Thursday, October 20, 2011

Physical, Mental

It’s curious but oh so true that genuine learning is enormously helped by a physical component, a physical doing. Reminded of this by a post on Laudator (link) that comments on the Latin proverb, Qui scribit, bis legit, Who writes, reads twice. I learned this long ago if in a larger context—namely the difference between doing your own research versus relying on a Research Assistant. Here a post on that a while back. Why is this true?

Is it that, for instance, copying out a quote by hand or keying means that you read it twice? Why does a graph you make yourself, laboriously in Excel, become more real than one you glance at in a paper? My own guess is that the brain stores more than merely memories. It stores a kind of invisible weight or stamp with every memory. The heavier the weight, the darker the stamp, the more accessible that memory later becomes. The brain developed as an organ for dealing with the physical world, hence physical involvement tells the brain: This is serious; he really cares. More ink on that inkpad, add some lead.

Another explanation is that the brain labels the mere reading of a page, the glance of an eye lite. It takes very little time. Hence it gets routine storage at best. Multiple readings, effort at grasping the meaning, much underlining, better yet, comments in the margin—the brain is alerted. And of course, the more time is spent, the more important.

When it comes to the genuinely experiential—say cooking or gardening—reading about it, even copying out a recipe, is as it were nothing, nothing at all, compared to actually doing the thing. Boy does that recipe expand, in my case into a veritable primordial jungle of experience, when I try to do what, for Brigitte, is effortless as she half listens to the pundits shouting at each other on the television all the while.


  1. “More time spent”, as you say, reminds me yet again of my experience in high school during the year after WWII, my junior year. All textbooks from the Nazi era had been removed; new ones not yet published. Students recorded lectures on history, geography and even the sciences and lab work with pencil-on-paper (no pens available then). Hours of laborious transcribing, mapping and redrawing followed in the evening as part of our nightly homework.
    As a result, I believe, my love of biology, chemistry and geography remains firmly in my memory. An equally pronounced dislike of history with its endless dates and names of wars and kings continues to this day as well.
    Should I call that learning? I don’t know. What I do know is that it has allowed me to form an early interest and that in turn has led to continued learning and delight in these now ever-expanding new areas of knowledge.

  2. Quite right.
    Reading, writing, recalling, doing are all a bit different and it takes a combination of all of them repeated to get things right.

    Just think how different the spoken language is from the written... and how different the "imaged" language in our head is when we are "thinking" silently... they are each a bit different and they interact to make us acute or dull, as the case may be.