Talkback: Music, learning, nudging & jump-kicks

In this edition of “Talkback” we’re going to be dealing with some of the implications of this article from Discovery, entitled “Learn Mad Skills With Superhuman Speed” – about how one might use tech to learn faster.

What is said, briefly, is that if we build tech wearables that can physically induce us to, say, move our fingers in a certain order and rythm, then we can learn to, in that example (which is from the article), play the piano, and we can learn much faster than we’d do by regular practice. Maybe, it’s also said, gadgets like these may also impart learning with regards to languages, for example through braille typing or stenography.


I find the article tickles my “this is interesting, but…” sense – on the one hand, I guess wearing a piano glove is much as if your piano teacher held his hand over yours and “played” out the tune on top of your fingers, and then all you’d have to do is follow. On the other, well, I’m a musician of sorts, and have taken lessons from both piano and guitar teachers, and quite frankly I’m not particularly sure they would want me to learn like that.

What they’d want is not for me to copy tunes by rote, but to learn to internalize the music, to feel and understand it, and then be able to communicate that understanding through the instrument.

Of course, the reference to muscle memory may be irrelevant; we don’t actually know that such memory (which, by the way, is not located in the muscles, though that’s what it sounds like – it’s a form of memory considered different from declarative memory but it still sits in the brain) builds by simply mindlessly repeating movements, we only know that it sometimes feels that way when you’re learning. The cognitive internalization process may well be significant for building such memories, and if so, bypassing it will not produce the same results as including it.


By my ancestral spirits I swear, if I hear “wax on, wax off” one more #$@&%*! time…

Basically, it may turn out there’s a reason every martial arts movie shows its Daniel-San struggling through all the hellish rote learning, yet only finally reaching mastery after understanding the words of wisdom the old master in these movies always intersperses with all the hard work – remember, the bad guy in those movies is almost always the dude that did all the rote repetition, like, super-hard, but never got the wisdom, and he’s beaten in the end. Not a particularly subtle aesop but one that may have a measure of inescapable truth at its core.

But then there’s the hint at language-related learning, and that’s surely when the difference between rote learning and understanding comes into it. For example, I blind-type, and I know that when you’re learning that it’s simply about letting your eyes follow an already written text and copy it onto your typewriter; forming the words, not to mention actually reading the content, only slows you down.

This is actually the reverse angle of those speed reading apps that got some of the same “acheive super-speed easy!” headlines recently – turns out comprehension, that is, actually getting anything out of the text, suffers massively when reading using these methods. Because getting it means slowing down, just like when typing.

Now the article doesn’t actually say anything about learning a language using techniques similar to these but I did feel like mentioning it anyway, especially since Thad Starner, the technical lead of Google Glass  and man behind the learning glove, is actually involved with teaching things like sign language. Which, for the record, is a deeply commendable activity and better than anything I’ve been involved with lately – but I still just felt I had to mention that it’s important not to focus so much on making learning “effective” from at technologist’s standpoint that the point of learning suffers.

To my mind, this form of “learning” seems to much more closely resemble nudging – and what’s very well known about nudging is that the effects of it tend to taper off very quickly (or simply cut off abruptly) when the nudge stops. In fact, that’s one of the strengths of nudgning, if you know how to use it – but maybe, just maybe, learning isn’t the right area for it.

the article also made me think about this scene from the new Robocop movie, in which a guitarist is given new, artificial hands so sophisticated they’ll let him play again – only, it doesn’t work if he gets too emotional… a pretty slick little jab at the subtlety of man/machine interfacing.

Especially for a Hollywood popcorn flick.