Learning can be fun!

They were an unconventional group of students in an institution designed for them. I was hired to teach them statistics, and was determined to make it fun for them. They didn't learn anything, and had a great time doing it.

Waiting for the bus to City College, my mind reaches back to the time I was teaching students at a place called Union Institute. It was one of my first teaching experiences, and the students were working toward their PhD in Clinical Psychology.  It wasn't your typical university.  The students would ask a teacher for their CV, send it to the school's central headquarters for approval, and then arrange for the class in any way that the teacher chose. The structure was very loose and relaxed.

Union, I'd soon learn, was great for students who didn't fit into a traditional university environment. One of the students I taught had narcolepsy, and Union allowed him to schedule classes at a time when he was least likely to have a sleep attack. Another student, who became a close friend of mine, had ADHD.  With Union's flexible format she could work at her own pace and in a way that fit her learning style. Her research interest, motivated by her own past, was about whether Ritalin use in childhood predisposes you to stimulant drug addiction in the future.  

In a typical 'class', I'd assign a student a chapter from a textbook in Biological Psychology, and at the end of the week we'd meet and discuss it.  Too unstructured? Not enough oversight regarding standards? Could be. But I didn't worry about it.  All my experiences with the Union students were great. It would be several years before I started teaching at Columbia.  At the time, I was doing postdoctoral research and had almost no teaching experience. So I was glad for the opportunity to teach, and also happy to make some extra cash.   Besides, the flexible Union approach fit my own preference for a relaxed learning environment.

In the last class I taught for Union, several of the students whom I'd taught individually asked me to give them a group class in statistics, one of Union's required courses.  I knew that they were not big fans of math and were approaching this class with trepidation. So I decided to make it as fun as possible.  I'd come up with games, they'd pull numbers from a hat, roll dice, and somehow we'd use those experiences to talk about statistics. We'd start with the basics - means, medians, variance; then we'd talk about sample distributions and population distributions.  But always with fun, hands-on examples.

Toward the end of the class, they told me "Jon, I never knew statistics could be fun!"  When it was all over, they all applauded. It was a great experience.

When I graded their exams, I found out that they hadn't learned very much at all!  But they had a great time doing it.

The Hi-tech World that Discovered Paper Books


In a planet similar to our own, people had been reading electronic books for thousands of years. They read them on e-readers and smart phones. Their versions of those devices were not very different than ours. That's how books were read on that planet. That's how it had always been.

Until last year.

Someone made the discovery that words could be printed on paper. Books could be physical. You didn't need to read them on the small screen of the phone, you didn't need to carry around a tablet device or read on a computer. You could physically turn the pages! And that felt good. The book had substance, a cover, it weighed something.

The older generations felt disoriented when they'd see, every day, more and more kids, teenagers, and young adults with paper books as they were called. Parents would ask their kids: "Why do you want to read a book made of paper? On your e-reader you can carry tens of thousands of books at once!" "But I don't read tens of thousands of books at once, Mom!" came the typical reply. "You should try a paper book, Mom. I think you'd really like it."

The parents imagined and hoped that this was just a passing trend. They had fond memories from years ago sipping coffee or hot chocolate, cuddled up in the dark with their loved one, reading from the same brightly illuminated screen.

But sure enough, towns became filled with stores for books. Physical stores, with entrance doors, books displayed on tables, books lined up on shelves. Physical shelves made of wood or metal. The young people, and even some of the more mature crowd, were beginning to congregate in these so-called book stores. Sometimes there were 'readings' by authors. With e-books, the identity of the author had almost vanished into nothingness. There was no physicality to the book, and you imagined the author to be a kind of disembodied spirit. But now, as the books and bookstores were becoming physical, you could meet your favorite author. And it turns out that she is physical too: two eyes, a nose and a mouth.

There was something intriguing about this 'physicalization' of books, even the older crowd had to agree. One morning, a man sitting on the subway spied a boy reading a physical book, gently turning a physical page with his physical fingers every few minutes. If you listened closely, you could hear the man say softly to himself: "What a world we live in."

Follow your bliss?


I'm over my disappointment about summer weather ending, and now I'm grateful for each fall morning before the real cold weather comes.   At work, I'm juggling a bunch of different tasks. Some are enjoyable. Others aren't much fun.  Those are the ones that take discipline, sticking-with-it energy.

I used to think that if something didn't come easily, it wasn't really your thing.  The best songs should be written effortlessly. A flow state should carry you along.  Joseph Campbell said "Follow your bliss," and so I figured that if you weren't feeling bliss, you were following the wrong thing.

When I was in my early teens, before reading Joseph Campbell, I read Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.  Maybe that's where I first got the idea that creative work should be blissful.  The story is about an oddball who happens to be a seagull.  The other seagulls learn to fly for practical reasons, mostly to spot fish and swoop down to eat them. That's how it is for normal well-adjusted seagulls.  But Jonathan Livingston Seagull wanted to learn all he could about flying for the sheer enjoyment of it. He practiced all kinds of unknown aerial maneuvers while the other seagulls would look at him askance. Jonathan was discovering creatively, and the process was pure bliss.

