Memory Modeling – Born to copy, learn to practice
“Smooth ice is paradise for those who dance with expertise.” —FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE, THE GAY SCIENCE
The Marx Brothers were masters of comic timing, as hilariously demonstrated in the 1933 movie Duck Soup. Groucho, Harpo, and Chico appear in the famous greasepaint eyebrows, mustache, and round glasses, while wearing nightcaps. They are so indistinguishable, it’s almost impossible to tell them apart, which makes the famous “mirror scene” work perfectly. In the scene, Groucho stands on one side of a doorway and Harpo and Chico on the other, though not at the same time. Every move Groucho makes is imitated by one of the other two, creating the illusion that the doorway is actually a mirror. Groucho is suspicious and tries to throw off his reflection, but he’s met move-for-move by the imitators for several minutes, until they finally make a mistake and both appear in the doorway at the same time.
I’m sure the Marx Brothers didn’t realize that they were giving a comic illustration of a hardwired aspect of the human brain that is central to our growth and development. We are all born imitators, and a good chunk of our lives is spent playing out the evolutionary version of the mirror scene. A happy brain is happy to copy, and doing so is largely an automatic, as opposed to voluntary, response. Just to be clear, this is not the same as saying that we emerge from the womb like a blank sheet of paper ready to be scribbled on. But we are born ready to reproduce observed behaviors, and without this ability we would be truly lost in the woods.
Several other species aren’t quite so lost when they enter the world. If you have ever had the opportunity to watch a horse give birth, it is remarkable to see the foal almost immediately try to stand just after emerging. The prewiring to get a fast start asserts itself with hardly a moment to spare. Baby chimpanzees are, like human babies, very vulnerable and unable to do much for themselves for about a year, but just after being born they are able to cling to their mother without having any example to follow. They are, in a sense, hardwired to cling, and the behavior automatically happens. We humans, on the other hand, are born with really only one noticeable capability: to observe. We cannot sit upright, or cling, or stand, but our powerful brains are doing something that, with time, proves significantly more beneficial than any of those abilities. We are the top-dog learners on the planet, and our cerebral reign starts early.
That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that our brains’ fantastic ability to learn by imitation can become a handicap when we veer into the stratum of overimitation. Added to that, a happy brain does not seem to have an especially effective on/off switch when it comes to imitation. When someone completely lacks the ability to regulate imitation, they suffer from a disorder known as echopraxia; their brain simply does not have an inhibiting factor to prevent imitation of others’ actions. This disorder is readily found in those suffering from autism. The distinction between the self and the other appears to be blurred in those with echopraxia, almost as if the brain cannot tell if it is looking at a reflection or another person. Most of us, of course, do not have echopraxia, but our normally functioning brains are marginally handicapped nonetheless.
What Kids Teach Us about Imitation
Psychology research on imitation suggests that when children are instructed to repeat an adult’s behavior, they aren’t doing so only to reach the goal—the behavior itself becomes as important as the goal. This may be because human children can be easily persuaded to believe what adults tell them even when it contradicts their own senses or because our most potent hardwired learning strategy is imitation—even when such imitation seems illogical.
A study titled “The Hidden Structure of Overimitation” in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on that last point. Using a “repeat-this-action” method, researchers tried to gain a better understanding as to why children will repeat irrelevant adult actions, something even chimps aren’t prone to do. Kids in the study were told to imitate an adult’s actions to retrieve an object from a “puzzle box” that had a variety of strange gizmos attached, none of which were needed to get the object. Even when given explicit directions to simply retrieve the object—and it was obvious that only one action was needed to do so—the kids would imitate every action taken by the adults, pointlessly pulling and pressing the gizmos before grabbing the prize just as the adults did. When the same test was conducted with chimps, they simply retrieved the object as instructed. Researchers concluded that this tendency is more than a human social dynamic in the making—it’s a cognitive encoding process at the core of how we learn, and it comes at a cost. Children who observe an adult intentionally manipulating an object have a strong tendency to encode all of the adult’s actions as meaningful. From the study: “This automatic causal encoding process allows children to rapidly calibrate their causal beliefs about even the most opaque physical systems, but it also carries a cost. When some of the adult’s purposeful actions are unnecessary—even transparently so—children are highly prone to misencoding them as significant.”
