Training your body and your mind

I have been thinking about writing something on Medium for quite a while now, but I have also been telling myself to strive for a perfect idea with a perfect narration. This week, the son of a close friend’s sister comes and stays with my family for the duration of the holidays. The kid had been in the States for just a few months, starting out his long path to pursue a degree in communication and nurturing his dream of becoming a Vlogger. My wife and I are tasked by his mother (and his aunt and his uncle) to persuade him to follow a more concrete and reliable path (read: STEM). Of course, being progressive parents, we decide to take a somewhat different approach and ask him about his inspirations. It turns out that the guy already made a number of videos, but has held back from publishing them due to the fear of other disliking his ideas. He has been holding out for a product with higher production quality and better contents. We point out that by worrying too much about what other people think, he has actually impeded his ability to practice creating more (and eventually better) contents, an important aspect of any Vlogger. At this point in the discussion, I realize that I am being somewhat of a hypocrite when I encourage someone to share their media regardless of others’ opinion while I myself dally with the thought of a perfect writeup. As a result, this is my first writeup.

The topic of this post is a small part of a larger topic that I have always fascinated about: the nature of learning. As an educator, I tell myself that in order to teach better, I need to understand how others learn. I took Coursera’s Learning How to Learn course, the only Coursera course that I followed to completion. One of the concepts I learned in this course is the mind’s diffuse mode: you let your thoughts wander all over and somehow you get your problems solved. The instructors for the course, Dr. Barbara Oakley and Dr. Terrencen Sejnowski, mentioned that one way to get your mind to wander is during physical exercises. This idea is emphasized by a short video showing Dr. Sejnowski running carefree on the beach. “Cool!”, I thought. After finishing up the course, I set out on my trusted treadmill and ready to learn. Short summary: I did not learn much. Long summary: getting your mind into a diffuse mode through exercise works, as per Dr. Oakley and Dr. Sejnowski’s lecture notes. However, it requires a bit more nuisance that just getting on a treadmill and learn. In short, you need already have something in your mind first before you can diffuse, you need to focus to diffuse, and to maximize the effects, you need to match the pace of your mind and body.

To learn, you need to already know something

On the first day, I woke up excited, got on the treadmill, and started running. I was going to teach a subject that was not in my main area of expertise, and I needed to learn it. I had some ideas about what I wanted to know, so I figured if I let my mind diffuse, it would help me to learn the contents better. I started running, and nothing happened. There was no diffusion, and there certainly was no learning. It turned out, as I learned after a few subsequent runs, is that you do need to have a certain minimal amount of knowledge on the subject you want to learn. Think of those as wall anchors if you will, so that your mind can pull on and propel upward.

Focus to diffuse

Running on a treadmill is mind-numbingly boring. People typically run with some entertainment, either music or video. The problem is that if you want your mind to diffuse on a certain topic, you must not let it be distracted by something else. As a result, I used to hate the first five to ten minutes of my run very much. Without something to listen or to watch, I initially struggled to tell myself that I have to focus on diffusing, an oxymoron if you will. The good news is that it is possible to make this duration shorter and shorter. Another good news is that the more you cover (I am not saying learn here) in the focus mode, the easier it is to get into the diffuse mode.

Mind and body synchronization

I am not a couch potato, but I also has not been working on my running ability prior to this. I started out at a slow pace of 12-minute mile, and I had no trouble thinking and running at the same time. After a few weeks, as my physical improved (and my mind too, before anyone asks), I attempted to increase my pace. Things were fine at 10-minute mile, but I ran into problems at 9-minute mile. In order to run fast, I had to pay attention to how I landed (unless I wanted to fall off the treadmill and broke my ankle). Therefore, I could not focus to get my mind into the diffuse mode for learning. After a few days, things did not get better, and I had to dial down my pace back to 10-minute mile.

At the end, learning while running turned out to be a great trick. You only need to prepare yourself to make the most of out it, to have your mind and your body trained at the same time. Also, I highly recommend the Learning How to Learn course!

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