Still on My Brain
With my poor understanding of even the simplest math, my post-Army retraining efforts began with not-for-credit remedial algebra and trigonometry. This was way below mathematical ground zero for most college students. Trying to reprogram my brain sometimes seemed like a ridiculous idea—especially when I looked at the fresh young faces of my younger classmates and realized that many of them had already dropped their hard math and science classes—and here I was heading right for them. But in my case, from my experience becoming fluent in Russian as an adult, I suspected—or maybe I just hoped—that there might be aspects to language learning that I might apply to learning in math and science.
What I had done in learning Russian was to emphasize not just understanding of the language, but fluency.
Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop. Where my language classmates had often been content to concentrate on simply understanding Russian they heard or read, I instead tried to gain an internalized, deep-rooted fluency with the words and language structure. I practiced recalling all these aspects and variations quickly. After all, through practice, you can understand and translate dozens—even thousands— of words in another language.
This approach—which focused on fluency instead of simple understanding—put me at the top of the class. Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory.
Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns.
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Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.
As studies of chess masters, emergency room physicians, and fighter pilots have shown, in times of critical stress, conscious analysis of a situation is replaced by quick, subconscious processing as these experts rapidly draw on their deeply ingrained repertoire of neural subroutines—chunks. When I felt intuitively that there might be a connection between learning a new language and learning mathematics, I was right. Day-by-day, sustained practice of Russian fired and wired together my neural circuits, and I gradually began to knit together chunks of Slavic insight that I could call into working memory with ease.
I can hear my brain
By interleaving my learning—in other words, practicing so that I knew not only when to use that word, but when not to use it, or to use a different variant of it—I was actually using the same approaches that expert practitioners use to learn in math and science. I practiced feeling what each of the letters meant— f for force was a push, m for mass was a kind of weighty resistance to my push, and a was the exhilarating feeling of acceleration.
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The equivalent in Russian was learning to physically sound out the letters of the Cyrillic alphabet. I memorized the equation so I could carry it around with me in my head and play with it. If m and a were big numbers, what did that do to f when I pushed it through the equation? If f was big and a was small, what did that do to m?
How did the units match on each side? Playing with the equation was like conjugating a verb. I was beginning to intuit that the sparse outlines of the equation were like a metaphorical poem, with all sorts of beautiful symbolic representations embedded within it. Time after time, professors in mathematics and the sciences have told me that building well-ingrained chunks of expertise through practice and repetition was absolutely vital to their success.
In fact, I believe that true understanding of a complex subject comes only from fluency. I learned Russian not just by understanding it—understanding, after all, is facile, and can easily slip away. Don't focus on what the thought represents or means in relation to your life.
Simply pull it into the sea of oxygen and allow it to be dissolved by your breath before it multiplies. If you haven't tried using the breath for relaxation before, this might seem a little strange. But this is a really effective way of quickly centering your mind, focussing your awareness in one place and falling quickly into total rest. Often I find that I don't fall into a sleep state at all, but instead fall into a completely neutral, somewhat meditative state, whereby I come around after minutes and don't remember thinking or dreaming anything for that period.
Because you're lying down, you might well fall into a sleep state — depending on how tired you are — so you might want to set an alarm clock to prevent sleeping too long. This is a great way to ease mental stress and reorganize the brain, and of course to just take a much deserved break of pure relaxation.
But like the majority of people you might find it quite difficult to go from full pace to complete relaxation in just a short window of time, so here's what to do when you want to shut you mind down for an afternoon nap: 7-Steps to a Perfect Nap 1. Lie down on your back on the bed or sofa, or on the floor with a cushion behind your head. Relax your arms by your side and place you hands on your stomach. Armstrong Nowels.
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