So this study suggests that the same encoding process that allows us to develop a sense of an action’s significance also makes us prone, as children, to misencoding purposeless actions as causally significant. This effect is so potent that, once engaged, it’s extremely difficult to break.
What this means in the context of learning through practice is that humans begin life with a propensity to learn the wrong way (as well as the right way). Bad lessons are learned as readily as good ones, and we may not even know the difference.
Now we will shift the discussion to applications of learning through practice, starting with the now infamous specter of “expertise.”
What We Hear about Expertise, and Why It Doesn’t Really Matter
Much has been said in recent years about expertise and the time and effort requirements of attaining it, and there are several books out there that dive into the details more than I plan to here. We have heard about the “ten-thousand-hour rule,” that expertise requires at least ten thousand hours of practice.2 I won’t spend any time challenging or affirming the rule; suffice it to say that whatever the actual amount of time required to gain expertise, it is a substantial, multiyear investment. Indeed, it may consume a massive portion of our lives.
Clearly, though, time is not the only requirement. Years of one’s life spent practicing the wrong things will not lead to expertise any more than spending the same amount of time watching television. Time is a basic prerequisite, but not a sufficient one in itself. Layered upon time are a slew of other ingredients, like focus, precision, discipline, and desire—to say nothing of effective teachers along the way. It also doesn’t hurt to have a few breaks go your way as well.
We will leave the discussion of “expertise” there, because in my view it is more a “topic de jour” than it is a topic worth talking about. More basic to most of our lives is how to gain a level of mastery in the things we do, or would like to do, without burning ourselves out or giving up prematurely. And what I want to argue is that those two pitfalls are always very real possibilities for the happy brain, chiefly because we have to push against some stubborn in-built tendencies to get where we want to go.
You Don’t Know What You Don’t Know
Anyone who has ever been hired into a position he is not qualified for is in touch with a horribly awkward sensation, one akin to feeling lost. What we thought we knew about how to perform in the position turns out to be wrong or incomplete. The things we need to know to do the job are not clear. The phrase over your head is appropriate, because truly what we don’t know is threatening to engulf us. People who open restaurants for the first time are known to say that they had no idea what they were getting into. From the outside looking in, they saw only one thin slice of an enormous undertaking. When they started coming face-to-face with those facets of the business they did not even know existed, the reality that they were barely toddlers in a game of grown-ups started settling in.
Of course, it is preferable to start somewhere rather than not start at all, and that’s exactly what most of us do. But we are fooling ourselves to think we will saunter into a new role, job, trade, or any other position fully equipped with what we need to succeed.
What we should be thinking, rather, is how to ramp up as quickly as possible to the needs of the position. That only happens through what expertise scholar K. Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice—practice designed to develop mastery in the specific areas required by whatever role or position we are targeting.3 Whether one puts in ten thousand hours or fifty thousand hours, without deliberate practice the effort will still fall short. This is a crucial point, because energy wasted on poorly directed practice is a drain on the brain—and the more time you spend in that mode without results to show for it, the greater the tendency to burn out and give up.
To Generalize or Specialize…That Is the Question
Central to the topic of deliberate practice (or what I will simply call practicing for the purpose) is the question of whether general or specialized problem-solving strategies are more effective. It is an important question with implications for how skills are taught—most important, thinking. General problem-solving strategies are context-independent. For example, if Charley the policeman is taught the general strategy for safely disarming criminals, then he should be able to apply it to a general range of situations in which he faces armed criminals. The general strategy, this argument goes, produces generally applicable problem-solving ability.
On the other hand, with his general strategy for disarming criminals, Charley may in fact be fairly effective—unless and until he encounters a specific situation that trumps his general ability. He may, for example, be expert at taking away a criminal’s handgun—but what happens if he encounters a criminal with another gun tucked in the back of his pants and a knife concealed in his sock? If Charley never faced or trained for that situation (or one very much like it), he may be in for more than his problem-solving strategy can handle.
