The Four-Hour Body is not the most brilliant writing by any standard, but sure is entertaining and captivating at times. Tim Ferris will shake your assumptions at least in once, if you have the patience to read the whole book. He put his body and his will power to the test and in the process he learned quite a bit through personal research or through talking to experts from around the world.
I am sceptical about many of his methods. He is young and some of his experiments need time to prove if they are right with bodies that don’t benefit from the regenerative powers of youth. His tendency to exaggerate it is downright dangerous – do not try this at home. However, he has a point: you have to force issues to make progress, and you have to ignore the dominant beliefs that hold us stuck in an inconvenient position and dare to try something different. I like one of his quotes: “Motion is created by the destruction of balance”- Leonardo da Vinci.
I was about to decide I read enough about dieting when my attention was captured by this chapter: Ultra-endurance: Going from 5K to 50K in 12 Weeks (well there are other chapters that are attention grabbers there, such as 15-minute Female Orgasm, Sex-machine and Doubling Sperm Count). I read a few pages where he describes the painful training required to reach the capacity to run 50K. Running 400m sprints and doing weight training are tough mental tests, because you need to have the will power to smash the dislike of body pain in anticipation, before the massive pain occurs. This is the biggest barrier that you must overcome before getting to see how capable you are. I recall the story of someone who visited a mountainous region in Mexico where villagers could run even at very old age without running out of breath. He almost died trying to run a hill and a valley at the beginning in his attempt to keep up with a local. But then they told him he will need to do this for a few weeks and he will be alright. He did it and he could not believe how easy the running became for him and how fantastic was the feeling of freedom that he felt in his new physical shape.
The science of sports has been taken to dizzying heights. Around the world sport training scientific centres prepare their athletes for Olympic and pushing the performance barriers higher and higher. When you read The Four-Hour Body and go through all those scientific details you are at times intimidated (or at least I was) by the depth of specialised knowledge accumulated over the years. It is quite amazing. It is striking how much we know about chemistry, mechanics and biology of the body, robotics, and genetics with spill-over developments in prosthetics, health and performance management. All of this is well documented, tested, measured for everyone to see.
Why is it that similar efforts are not done in other areas of human performance such as learning, creativity or writing? Is it possible to do writing performance improvement similar to Tim Ferris’s method of training for 50K running? Why not? Say, write in short bursts every day, for 12 weeks and then write a book in one go. Has anyone done research on improving creative performance in a systematic way in such form that can be used by average person? There is no Four-Hour Mind book or equivalent out there.
The difference between sports and intellectual endeavours is that sports are a popular business that pays the winners handsomely. It is a huge social entertaining enterprise that has been with humanity since the beginning of its time. Writing is a solitary journey in which only a few excel. The difference between sports and science is demonstrated by this: on Sky News you have half an hour Sportsline four times a day and no science news programs. This is a big blind spot in the way we set out our priorities.
This book has strengthen a perception of mine that even great journalists have a problem when they try to write non-fiction books. The Social Animal has a noble goal but the delivery is painfully dragging its ideas through a long winding story of two people who live an unhappy life. This is already a contentious point. For reasons that are not clear to me, the book is meant to describe the life of two people “who lead wonderfully fulfilling lives”. How can this be, when these two people live their lives absorbed in demanding jobs, with different ideals and that consider divorce at the age of fifty amidst desperation, bouts of alcoholism, a case of adultery, loneliness and realisation that they don’t fit each other? It is only because of a moral inner struggle that they decide to stay together, giving a strong impression that this is because there is no other practical option.
The main idea of The Social Animal is to follow two threads that are intertwined throughout the book: a story of two people that met, fell in love and decided to live together and a scientific exploration of the current status of research in human development, society, social behaviour, psychology, mind, genetics, biology and professional development that explain the way we make decisions and behave. It is a great idea, but difficult to implement.
