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When we are presented with new information, we try and connect it to information we already hold. This is automatic. Sometimes the information fits in easily; other times the fit is more difficult — perhaps because some of our old information is wrong, or perhaps because we lack some of the knowledge we need to fit them together.

When we're confronted by contradictory information, our first reaction is usually surprise. But if the surprise continues, with the contradictions perhaps increasing, or at any rate becoming no closer to being resolved, then our emotional reaction turns to confusion.

Confusion is very common in the learning process, despite most educators thinking that effective teaching is all about minimizing, if not eliminating, confusion.

But recent research has suggested that confusion is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, in some circumstances, it may be desirable.

I see this as an example of the broader notion of ‘desirable difficulty’, which is the subject of my current post. But let’s look first at this recent study on confusion for learning.

I recently read an interesting article in the Smithsonian about procrastination and why it’s good for you. Frank Partnoy, author of a new book on the subject, pointed out that procrastination only began to be regarded as a bad thing by the Puritans — earlier (among the Greeks and Romans, for example), it was regarded more as a sign of wisdom.

The examples given about the perils of deciding too quickly made me think about the assumed connection between intelligence and processing speed. We equate intelligence with quick thinking, and time to get the correct answer is part of many tests. So, regardless of the excellence of a person’s cognitive product, the time it takes for them to produce it is vital (in test).

Similarly, one of the main aspects of cognition impacted by age is processing speed, and one of the principal reasons for people to feel that they are ‘losing it’ is because their thinking is becoming noticeably slower.

But here’s the question: does it matter?

I’ve recently had a couple of thoughts about flow — that mental state when you lose all sense of time and whatever you’re doing (work, sport, art, whatever) seems to flow with almost magical ease. I’ve mentioned flow a couple of times more or less in passing, but today I want to have a deeper look, because learning (and perhaps especially that rewiring I was talking about in my last post) is most easily achieved if we can achieve "flow" (also known as being ‘in the zone’).

Let’s start with some background.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is the man who identified and named this mental state, and he identified 9 components:

I don't often talk about eyewitness testimony, but it's not because of the lack of research. It's a big field, with a lot of research done. When  I say I don't follow it because I regard the main finding as a done deal - eyewitness testimony is useless - that's not meant to denigrate the work being done. There is, clearly, a great deal of value in working out the exact parameters of human failures, and in working out how we can improve eyewitness testimony. I just arbitrarily decided to ignore this area of research until they'd sorted it all out! (I can't follow everything, I'm swamped as it is!)

I have previously reported on how gait and balance problems have been associated with white matter lesions, and walking speed and grip strength have been associated with dementia and stroke risk. Another recent study, involving 93 older adults (70+) has added to this evidence, with the finding that those with non-amnestic MCI were much more likely to be slow walkers.

The study involved 54 seniors with no cognitive impairment, 31 with non-amnestic MCI and eight with amnestic MCI. Passive infrared sensors fixed in series on the ceilings of participants’ homes enabled their walking speed to be monitored unobtrusively over a three-year period.

Those with non-amnestic MCI were nine times more likely to be slow walkers than moderate or fast walkers, and more likely to show greater variability in walking speed.

One of my perennial themes is the importance of practice, and in the context of developing expertise, I have talked of ‘deliberate practice’ (a concept articulated by the well-known expertise researcher K. Anders Ericsson). A new paper in the journal Psychology of Music reports on an interesting study that shows how the attributes of music practice change as music students develop in expertise. Music is probably the most studied domain in expertise research, but I think we can gain some general insight from this analysis. Here’s a summary of the findings.

[Some details about the U.K. study for those interested: the self-report study involved 3,325 children aged 6-19, ranging from beginner to Grade 8 level, covering a variety of instruments, with violin the most common at 28%, and coming from a variety of musical settings: junior conservatoires, youth orchestras, Saturday music schools, comprehensive schools.]

I'd like to dwell a little on the comment I made in my recent brief post, regarding the balance between your awareness of the fallibility of human memory and your belief in your own abilities. Some examples should help clarify what I mean.

Let's think of that all-too-common scenario, forgetting whether or not you have done something. Now, you could berate yourself with how forgetful you are getting, and see this as a sign of getting older, or of impending Alzheimer's, or (if you're still quite young), simply of your generally terrible memory. Or, aware of how memory works, you could say to yourself, I should have been paying attention, I know perfectly well that actions I do regularly are hard to keep track of. Perhaps I should start using some sort of external sign to mark when I've done the thing.

The thing to remember about Ericsson’s famous expertise research, showing us the vital importance of deliberate practice in making an expert, is that it was challenging the long-dominant view that natural-born talent is all-important. But Gladwell’s popularizing of Ericsson’s “10,000 hours” overstates the case, and of course people are only too keen to believe that any height is achievable if you just work hard enough.

The much more believable story is that, yes, practice is vital — a great deal of the right sort of practice — but we can’t disavow “natural” abilities entirely.

A fascinating article recently appeared in the Guardian, about a woman who found a way to overcome a very particular type of learning disability and has apparently helped a great many children since.

In a recent news report, I talked about a study of older adults that found that their sense of control over their lives fluctuates significantly over the course of a day, and that this impacts on their cognitive abilities, including reasoning and memory. ‘Sense of control’ — a person’s feeling that they are (or are not) in control of their life — is an attribute that includes perceived competence, as well as locus of control (you can take a Locus of Control Test here, if you’re interested), and in general it tends to decline in older adults. But obviously it is an attribute that, across the board, varies dramatically between individuals.

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