Learning Should Be Fun


Learning can and should be fun. This is not just a moral position, but a scientific one too.

When you learn a new thing, or get a surprise, there is a shot of a chemical messenger in your brain called dopamine. Dopamine is famous among neuroscientists for its involvement in the reward and motivation systems of the brain.

You won’t be surprised to learn that the reason addictive drugs are addictive is that they hack the reward circuitry that dopamine is intimately involved in. Perhaps the most addictive drug, cocaine, directly increases the amount of dopamine at work in your brain.

Learning something new triggers a chemical release of the same kind as cocaine, albeit in a much more subtle manner. As methods of getting your kicks you can perhaps compare it to the difference between walking up a hill yourself or being strapped to a rocket and blasted up — slower, harder work, but a lot more sustainable and you’re in a better state to enjoy the view when you get there!

The reason for this electro-chemical connection between learning and drugs of reward is that our brains have obviously been designed to find learning fun.

One of the many negative things about the misconception that education is about transmitting content is the idea that any fun you have is taking time away from proper learning, and that ‘proper learning’ shouldn’t be fun.

Rather than fun being a relief from learning, or a distraction from it, for most of our history, before school, learning had to be its own motivation. Brains that learnt well had more offspring, and so learning evolved to be rewarding.

In lots of teaching situations we focus on the right and wrong answers to things, which is a venerable paradigm for learning, but not the only one. There is a less structured, curiosity-driven, paradigm which focusses not on what is absolutely right or wrong, but instead on what is surprising. A problem with rights and wrongs is that, for some people, the pressure of being correct gets in the way of experiencing what actually is.

You can try this for yourself, either in any teaching you do, or any learning. Often we will get blocked at a particular stage in our learning. A normal response is to try harder, and to focus more on what we’re doing right, and what we’re doing wrong. Sometimes this helps, but sometimes it just digs us further into our rut. The way out of the rut is to re-focus on experiencing again.

I’ll give you an example from one of the two things I know best about teaching — aikido, the japanese martial art. Aikido involves some quite intricate throws and grappling moves. Often a student is so intent on getting through the move, and on trying hard to get it right, that they become completely stuck, repeatedly doing something that doesn’t work, and usually too fast. Even if you say or show explicitly the correct movement, they can’t seem to get it. In this situation, one teaching technique I use, inspired by the ‘Inner Game’ writings of Timothy Gallway, is to tell the student to stop trying to do the move correctly, and instead do it deliberately wrong. “Try pushing over this way to the left”, I’ll say, “Now try the opposite over to the right. Now try high, or low. Which is easiest?”. By removing the obligation to get the move correct I hope to give permission to the student to just experience the effect they are having on their partner’s balance. Once they can tune into this they can figure out for themselves what the right thing to do is, without me having to tell them.

However you do it, if you can get out of the rut of right and wrong you free up a natural capacity for experience-led, curiosity-driven learning. Soon you’ll be flying along again, experiencing the learning equivalent of the jogger’s high, and all thanks to that chemical messenger dopamine and a brain that’s evolved to find things out for itself, and feel good while doing it.

Part of a series. #1 Learning Makes Itself Invisible

Cross-posted at schoolofeverything.com

Image: jogging on the beach by Naama

Learning Makes Itself Invisible

This month I am guest blogging at School of Everything, the website that helps people who want to learn meet people who want to teach. I’ll be posting here and there about what psychologists know about learning. Below is my first post…

Once you have learnt something you see the world differently. Not only can you appreciate or do something that you couldn’t appreciate or do before, but the way you saw the world before is now lost to you. This works for the small things as well as the big picture. If you learn the meaning of a new word, you won’t be able to ignore it like you did previously. If you learn how to make a cup of out of clay you won’t ever be able to see cups like you used to before.

This means it is hard to imagine what it is like for someone else who hasn’t learnt what you’ve learnt. The psychologist Paul Bloom calls this the curse of knowledge in the context of being unable to model what other people don’t know, rather than on what you yourself used not to know. If you’ve ever organised a surprise party for someone, or had another kind of secret, you’ll know the feeling. It seems so *obvious* what you are keeping hidden, but usually the person you are hiding it from doesn’t catch on. They don’t catch on because the clues are only obvious to you, knowing the secret, and you find it hard to imagine what they see not knowing it.

The reason this occurs is because of two facts about the mind that are not widely appreciated. The first is that memory is not kept in a separate store away from the rest of the mind’s functions. Although there are brain regions crucial to memory, the memories themselves are not stored separately from the regions which do perception, processing and output. Unlike a digital computer, your mind does not have to fetch stored information when it needs it, instead your memories affect every part of your perception and behaviour.

The second important fact about the mind is related to the first. It is that learning something involves changing the structures of the mind that are involved in perception and behaviour. Memories are not kept in a separate store, but are constituted by the connections between the neurons in your brain. This means that when you learn something — when you create new memories — it isn’t just *added* to your mind, but it changes the structures that make up your mind so that your perceptions, behaviour and potentially all of your previous memories are changed too.

We can see this in microcosm if we look at a small example of what is called one-shot perceptual learning. What do you think this is?


Now probably you don’t know, but I would like you do savour the feeling of not knowing. Try and taste, like a rare wine, what the perceptual experience is like. You can see the parts of the picture, the blacks and the whites, various shapes, some connected to others and some isolated.

If you now look at this popup here then you will have this taste washed out of your mind and irrevocably removed. It will be gone, and you will never be able to recover it. This is why I asked you to savour it. Now look at the original again. Notice how the parts are now joined in a whole. You just cannot see the splotches of black and white, the groups, the isolated parts, again. When you learn the meaning of the whole picture this removed the potential for that experience. Even the memory is tantalisingly out of reach. You can’t recover an experience that you yourself had two minutes ago!

One-shot learning is unusual. Most learning happens over a far longer time-scale, so it is even harder to keep a grip on what it was like to not know. All of us will have had the experience of a bad teacher who simply couldn’t see why we had a problem — they simply couldn’t see that we couldn’t understand or do what was obvious or easy to them. A good teacher has to have the dual-mind of knowing something, but also being able to empathise with someone who doesn’t know it, someone for whom what is obvious isn’t obvious yet. It is because learning has this tendency to make itself invisible that teaching is such a difficult and noble tradition.

Cross-posted at schoolofeverything.com

Link A Mindhacks.com post in which I discuss a similar thing in the context of the role expectations play in our perception.

The reference I took the picture from: Rubin, N., Nakayama, K. and Shapley, R. (2002), The role of insight in perceptual learning: evidence from illusory contour perception. In: Perceptual Learning, Fahle, M. and Poggio, T. (Eds.), MIT Press.