Learning with your eyes closed

There is a devotional quality to learning a skill.

Our brains don’t comprehend time very well at all. Perhaps this is unfortunate; imagine we only had one eye and had to infer three-dimensional space. It’s sort of like that with time: we are extremely nearsighted. We really only understand time within intervals of a few moments – intervals that are compact enough to fit inside our short term memory. These intervals are where cause and effect are starkly evident to us: A caused B to happen. For the bulk of human history, this was good enough because the dangers to us were primarily imminent ones: flash floods, animal ambushes, sudden illness. Experience was our teacher, and taught vivid lessons in an instant. Our brains, borrowed from our hairier, scalier predecessors, were well-tuned and optimized for quick decision making in short intervals.

This optimization came at the expense of discerning cause and effect over long durations. It’s not that slower forces (e.g. cognitive and physical degeneration of age) didn’t act on us, it’s that keen perception of them didn’t convey a significant survival advantage in our environment. Organisms developed two eyes for spatial awareness because three-dimensional space was critical to survival. Unfortunately, we haven’t developed two eyes for temporal awareness so that we can ‘see’ more than a few minutes into the future.

This disability chafes at anybody who seeks to implement a long term change, whether it’s learning a language or building a savings or losing twenty pounds. Because these changes happen in tiny increments, in fits and starts, over months and years, we are blind to progress as it happens.

This is one of the first and biggest challenges to anyone who seeks to change themselves: there is an aspect of faith that must reside within you that you are moving forward. If we record our state and review it after long durations, we can admit that some change has occurred. Yet moment to moment, learning feels an awful lot like walking with our eyes closed: we have no idea whether we are moving in the right direction, or any direction. We must trust our feet to keep walking and sharpen our senses for new cues along the way.

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