The fundamental concept is that we make decisions at two levels: conscious awareness and subconscious. The first is the rational aspect of our behaviour, the logical thinking, the dry calculation, the methodical process by which we arrive at conclusions. David Brooks refers to this as the French Enlightenment thinking framework, “le rationalisme” personified by Voltaire and Descartes. The second level is the realm of deep unconscious, the unknown laboratory of human emotions, where feelings are born and fight against the rational thoughts from level 1 to ultimately determine how we make our decisions. This way of thinking is favoured by the British Enlightenment which affirms that in the end this is how we really decide. David Brooks has a plethora of examples of research studies that support this claim.
It may be that this is how we make decisions, with “epistemological modesty”, but it is rather hard to make sense of this book, other than just to say “hey, did you know that researchers discovered that… so and so?”. This is simply because I could not find “the hidden sources of love, character and achievement” as stated in the subtitle. I could see that hard work is necessary ingredient of success, that genetic inheritance is another asset that is good to have on your side and that being born in the richer part of society opens the door to more opportunities; but this is something that is hardly new.
There are a few interesting ideas here but they are lost in a long series of scientific explanations and popular statistics, but they lose traction because they are so disjointed, diluting any message that the book might have.
Here is one intriguing observation: we live today in a world where the cognitive load is so large it makes it more and more difficult for people from poorer parts of the society to traverse through education system to the richer side. The knowledge required is too high. David Brooks is not talking about the logical knowledge, but the emotional one which is the cultural fabric of society. This cannot be taught in a logical fashion in schools and in time it causes an increasing inequity that will lead to social tensions difficult to resolve.
The ramifications stemming from the idea that the subconscious in fact is quite rational are vast. You can choose your patch and rest assured you have in there plenty of interesting work for many many years. You could look at this from a computing perspective and think of the human brain as a sophisticated system with massive parallel processes that makes decisions in the background. Or look at this from a cognitive science perspective and try to understand the working model of the mind based on these “underground” processes. Then if you are an educator ask yourself how much of of our children formation is influenced by the education system and which parts are mostly influenced by other sources. I thought the subconscious intelligence is an important attribute defines us as a “social animal” in ways much more significant than the standard IQ. Unfortunately David Brooks did not insist on this topic. The brush he used was too broad in his attempt to cover all aspects of our lives.
Overall, I found that reading was an uneven experience as if I was traveling across the country often by a boring bus and occasionally by an exciting Ferrari. I must say, that despite this review, I love David Brooks posts in The New York Times and I look forward to read his writing.
Why did Mark Twain say:
I have never let school interfere with my education
UnCollege is trying to offer an answer.
The notion of sharing learning designs in schools is not new. It goes back to many, many years and it has been practiced in form of sharing teaching experience since the beginning of time. Thousands of years ago, in its simplest form, the transfer of learning design as “design knowledge” applied to a certain context, meant copying, mirroring others’ way of teaching students or trainees, meticulously keeping instruction details intact.
One of the oldest practice took place in the military. The learning design was shared by many instructors in an effort to discipline their soldiers. Closer to our times, generations of teachers learned the learning designs and applied them over generations helping student acquire simple knowledge that barely changed over time. Later, while the number of learning designs were quite reduced at the beginning of the industrial revolution, as the education system become more sophisticated, various disciplines started to form learning designs modelled around their history and cultural background differing more and more from one another.
It is only recently that we came up with the idea of learning design as a template that can be replicated as a step-by-step repeatable process and be used as a tool to support effectively the pedagogical practice. Why the need? Firstly, teachers have to deal with an increasingly complex curriculum and performance requirements. Secondly, the body of knowledge has grown so much, something needs to be done to help the teachers do administrative work faster so that they have more time to focus on interacting with students and perform higher order activities.
