Featured,  in detail,  Journal,  learning

Brain Drains

For the past few years, I’ve been on a binge-learning kick, though maybe kick is the wrong term. Kicks are ephemeral. This feels habitual.

These binges always follow the same pattern: I pick a subject, become consumed by it for a few months (textbooks, online courses, etc.), then move on to something else. That’s months, not days. And it’s seemingly random too. From literature to circuit theory. From circuit theory to physiology. From physiology to chemistry. From chemistry to finance. No rhyme or reason to any of it.

Switching gears has an unintended side effect though. When the obsession cools, the newly acquired knowledge instinctively vacates my brain. No note. No forwarding address.

You can imagine my retention as the white rope below: an acute drop off followed by a gradual tapering of whatever survived. Not sure what to make of the cheap suit.

This tapering of memory is probably true for most of us, that if you study something intensely, then stop, that knowledge risks fading away.  It needs long-term reinforcement, repetition, etc. It needs follow-up. Otherwise, you have to ask, Are such learning endeavors even worthwhile? Or more generally, what is the point of studying something if you don’t commit to making it a permanent, easily accessed resident in your brain?

The standard model in education, the one seen in schools from age seven onward, is rote memorization (principals, facts) combined with an application of problems. Memorize a math formula, do 50 exercises applying it in different ways. Ditto learning a French verb conjugation, a sequence of a historical events and so on. And while such methods will lead to good grades, what happens when you try to recall these facts months or years (or even decades) later? One could argue that facts don’t matter, it’s that we’ve learned how to learn. Yet, what’s the value of such a skill if we don’t also learn how to retain?

In my early twenties, I chose to prolong my entrance into the workforce by going to grad school. Twice. In the end, I collected two Master’s degrees, one in Mathematics, one in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. In both cases, I did the coursework and eventually earned the degree. Today, however, if you ask me to solve even the most fundamental problem from any of those courses, I would probably fail miserably. I never directly used this information in my career and so my brain flushed it. Put another way, I’m hardly a master of either subject–now, at least. Also, it’s been over 25 years since I thought about those topics in any detail.

In my more recent learning endeavors, I’ve observed a similar information decay. I knew that reading The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid in rapid succession, as I did in 2014, would hardly make me an expert on Greek and Roman epics. I read every page. I enjoyed the adventures. I even did outside research on the histories of each. But as it is with most movies I see, my brain, not finding any evolutionary reason to the contrary, simply discarded the facts afterwards. There was no compelling reason to retain it.

At the same time, were I to reopen those books, that information would be reawakened (i.e., re-learning once familiar topics is orders of magnitude faster than first time exposure). It’s a fascinating aspect of memory. Most of what we learn doesn’t actually disappear, it just gets buried. What if we could find a way to access everything archived in the stacks of our mind? What if we were to be afflicted (and I do mean afflicted) with hyperthymesia, the condition in which a person can recall every detail from every day of his or her life. The shirt you wore on March 4th, 2005. The weather on December 12th, 1997. What would that be like? I imagine it would be nothing short of horrible. Or what if we all had eidetic (or photographic) memories, the ability to retain any image or object seen? Does this talent really exist?

All these fantastical notions aside, there are aspects of an experience that our minds will cling to more strongly than an assortment of facts. Though I can no longer pull up the moment by moment details of Aeneid and Dido, I can recall the sadness of their romance. How it fell to ruins. How when she argued that they were fated, he claimed that his real fate lay across the sea in the soon-to-be-created city of Rome. The suicide that followed. The rest of the novel? Who knows. Something about ships and silly adventures. The observations being that though facts get lost, feelings aren’t so quick to retreat. Maybe the brain likes feelings more than it does facts.

There’s also the emotion of the learning process itself. I doubt I could still pass the final from the O-Chem class I took last year, but I can definitely remember the feeling of being the oldest guy in a classroom of millennials, being the one they called a nerd because I actually enjoyed studying. The details of circuit analysis from two years ago? Gone. But I do remember the feeling of pride I got when the synthesizer circuit board I was trying to assemble finally barked out a sound. I also remember the feeling of accomplishment that came with having read fourteen great American novels back-to-back. Do I remember the details of those novels though?

I guess what I’m realizing is that having experiences for the simple thrill of discovery is okay. It’s the journey, not the destination and all that. More specifically, it’s the accumulation of emotions we get from these journeys. At the same time, should I really want to OWN these subjects, they will need to be revisited regularly. Turn the lost boxes of memory into ingrained knowledge.

With that in mind, I fully concede that my current interest in Quants (the mathematics of finance) will go nowhere. But if I can enjoy the thrill of understanding, even if but for a moment, something crazy like derivative trading, won’t that be sort of neat? The answer is yes. And so the pursuits will continue.



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