Sometimes I have blissful moments experimenting with jazz improvisation or interpreting results of brain research studies.  But the flow state is transitory - it comes and goes.  When it comes to finishing things, whether a song or a neuroscience article, I need to exert a lot of stick-with-it energy, and to put up with frustration.  When I'm struggling instead of flying, am I falling short of Joseph Campbell's advice?

Creative bliss seemed like the state to aspire to.  Then I read a biography of George Washington.  Surely, he had found his calling as a military leader. My expectation was that inspiration and intuition must have led him effortlessly to brilliant decisions. But from his correspondence and accounts of those who knew him, he was nothing like Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Instead of flying, he was slogging through the mud of problems with no obvious solution.  He would make decisions with the nagging feeling that he was making the wrong one, and he'd try to correct and learn from his mistakes. Frustration.  Aggravation.  Very little bliss. 

Washington had what the psychologist Albert Ellis calls "high frustration tolerance."   Instead of thinking: "I can't stand this aggravation,"  he seems to have known that he can stand it.  He made the best decisions he could in difficult situations, and kept doing that for a long time.   I got the same impression reading about Lincoln.  I imagine that if you look at the lives of visual artists, musicians and scientists you will also find a healthy mix of frustration and enjoyment.

It's sunny today, and walking down on the sunny side of the street I don't feel as cold as the weather app on my phone tells me I should.  The used book sellers are out on Broadway, on the sunny side, and I find a paperback by Megan Stack.  National Book Award Finalist it says on the cover.  I read a few pages, and I'm hooked. I think I got lucky.

Its unlikely that the same amount of frustration tolerance is necessary for all creative work.  Does the jazz musician really need to put up with the same amount of frustration as the military general?  Maybe you can find creative work that gives Jonathan L. Seagull bliss without requiring much George Washington frustration tolerance.  I wouldn't mind a little more bliss, but in the meantime I'll work on increasing frustration tolerance.

Fumbling around with metaphors


Things are quiet now at CCNY. There are no classes for the rest of this week. I like the energy of the students bustling through the hallways on my floor. But it's also nice when that energy's replaced by tranquility. 

I have time now to think about a request made by a friend of mine that I met through this blog.  She asked me if I would write a post about metaphorical thinking. She said it was like a song request, or like a song composition request.  She was wondering about the cognitive styles and personalities of people who express themselves metaphorically.  Does the use of metaphor relate to intuition, logic, the fusion of the two? Would I write a post on this? 

I wanted to take this interesting question and run with it, but I somehow veered off and ran out of bounds. My problem began when I looked into the research literature on metaphorical thinking and brain activity.  While most aspects of language depend upon the left hemisphere of the brain, the figurative use of language in metaphors and analogies may depend largely on the right hemisphere.

It was already known by the late 1800s that strokes impairing the left hemisphere (not the right) lead to language disorders, aphasias. But it's now known that right hemisphere damage produces its own kind of cognitive problems. For instance, people with right hemisphere damage often over-focus upon details, and fail to see the 'whole'.

If you show the image below (left column) to someone with right hemisphere damage (middle column), they focus upon the smaller detail, the shape of the little boxes making up the figure (the 'local elements'), and may miss the overall configuration. They miss the 'forest' for the 'trees'. People with left hemisphere damage (right column) often do just the opposite: they perceive the overall configuration, but ignore the local elements. They see the forest but seem to ignore the trees.

And so, the left hemisphere seems to be better at picking out details, and the right hemisphere is concerned more with the big picture. It's similar with music. When listening to orchestral pieces, most people use the right hemisphere more than the left. But when the same pieces are played to trained musicians who analyze the chord structure and other elements of the music, the left hemisphere is more strongly activated.

So what's this have to do with metaphorical language? Some researchers believe that the right hemisphere is not only involved in seeing the big picture, but also in thinking by using mental imagery, and in using language in a figurative manner through metaphor and analogy. People with right hemisphere damage sometimes have trouble comprehending figurative meanings, and interpret language too literally. They may interpret phrases like "He hit a brick wall at work" to mean that the person hurt themselves physically. Recent brain imaging studies are asking whether the right hemisphere becomes activated when people read passages containing metaphors. But it turns out that the results are difficult to interpret. Some studies show that metaphors activate the right hemisphere, but it's not a reliable finding. Not all studies point to that result.

Some researchers suspect that for the right hemisphere to become activated, you need to really be THINKING about the metaphor. The problem with the 'brain-on-metaphor' studies is that they sometimes present very familiar metaphors that can be understand without thinking much about them.  When you hear that "He has a screw loose" you understand the figurative meaning without needing to imagine a loose screw in his brain, or contemplating the relation between malfunctioning machine parts and the mechanisms of the mind.  Some more recent studies are comparing the effects of familiar versus novel metaphors on  right hemisphere activity.  It's complicated. 

And so, my friend threw me the ball, and instead of reaching the goal line with a clean story to tell, I slogged through the contradictory brain research findings, and found myself out of bounds, with a blog post that has little to do with the one requested.