A study published in the journal Cognitive Science backs up the argument for specialization, albeit with a less exciting example than disarming criminals. Expert chess players, specialized in different openings, were asked to recall positions and solve problems within and outside their area of specialization. All the players’ general expertise was at roughly the same level. The results: Players performed significantly better in their area of specialization, but not only better—they actually played over their own heads at the level of chess players with much better general skills. In other words, specialization trumped general problem solving and elevated the players’ level of play.
This study suggests that when figuring out how to tackle a problem, knowledge derived from familiarity with that problem is more important than general problem-solving strategies. The key is memory. We rely on memory of specific experiences to craft solutions to new problems. If you have expert general ability but lack context-specific memory, you’re only as effective as general ability will allow—and if you’re Charley, that might not be good enough.
How Magicians Practice Imitation to Create Illusion
Magicians fool us with sleight of hand—the ability to make it seem as if they are reaching for or placing an object that isn’t really there. Most of us can’t pull this off, which makes the magicians’ craft all the more astounding. Research published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE used a novel approach—motion-tracking technology—to reveal how magicians deceive our eyes.
Ten nonmagicians and ten magicians were presented with a wooden block on a table and asked to reach for and pick it up, or to pretend to pick up an imaginary block next to the real one. As the participants reached for the block, their sight was obscured (to simulate a magician’s technique of turning away from the object). Motion tracking showed that nonmagicians’ grasping technique changed from the real block to the imaginary one, but the magicians’ grasp was identical for each.
In a follow-up experiment, participants were asked to grasp for a battery, but during the imaginary-object session, the real object was removed from the table. Under these conditions the magicians failed just as often as nonmagicians. These experiments suggest that magicians use visual input from real objects to calibrate their grasp of imaginary ones. With time and practice, magicians develop flexibility in a part of the brain associated with spatial reasoning and learn to precisely adapt their movements so seamlessly that our eyes fail to catch them in the act.
Practice Lessons from Taxi Drivers and Burglars
London taxi drivers have to undertake years of intense training known as “the knowledge” to gain their operating license, including learning the layout of over twenty-five thousand of the city’s streets. A study by psychologist Katherine Woollett and her team investigated whether their expertise can be effectively generalized in new situations.
The taxi drivers, and a control group, were first asked to watch videos of routes unfamiliar to them through a town in Ireland. They were then asked to take a test about the video that included sketching out routes, identifying landmarks, and estimating distances between places. The taxi drivers and the control subjects both did well on much of the test, but the taxi drivers did significantly better on identifying new routes. This result suggests that the taxi drivers’ mastery can be generalized to new and unknown areas. Their years of training and learning through deliberate practice prepare them to take on similar challenges even in places they do not know well or at all.
Burglars, as it turns out, have much in common with taxi drivers, at least in the sense of developing mastery. Researchers interviewed fifty jailed burglars, all of whom had committed at least twenty burglaries in the last three years; half had committed more than one hundred burglaries. The researchers asked questions regarding what technique the burglars used to search inside houses. Over three-quarters of them described searching as relatively routine, and many of them used terms such as automatic and instinctive. The study also found that on average, it took an experienced burglar less than twenty minutes to identify everything in the house worth stealing and walk out with it. For the most part, the burglars said, they didn’t really have to think about what they were doing. Years of practice on similar houses with similar layouts and possessions enabled autopilot to take over while the burglars went to work. While not evidenced by terrific role models by any means, from a mastery standpoint these results are (uncomfortably) enlightening.
Coaches like to tell their players to “work smart,” and that is actually a fitting phrase to end this post. The happy brain is willing to work, but when we plow into a new endeavor without a sense of direction and purpose in our practice, negative results are sure to come: namely burnout, disillusionment, and eventually giving up. Better to instill focus early on and seek out whatever assistance we need to make our practice purposeful and worthwhile.