes over a period of a day or two, they are the culmination of, and couldn’t exist without, the many months of stumbling around in the dark that precede them.

The author goes on to extend Andrew Wiles’ analogy:

We all have to build up our insights over time, and it’s an often slow and arduous process. In Andrew Wiles’s analogy, my friend is still in the dark room, but she’s feeling some object precisely enough to understand that it’s a vase. She still has no idea where the light switch is, and the vase might give her no indication as to where to look next. But if piece by piece she can construct a clear enough picture of the room in her mind, then she will find the switch. What keeps her going is that she knows enough little insights will lead her to a breakthrough worth having.

Although in the article the metaphor is directed more towards mathematics/research, it’s equally applicable in other areas of learning.  Learning to cook, play the guitar, or speaking another language, it’s all about getting lost (and making mistakes), learning the pieces bit by bit and finally piecing together the bits into a flash of insight.  It’s slow, requires patience and necessitates hard work but that’s what it takes for meaningful learning.  And really that’s the only way.  N.B. I could be wrong here, I did just hear that there’s an app for that…

  1. I can think of some answers to this question, can you? If not, try this: stop Googling for it and think. []