This is where the technology is both the culprit and the saviour. While it is widely recognised learning design implemented with technology can make things much easier to re-use, the actual sharing could be costly. There are technologies that offer improved solutions (LAMS International), but their patchy adoption prevents major productivity achievements. Education system need to adopt learning design systems across the entire organisation (meaning region, state, country) to make real progress in reaping the potential rewards.
In its recently published report Brain Wave Module 2, the Working Group for the Royal Society, UK made a number of recommendations from the field of neuroscience to inform education policy. Naturally, they support the research done by neuroscientist, but they use caution against extreme optimism or fantastic claims (neuromyths). The report invites dialogue between researchers in the field of neuroscience, education and psychology – some would refer to this type of mix as educational neuroscience, vehemently disputed by others.
One recommendation that caught my eye refers to the use of adaptive technology for learning and cognitive training. The key point here is that while it is impossible to determine the quality of major mental processes, for instance reading, by just using current knowledge and tools in neuroscience, there are practical and demonstrable ways in which specific learning processes can be improved by using adaptive technology.
The science has not yet reached a level where complex mental processes that involve interactions extending far beyond the boundaries of the brain can be understood through empirical observations of the brain. However, neuroscience has made great progress in identifying areas of the brain that are involved in smaller specific functions that are active during thinking. Thus we can today determine which areas of the brain need a “workout” in order to improve certain thinking skills.
In the case of reading and numeric skills, research in neuroscience has made possible the development of tools that can be used for cognitive training which can greatly help learners overcome dyslexia and dyscalculia disorders.
Adaptive technology based on neuroscience is about developing software applications that can be used for adaptive training. As the learner makes progress through training, the software changes the difficulty of the exercises.
This is interesting, but I think if we stop here we would miss the big picture. Adaptive technologies used under the guidelines of educational policies can result in substantial improvement of equity, helping all students that need this type of training.
Advances in neuroscience can extend the application of adaptive technologies to other areas of learning in remediation and accelerated learning. It may be that one day, new methods and new technologies can improve dramatically our learning abilities helping us better deal with the deluge of information.
Brilliant article by David Brooks from The New York Times, March 7 2011.
David Brooks says that in essence there are two sides of our mind: rational and emotional. The first one is mainly driven by our conscious while the second is seeded deeply into our subconscious.
There is much more to us than mere logical reason. Efforts to improve our humanity fail because they are limited to treating the rational issues, failing to see the importance of emotions. This is why, David Brooks says, The British Enlightenment was more accurate than the French Enlightenment by focusing on the social aspects in our lives as a really defining trait, as opposed to the rational, logic aspect.
Interesting comment on the increasing importance of social aspect, making old skills becoming less relevant. The industrial era created suitable measurements of skills such as IQ, school degrees and professional skills. Today, there are other skills that are becoming vital and they are more subtle and refuse to me measured by rigid methods, but by outcomes that become evident in time. David lists the following skills as an example:
Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.
Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.
Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.
Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.
Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.
This is indeed a glimpse of a new humanity. This needs a different form of government, new policy makers, new principles for education and environmental design and decision making in general. The way elections are conducted today is an anachronism because the conversation is always limited to managing performance using the old measures and the notion of broad social needs are ignored. The focus of the discussion is superficial and the solutions are outdated. We need a new system focused on social values not narrow profits and where the participation is more direct and broader from a social perspective.
Bill Gates was invited at this year TED Conference as a curator. He will invite a number of speakers, but also he gave his third TED talk in three years.
This year Bill Gates is focused is on education. His concern is the diminishing funds allocated to education in US and the increasing financial pressure on states’ budgets. His assessment is bleak, but he is optimistic a way to fix this will be found.
The question of what happens with the budgets is one that will become louder and louder not only in US but around the world as the governments are required to become effective with budget management and more accountable with the taxpayers’ money. The point that Bill Gates made in a very simple way, the state governments must be scrutinised at least at the same level listed companies are, for instance err… Microsoft and Google. After all, we are all shareholders in the biggest enterprises of all: the government.