Aikido and Learning

22 March 2002

I'm one year into my PhD and in ten weeks I'll be undertaking my shodan grading. A large proportion of my waking hours are spent studying and training and I've started thinking about parallels between these two components of my life. The obvious parallel is that both involve learning...

So, what is learning? Here are some definitions that I've found:

I'm trying to learn two very different things. 

In my aikido training, I'm learning to use my body to execute techniques for self-defence. The ultimate goal is to react instantaneously, to have the body automatically move in the right directions when required. It becomes obvious to aikido students that to think first and then act is too slow. Yet, I need to think as a part of the learning process. I cannot blindly move around hoping my body will do the right thing  eventually - I need to understand how the techniques work to speed up and enhance the learning process. The mind learns first, and then I need to physically repeat the actions until my body starts to learn the movements. The mind-body process is an essential component.

For my PhD research, I am required to learn some very complicated mathematics. I find myself delving further backwards from the most difficult concepts towards more basic theory, re-learning definitions and concepts that I originally learnt in my undergraduate years (ten years ago now). Then I need to apply the mathematics to real-world problems, requiring me to write computer programs that apply the mathematics to various types of data. Instead of a mind-body process, I think of it as a theory-application process.

I've been doing a little bit of research. Here are some of the things that I found interesting and relevant.

There are two components to learning. On the one hand, we function as scientists, discovering what our world is about. We develop theories and hypotheses about how the world works. On the other hand, we are born to function as artists, giving expression and voice to meanings that we create as we engage with life. 

Finding patterns and making maps. The human brain/mind is not a formal logic machine. It is much better at making sense of life by finding patterns and order - something that science and art have in common. At the heart of patterning is categorization - finding similarities and differences and comparing and isolating features. Of course, categories do not help much unless we can move around, and so we are also innately equipped with the ability to develop maps of where we are in space and time. In fact, we also build a life map or story, which is how we maintain a sense of who we are. Ultimately, the result of all this patterning is that humans construct mental models of reality. Then we perceive, relate to, and act on the world around us in terms of those categories, maps, and mental models. 

Emotions are critical to patterning.

The brain processes wholes and parts simultaneously.

Learning involves both focused attention and peripheral perception. The brain is immersed all the time in a field of sensations, images, and input, and continuously has to select what to pay attention to and what to ignore. Now attention itself is natural, and tends to be driven by what is of most interest or relevance to the satisfaction of wants and needs. However, even while paying direct attention, we absorb information that lies beyond the immediate focus. 

Learning involves both conscious and unconscious processes. Psychologists have also known for a long time that understanding is largely a consequence of deep processing. Thus, complex learning depends on a person's capacity to take charge of the processing of experience which is a matter of becoming aware of what is actually happening. 

We have two types of memory: spatial and rote. When we think of memory we automatically think of what we have "stored" and can "retrieve". But it isn't that simple because memory is also naturally working all the time as we  try to make sense of our contexts and our experiences. Stored memories would be useless if we could not call upon them as needed, and what determines need is our moment-to-moment context. Some pschologists talk about static and dynamic memory. Static or rote memory is stored memory, and this can involve a hard-wiring of memory into the brain's structure. They point out that we all have some systems in which static information is stored. Spatial; or dynamic memory provides us with a systematic way of mapping and integrating memories on a day to day basis. This is how we remember where we are, how we're feeling, what we're doing in the past and present - and the memories are stored naturally without the need for learning by rote.

We understand best when facts are embedded in natural, spatial memory. Brain development and learning are two sides of the same coin. The physical structure does not just grow because it is fed and sheltered. The life experiences that a person has literally lead to new connections between neurons and the secretion of chemicals that transmit signals.

Up until puberty, the brain shows tremendous fluidity and capacity for change. This fluidity is one reason why "windows of opportunity," or key times for learning, are so important. It is much easier to learn a second language in the first few years of life, for instance, than after puberty. But brain growth and development continue throughout life and that some capacities (such as long-term planning) mature only in the second and third decades.

We build and expand on prior knowledge. We also interpret new experiences and new ideas in terms of what we have previously experienced or come to understand. 

Learning is enhanced by challenge and inhibited by threat.

So now I need to understand how these notes about learning impact on my own learning processes...

Fiona Evans