The best way to learn is to do

If structure does dictate function, which is one of the central mandates in the study of anatomy and physiology, then my function must be to mostly sit around. I have tried explaining this to my wife and, in spite of her master’s degree in science education, she doesn’t seem to understand. She somehow thinks that it is function that determines structure. She says that if I sat around less, I would develop a different structure. 

Analyzing humans, as if they were mechanisms, has similar shortcomings. For example, when we perceive living things as machines, we treat them like machines. However, if we treat them like machines, we then perceive them as machines. Because science sees the world as mostly material, this perception may be one drawback.

Ironically, it wasn’t a scientist who first made this observation. It was poet William Blake who observed, “What seems to be, is, to those to whom it seems to be.” I don’t think this thought has been properly appreciated, probably because of his use of the word “whom,” which confuses people to this day.

Structure can sometimes provide interesting insights into human behavior, though. For example, the body is double-wired with information cables. One set of wires receives information from outside the body and is taken to the brain. The other set goes out, away from the brain, and carries response information to the body. Messages only travel in one direction. 

Actions are mostly determined by incoming information because most of our actions are in response to incoming information. Consider that a crying newborn is not “thinking” it wants to cry. Crying is the only action it can control in response to the stresses of being born. Most early responses, on the part of babies, comes in response to stimuli it receives.

Obviously, this gets more complicated as the individual develops control over the body as learned actions and social norms have a greater influence on behavior. By the time we are several years old, it may seem to us that our behaviors are initiated internally. Indeed, as our brains increase in complexity, some behaviors may be initiated internally. But by then it is unclear whether or not the thought to initiate something doesn’t come because of previous input that ingrained the behavior.

These ideas have serious implications for learning. When one studies by incoming wires only, seeing and hearing, they may understand an idea but be unable to perform any related action because they have not yet trained the outgoing wires to respond. Knowledge without skill is not only useless, but it is boring, as it engages only half of the central nervous system. 

Students recognize this, though most are unable put the thought into words. Extracurricular activities are popular because they are some of the few things students get to learn and DO. The ability to be able to do something partially explains the fascination with cellphones and computer games.

One can learn to read a foreign language more easily than to speak it because speaking involves doing something with muscles of the mouth. It is easier to learn to speak a language than to write it because writing requires the more careful use of fine-muscle control.

On the other hand, it is almost impossible to learn to do something without learning “about” the activity. Even people who learn to do something poorly recognize the process and the abstract ideas stemming from their actions. The structure of the nervous system dictates that to learn something, we must do something. 

Conversely, when you do something, you learn something. Assuming that “learning is a change in the structure of the brain,” we can conclude that, as my wife says, the function also dictates structure. So I must concur with my wife that function also dictates structure. All I can say, at this point, is that this is a most unfortunate conclusion to this column. 

Gary McCallister, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), is a professor emeritus of biological sciences at Colorado Mesa University.


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